By Rafi Cashman
We in the Jewish education community are really beginning to dive into general education research when it comes to teaching (and learning) sacred text. The Mandel Center’s recent two-day conference on developing independent readers of Tanach was a wonderful experience of how productive such a gathering can be—especially when conducted with a group of talented, thoughtful and committed educators. I entered the conference having spent the last three years with the Tanach PLC at my school trying to use the research on early literacy and reading complex texts to inform our teaching practices in the middle school. But our group felt as though we were doing this work alone, and encountering a larger body of research that we weren’t always sure how to apply. I left the conference with deeper knowledge, a series of new questions, a new community of practice, and new ways for thinking about the relationship between literacy research and the teaching of Tanach.
In the workshop that guided our overall conversation, Claude Goldenberg of Stanford University shared a five-part structure for developing independent readers: fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge, reading strategies and engagement in reading and discussion. However, this model was tested on a population speaking and reading its mother tongue, and on ELL students in an immersive environment, not on students reading a complex text in a language that is not spoken orally by its readers (or at least not spoken in the particular way it is written in the text).
It seems to me that the five-part structure does not fit with learning to read Tanach in two specific areas. One is that we’re starting in Tanach with a complex text, not an appropriately levelled text for novice readers. Does this mean we really should not be using the Tanach text itself when teaching novice readers? What would this look like? Or must we continue to work with those complex texts from the outset and develop and test new techniques for doing so? If we do this, how should we think differently about how we introduce students to reading them?
My second thought emerged through watching a video of a second-grade teacher who prioritized engagement over decoding through grade three. I wonder whether we need to spend a lot more time in grades one and two developing background knowledge and reading strategies that normally follow more basic fluency and vocabulary development. For example, we could have students read and talk about the text in English, with some attention to building vocabulary but very little to decoding the Hebrew, and then only in grade four or above start working seriously on decoding and fluency skills. The premise of the suggestion is this: Young readers need background knowledge in order to make meaning of new texts, and if the focus in grades 1-3 is on decoding (which is a laborious and time consuming process), there’s not enough time to develop sufficient background knowledge necessary for independent reading. Furthermore, when the large volume of class time is spent on decoding, there is little time for developing reading strategies or having meaningful discussions about the text. What results is a lot of decoding without sufficient meaning (because reading strategies and background knowledge are limited), and without meaning there is little motivation to struggle with complex texts. Thus students lose interest before they even really get started.
As I left the conference I also wondered more broadly what other areas could benefit from bringing an expert in a particular field of general education research into conversation with Jewish education practitioners. There’s research about having a math identity, for example. Could this be relevant to us in thinking about Jewish identity? Or perhaps we can think more deeply about integrating the research on social-emotional learning into our Judaics coursework and teaching of text. I’m sure there are other areas as well that would benefit. The Mandel Center has created a promising model, which I hope will be extended and repeated.
Rafi Cashman is the Director of Education at the Associated Hebrew School, and the Branch and Judaic Studies Principal at its Danilack Middle School campus. In September 2017 he will become the Head of School at Netivot HaTorah in Toronto.