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Issue 145 - Training Wheels
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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2/7/07

It was a few days after Rosh Hashanah 5756 (1995), and we had just arrived home from the hospital after the birth of our youngest child. After we put our older children to bed, my wife and I were enjoying some ‘quality time’ with our baby. At one point, my wife, who has the uncanny ability to read my thoughts, asked me to explain that faraway look in my eyes. I sheepishly admitted that I was calculating how old I would be when the time would come for me to remove the training wheels off Sara’s bicycle and run alongside her until she would be able to successfully ride without falling (I was about forty-two when the training wheels came off, if you must know, and that phase has mercifully passed).

Training wheels are a remarkable invention. Once they are properly affixed to a child’s bicycle, he or she only needs them for a short period of time. Once the child acquires better balance and agility on a bicycle, the training wheels are lifted a bit. Then a bit more. Soon, they are removed completely and the child never looks back. You know what they say, “You never forget how to ride a bicycle.”

I think that this analogy of bicycle riding and training wheels carries profound lessons for us as we chart a course for the chinuch of our precious children in these challenging times. If one takes a few steps back and surveys the overall landscape of how we impart Torah teaching to children and adults, one might be struck by a puzzling dichotomy. We seem to be offering our children a significant array of learning assistance and support after some form of educational failure has occurred. However, very few of these tools are offered to children who are in the critical ‘training-wheels’ phase of their learning experience.

Going back to the bicycle analogy; that would seem to be like having our children start riding their bicycles without the benefit of training wheels, and only providing them to those who severely injure themselves by falling off their bicycles repeatedly.

Think about it. If a child is falling behind in his/her learning, we place him/her in a remedial program. There, a skill-based educational approach is taken; where children are given more time to acquire the skills they will need to succeed. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in ‘at-risk-teen’ yeshivos, where all sorts of educational and motivational techniques are employed to help the young adults appreciate Torah learning. If a grown man finished his years in yeshiva without having mastered gemora learning, it is perfectly appropriate – and culturally acceptable – to make use of an Artscroll gemora, replete with nekudos (punctuation), translation, and learning tools, such as charts and diagrams that work so well with visual learners.

I am most certainly not suggesting that we start teaching chumash and gemorah to our children using Artscroll seforim. What I do recommend is that we invest the time to teach children properly in their formative years so that they have the tools to succeed and develop a lifelong love for learning Hashem’s Torah.

Take the limud of chumash, for example. More than ninety percent of all words that appear in chumash are variations of only 270 root words! (Click here for a listing of the most commonly used words). There are 26 verbs (ex. yatza, holach) and 38 nouns (ex. lechem, makom) that appear in chumash more than 500 times each**! If we were to give children a rudimentary understanding of lashon hakodesh – teach them the shoroshim and shimushim (‘root words’, prefix, suffix, etc.) – before or as soon as they start learning chumash, we would be providing them with the chinuch ‘training wheels’ they need to succeed.

This is not a ‘new’ concept. Even a casual reading of Rashi’s timeless commentary on chumash reveals how critical lashon hakodesh skills are in mastering chumash. It is impossible to understand Rashi’s commentary, let along his nuances, without these skills.

Ironically, many or most girls’ schools have been teaching chumash using the skill-based approach for decades. However, many or most mainstream boys’ school do not employ these methods. Schools for at-risk boys do, as do the resource-room programs in mainstream schools – but not the ‘regular’ classes.

As I mentioned in the previous column, these critical skills are even more essential in the learning of gemorah, where Aramaic is introduced, nekudos (punctuation marks) are removed, and the nature of lengthy gemorah logical threads is such that a few missed key words in the opening lines of a shiur can result in many days of frustration and underachievement until a new gemorah topic is introduced.

In the broader scheme of things, we are only discussing a minor investment of time in the formative years of the chinuch of our precious children to provide them with these critical educational training wheels. In today’s challenging climate, we must do all we can to teach them slowly, carefully, and well while they are young and eager to learn.

For the road they will need to ride is far more dangerous than was ours. The downhill slopes are much steeper and the boulders on the sides of the path are getting larger every day.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

This is the fourth in a series of chinuch articles that appeared in Mishpacha Family Magazine. Here are links to the first three articles in the series.

#1 -- Addressing the Chinuch Challenges of Our Generation

#2 -- Exit Interviews

#3 -- It Doesn't Start in Tenth Grade

Note to Readers:

It is my overall vision to create and disseminate skill-based materials that will help parents and mechanchim educate their children in a more efficient and user-friendly manner.

Several weeks ago, the Kriah (Hebrew Reading) component of “Bright Beginnings” was activated on my website www.rabbihorowitz.com. I am very pleased to inform you that we just started posting portions of Chumash section as well. Please note that Rabbis Yosef B. Ravitsky and Yosef Kitay created these materials (again, this is just a small start) for the first perek of Parshas Lech Lecha.

Hopefully, by teaching your children/talmidim/talmidos using skill-based methodology, you will help him/her acquire the skills to “take off the training wheels.”

In the chumash section, you can find materials to teach shorashim (click here and here) as well as teaching the prefixes of the words (Click here.) We hope to be posting translation sheets, as well as other types of learning aides.

Please take a few moments to review the Kriah Section of Bright Beginnings as well.

There are listings of Educational Organizations that provide kriah assistance (Click here and scroll down), and we will soon be posting links to a variety of currently available educational software and books to help your child read better.

I am proud to present to you many dozens of kriah review and remediation sheets created by Rabbi Zvi N. Meth, who serves as the Kriah consultant for Bright Beginnings. If your child is in need of reading support, you may find it helpful to print and use some of the many sheets that help promote letter recognition (click here), punctuation/nekudos skills (click here), and the critically important, often overlooked skill of reading Rashi letters properly (click here )

One of my favorites is the “RASHI BINGO” game (click here) created by Rabbi Meth. It is a stunningly effective and fun way to teach children (and adults) ‘Rashi’ script letters. The letters that are similar to each other are color-coded – so that the kids look at them carefully and learn to distinguish between them.

In the coming weeks and months, I hope to post similar tools for gemorah.

Your feedback is always appreciated. Please email any suggestions to comments@rabbihorowitz.com)



To sign up for Rabbi Horowitz’s weekly emails, please click here.


Related Articles:
Issue 149- Rolling out the Welcome Mat
Issue 139 - Proactively Addressing the Chinuch Challenges of Our Generation
Issue 141 - Exit Interviews
Issue 143- It Doesn’t Start in Tenth Grade
Issue 147 - Pulling in the Gangplank


Reader's Comments:      Rating & Comments Policy      Rate & Write a Comment!
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1.     2/7/07 - 10:28 PM
Anonymous

You'd have to be a little more specific about what you are suggesting for gemara learning. As I commented on your last post, I don't see how gemara vocabulary could be taught before gemara.

I've got a question. I believe that this article about teaching method is the 4th in a series about kids at risk. Why do we have to live in a society where the two topics are connected? Why is it that in order to remain in our society one must be successful in school? I'm afraid that if we look into the answer to that question we'll find that an improved teaching method won't solve the "at risk" problem.

We orthodox jews live in a highly competitive society. So it doesn't matter if we teach slower or better, there will always be top boys and there will always be boys at the bottom of the class. Those boys will be "at risk".

I'm all for improving the way we teach, but not to solve societies problems. I think, contrary to what some rosh yeshivos will want you to believe, that there is a serious lack of torah knowledge in the frum world. Our yeshivos' final product is not what it should be, and if we'd only make sure that our boys had the basics down before advancing them to the next level, we'd be a lot better off.


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2. good point, bad mashal     2/8/07 - 10:43 AM
M

To have to write an article that says that basic skills must be taught and mastered means that you know that in many schools they are not taught and mastered. Pathetic, is it not?

The training wheels mashal is not a good one because you say they are removed completely once the child knows how to ride a bike without them. What's the nimshal - that once a child learns the skills that enable him to progress in Chumash and Gemara, then he gets rid of those skills? Of course not! The skills are always needed, unlike training wheels.

Another problem I have with the mashal is that my father didn't buy us bikes with training wheels on principle. I agree with him - they're pointless. A child on a bike with training wheels may as well be riding a tricycle. In my family we go from a tricycle to a bicyle. It's not an easy transition but it's the only way to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. Millions of children have learned this way, without incurring severe injury.


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3. Sorry M, you're missing some points     2/8/07 - 10:53 AM
N - Silver Springs, MD

The nimshal is easy. After spending much time learning the skills, one can learn without practicing the skills, as they have become second nature. I'm surprised you miss the obvious. You wrote, "it's the only way to learn how to ride a two-wheeler." This is silly. Millions of dollars are made on selling training wheels to consumers who use them successfully.

"M". It appears that you aren't aware of the world around you, only the way you were raised. Perhaps you just got "carried away."


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4. easy world we live in     2/8/07 - 11:11 AM
rahel - far rockaway, ny

We live in a "make my life easy" world. It is all around us and our children are being influenced by it whether we have t.v's or not. To give a child a boost in their learning is being proactive. The point is to realize we can help them before it can get too hard or too late. This will only make their learning easier and enjoyable. What is so wrong with this idea?


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5. Hebrew and Talmudical skills     2/8/07 - 11:40 AM
shmuel

We have a basic problem in Orthodoxy: every kid, regardless of his ability, is expected to be a Gadol Hador. If he's average, he must overcome his averageness, like the Netziv did (so goes the story). If he's a genius, he must grow into his potential and become a Talmudic superstar. So, yes, school is bound up completely with all male children in frum circles, and those who can't make in the Litvish world are made to feel like failures. We train 1000 children; one will be the gadol hador. The other 999? It didn't work out for them. Sorry. But we have one curriculum for all of them, and one only. So let's review: Children made to feel like failures...hmmm...no other options for them in an all-Talmud curriculum...if they opt out for something else, they're "losers"...if they prefer to study Tanach, halacha, musar, philosophy, Mishna (that's a lot of Torah right there!) they're learning like girls and made to feel second rate...what a crazy system. Then we wonder why boys drop out!

I can't fix the all-Talmud, all-the-time curriculum just yet (I will, soon enough) but I can teach Hebrew to children. And yeshiva kids need boatloads of it, at an early age. They'll need it forever. I talk to rabbis (!) and kollel guys (!) who sheepishly say, 'I never learned the rules. Maybe you can teach me?' A pleasure, but answer me this: when you see a "Dikduk Rashi," do you teach it to your students? If so, how? If not, why not? I'm taching a few beginners all the nitty-gritty details of the language. You ought to see the satisfaction they get when they struggle to translate and then I offer a better one, straight out of the words, very literal, but it makes sense. They're getting it. And so could children, all of them. Even the average ones will feel a great sense of satisfaction if they master the rules and have the reading/learning skills for life. And one really needs to know all the rules if one is to learn Tanach with the commentators. They take for granted that their readers at least know as much grammar as they do. So we have our work cut out for us. But, since we have a generation of mechanchim who, for the most part, don't know any grammar (it's maskilish (!); when will that crazy belief finally bite the dust?), they cannot possibly pass it on to the next generation, and so we have thousands of children who don't know allthe rules, and whast they know is hazy at best and incomplete. Not the way to run a candy store, let alone a school system.


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6. All Gemorah, All The Time     2/8/07 - 12:37 PM
Chaim

As my eldest son grew and progressed through high school, it became obvious to us that although he had a love for learning, he had a lack of what we could call "zits fleish". In english, I guess you would say he had "ants in the pants". He didn't have the patience or concentration to sit in front of a gemarah from early in the morning until late into the evening. This presented us with a problem. We tried asking many of the Roshei Yeshiva that we knew, and even some that we didn't, but no one was able to find for us a bais medrash in the USA that studied anything other than Gemara for all the day's sedarim (except, perhaps, Ohr Somayach in Monsey, but he didn't want to go there). The only place where we were able to find such a yeshiva was in Eretz Yisrael, and even there, not in one of the so-called 'black-hat' places, but in a yeshiva that we would probably call somewhat "more modern". The end result? He spent 2 years in that yeshiva and has succeeded beyond our dreams. He is now back in the States and spends part of his day in Yeshiva while spending the other part of the day persuing classes for a 'secular career'. He realizes that his mission in life will not be a Rosh Yeshiva, nor does he feel that he will be a kollel person. Imagine! A young man today, who understands his roll in life, and understands what would be a productive Torah life and what would not be. I'd also like to point out that we saw a similar antsyness in our second son. So, son #1 sold this same yeshiva in E.Y. to son #2 and son #2 is there now. I've gotten calls from his R.Y. that he is often in the B.M. until 2 am going over some of the (not necessarily gemora) lessons from the day's shiurim. To me, that is success for my boys.

What I don't understand is why I needed to spend many (extra) thousands of dollars to send them to E.Y. to find such a wonderful program. Why was there no such programs here - in the NY area?

(someone suggested going to such a yeshiva would 'shter' shidduchim offers. If true, when will we stop using this 'shidduchim' excuse for everything, even if we see those things are detrimental?


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7. to each his own ...     2/8/07 - 3:04 PM
M

To each his own N.

That "millions of dollars are made on selling training wheels to consumers who use them successfully," proves nothing about how children learn how to ride a bike. When the wheels touch the ground, they are not riding a two-wheeler. When the wheels are off the ground, they are.

I am well aware of the use of training wheels you'll be glad to know, and am probably way off in my own little world when I think that training wheels are meant to boost the esteem of our young 'uns these days who want to be "big boys and girls" and no longer ride a trike.

And your nimshal doesn't work, as I pointed out earlier, because the skills are constantly used, the training wheels are not.

Anyway, Rabbi Horowitz's point about the need to develop skills is a good one, regardless.


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8.     2/8/07 - 8:07 PM
Anonymous

Peddling on a bicycle with training wheels, while not being any more difficult than riding a tricycle, is much better practice for riding a bicycle w/o training wheels. It's not just about self esteem. It's good to get used to similar peddling motions to what will be necessary to ride w/o training wheels


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9. Enough with the bicycle moshol--talk tachlis     2/9/07 - 12:26 AM
shmuel

1. Yes, I agree: we ought not be concerned about "shterring" a shidduch if that's the yeshiva a young man needs. Worrying about shidduchim is crazy: we have to teach these young men life and learning skills, and, if they don't learn them, what sort of shidduch will that wind up being? 2. Does not YU have the Mazer Yeshiva Program (all-Talmud); Isaac Breur College ( a mix of Talmud and many other subjects); the school formerly known as JSS (James Striar Studies) for beginners, wher I imagine different courses are available? So I suppose YU could have been a place to consider, instead of Israel, though there really is nothing like Israel and its beauty and people if you want to experience fiercely unapologetic Judaism.


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10. no zitzfleish?     2/9/07 - 9:33 AM
M

chaim - please explain, if your son didn't have zitzfleish then how did he do all that sitting in yeshiva in E.Y., even till 2 a.m.?


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11. thank you     2/13/07 - 10:08 PM
Shuli M

thank you for the pdf list of words. A baalas teshuva mother - I am going to stufy it myself and will make sure my kids are familiar with these words.


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12.     2/14/07 - 10:02 AM
Anonymous

just wondering, how common is it to find boys in high school who can't read rashi letters and how long does it take to correct it? I don't remember my school spending more than a week on teaching the new letters. it shouldn't be that hard to learn.


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13. How common a problem?     2/14/07 - 10:13 AM
Avrohom - Spring Valley, NY

It may be uncommon. But for the child who never became proficient, (I emphasize, proficient) it is a never ending tragedy that carries on until he or she is finally (what a relief!) out of school. I have heard too often from mental health professionals after they assess a child, "He (or she) will be fine in life as soon as they get out of school. They'll marry, get a job, be good parents, etc. You have to figure out a way, or find a school which they can survive in until then."

Our schools have become "Eretz ocheles yoshvehu" for these childrem. I'm not criticizing the schools. There are simply more and more children who cannot endure business as usual.


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14. concerned     2/16/07 - 10:38 AM
Anonymous

I'm worried about treating all children as problematic and at risk children in order to get them "training wheels". The chinuch system in teaching our torah, has been always a step by step mehalech. when children are able to, they grow at a higher level if they have to learn to ride on their own, with an adult watching. no child learns to ride with training wheels. they learn to ride when we take them off. taking care of ALL chilren acudemicly is our chiyuv. but treating them all like those who need extra help, is like puting training wheels on your teenage sons bike. as always thank you for your thought provoking arcticles.

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