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Issue 163 - Skills for Life
Teaching Our Children to Become Independent Learners
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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More than ninety percent of all words that appear in chumash are variations of only 270 root 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.

These lines were culled from the "Training Wheels" column that appeared in this space making the case for the need to teach our children critical skills during their entry-level to new topics such as chumash and gemorah. (Click here for the Entire Mishpacha series)

Permit me to explain:

There are basically two ways to teach chumash to beginners (the same concept applies to gemarah, albeit with modifications for ‘gemarah terms’ and phraseology). One approach is to teach by memory/rote. In this method, when a ‘new’ pasuk is taught, each word is translated to the child. The children then repeat the pasuk and translate the words in the timeless singsong tune passed down through the generations. This is primarily a memory-based exercise, where the children retain the words they are taught – all the while building a growing vocabulary of words that they have already memorized.

The other approach is a skill-based one. This method is based on the notion that children ought to first (or simultaneously) be taught the basic structure of lashon hakodesh. They are introduced to the meaning and usage of the main shorashim (root words) and shimushim (prefixes and suffixes) that are used to conjugate the root words.

If you are a regular reader of these lines, you know by now that I am a strong proponent of the slow-and-steady skill-based method, as I feel that this is the proverbial concept of ‘teaching a child how to fish.’ Investing the time to teach our sons and daughters the skills that they will need to succeed is the greatest gift we can afford them. For a skill-based approach to chinuch results in independent learners who have the tools to enjoy the exploration of the various limudim they engage in. (Click here to review a 56-page prepublication skill-based chumash booklet I am working on.)

Rote learning on the other hand, requires an enormous amount of memorization and only works well for children for whom committing large amounts of material to memory comes very easily. Additionally, the rote process is often difficult for creative children, for visual learners, and for restless/distractible children. (Click for a series of 3 articles that I wrote on the subject of diverse learning styles.) Finally, it leaves many children – and adults – with a great volume of knowledge, but not necessarily the ability to connect the dots and form an understanding of the Hebrew language that will allow them to open a chumash and read a Ramban with ease.

Why is that so? Well, please permit me to share an analogy with you. Think of the last time that you attended a family wedding. There, you may have been introduced to a distant relative for the umpteenth time. Somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you know that he is related to you somehow. The only problem is that you just not quite sure how that connection is made. (Your father’s brother’s cousin through marriage? Or was it your father’s cousin’s brother-in-law?) It may be exceedingly frustrating for you not to be able to figure this out, but you just can’t seem to get your hands around it no matter how hard you concentrate and/or how many times you have gone through this frustrating exercise.

Well, my dear reader, that is what it is like for a child (or adult) who learned chumash by rote to try and figure out the connection between vayomer, vatomer, amarti, leimor, imri, vayomru, amru, amar, amarnu, … you get the picture. They know that these words are interlinked somehow, (all derive from the root word ‘amar’), but they just don’t know exactly how the lego pieces of Hebrew language click together. So, rather than memorizing several hundred shorashim, the rote learner must memorize many thousands of the cousins, uncles and aunts of these root words.

Some are under the impression that children will pick up the language as they continue to learn and memorize more words. But that is not the way complex languages are taught. Just think back to your school days and all those color-coded posters in your classrooms charting the creation of blended words – “can + not = cannot or can’t”. Those charts, the lessons you were taught, and all the exercises in your grammar workbooks gave you a mental map of how those words were formed. If this is the case in the English language, it is all the more so with lashon hakodesh where root words and the almost infinite permutations they form with the various prefixes and suffixes are the very core of how it all pulls together.

This sounds quite logical, doesn’t it? So, why aren’t all our children[1] learning this way? As I see things, there are three main reasons: 1) The notion that teaching skills is somehow a departure from our mesorah, 2) the thinking that investing the time to teach skills will result in diminished quality and/or quantity of learning, and 3) relentless, unbearable pressure from parents (that’s you) on school principals to ‘cover ground,’ or have their schools relegated to second-tier oblivion.

I will address all three of these concerns in future columns. Stay tuned.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

[1] As I pointed out in a previous column, nearly all our girls already learn this way, as do the boys in remedial classes around the world.

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