By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
This year marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Jewish education. A few weeks ago, Prizmah, a new organization comprising the five major day school networks, held its first conference. Thousands of educators from across the country gathered to compare notes, share best practices, and chart the future of Jewish education in North America.
This moment represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at what day schools, regardless of their particular ideology, share: the study of Jewish texts, however defined. For the last 15 years, the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks, developed by the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, have offered a clear picture of what it looks like to read Tanakh successfully. The first standard, for example, states that students will be “independent readers of the biblical text.” They should notice textual details and ambiguities, and will be able to “cite a text to prove a point opinion or claim.”
But how do we get students to that point? The standard itself tells us where we want to go; that is its function. The schools themselves, together with coaches, are expected to develop not just curricula but also the pedagogic repertoires of their teachers and curricula. But the Standards and Benchmarks framework, itself, does not tell us how to get there.
The next step for Jewish text education is to articulate a vision of pedagogy. That is, an approach for teaching students to be “independent readers,” to notice textual details, and build textually grounded arguments.
Outside the Jewish world, scholars of literacy education have made progress in learning how to promote reading development. They argue that reading development beyond the initial stage of learning to read requires ongoing work in five related areas:
- Fluency: Students must become fluent in reading the words, sentences, paragraphs, and longer texts on the page.
- Vocabulary: They must build their vocabularies so that they can read increasingly sophisticated texts.
- Background knowledge: They must gain background knowledge to comprehend adequately and situate what they read in the appropriate context.
- Strategies: They must learn, practice, and use the various comprehension strategies such as prediction and questioning that expert readers use.
- Engagement: They must read widely, think deeply, and discuss what they read with teachers, peers, and others.
A large portion of the field of literacy research can be analyzed in terms of these five areas of practice. Over the last several decades, researchers have helped us come to a better understanding of how beginner readers become intermediate and advanced readers in each of these four areas. Beginning to think about Tanakh education in light of these categories is the first step to articulating a vision for achieving the outcomes of independent Tanakh readers.
At the same time, the world of literacy research could learn a lot from the special character of Tanakh. The reading of Tanakh, perhaps because of its sacred nature, calls on readers to develop a special kind of attention to textual details and ambiguities sometimes ignored in the general studies classroom. Tanakh classrooms provide an incredible opportunity for literacy researchers looking to learn about how students learn to read a text closely.
This spring, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University will bring together a group of scholars and practitioners of elementary Tanakh education and the broader field of literacy education to begin formulating a pedagogical vision for Tanakh education. Over the course of two days, in dialogue with renowned literacy scholar Claude Goldenberg, we will ask, “How do we help students become independent readers of Tanakh? What instructional practices and pedagogies best promote these various facets of reading comprehension?” Beginning this conversation is an important next step to building a unified educational culture across the landscape of North American day schools. While the roster for this small conference is now fixed, we look forward to sharing the insights of this conference with the larger community.
Ziva R. Hassenfeld is a post-doctoral fellow at the Mandel Center.
Chall, J. (1983). Stages of reading development (New York: McGraw-Hill; 2nd ed. published by Harcourt-Brace in 1996).
Duke, N. & Pearson, P. D. (2002). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. In A. Farstrup & S. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed.), pp. 205-242. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Available at http://www.learner.org/workshops/teachreading35/pdf/Dev_Reading_Comprehension.pdf
Goldenberg, C. (1992/93). Instructional conversations: Promoting comprehension through discussion. The Reading Teacher, 46, 316-326. Available at https://people.stanford.edu/claudeg/video/opportunities-through-language-arts/publications
 Chall, 1983; Duke & Pearson, 2002; Goldenberg, 1992