The Rabbis Were Right: Back to Ancient Methods to Learn to Read

A private religious college has begun teaching the methods of traditional Jewish childhood instruction.

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Nissan Ratzlav-Katz,

Chassidic school children
Chassidic school children
Israel News Photo: (file)

After Education Ministry investigations revealed that the system used for teaching childhood literacy in Israel is faulty, a private religious college has begun teaching the methods of the cheider or mori of traditional Jewish childhood instruction.

The system for learning to read that has been in place in Israeli schools for 25 years, known as the Global Approach, is now believed to be less than optimally effective. It does not seem to produce the desired results among children in grades 1 and 2, according to the latest studies and investigations carried out by the Education Ministry. The current system was an importation from the Far East, especially Singapore, and is dependent on the visual memory of the shapes of words or syllables.

In response to the need for more effective literacy teaching, the Rehovot campus of the Orot Israel College recently announced a specialized series of courses for teachers in which they will learn how reading skills have been traditionally taught in religious Talmud Torahs (schools) and cheiders (classes for very young children), and by the Yemenite mori of the past. The objective is to bring these methods, which have been determined to be effective over generations, into modern school environments.

The degree program will focus on the holistic traditional approach, including the specific issue of reading skills, according to Yitzchak Sharbit, a senior Orot Israel lecturer and specialist in the traditionalist teaching methods.

Based on the Mishna
"The system is based on the words of the Mishna in the 'Ethics of our Forefathers' tractate: 'At five years of age, learning the Torah text; at ten years of age, learning the Mishna....' A teaching which the giants of the generations practiced, and whose educational and spiritual rationale was explored primarily by the Maharal [Rabbi Yehuda Loew] of Prague and the Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, in whose paths we follow," Sharbit explained. "In teaching the Torah from age 5 to 10, the system emphasizes emotion alongside knowledge and skills, and not just the cognitive element. This is because a child at age 5 to 10 learns principally from the emotional experience and less from the cognitive. The child learns with a melody and with a good understanding out of an effort to cover as much knowledge as possible of the books of the Bible. At age 10, the child's ability to distinguish between things and their opposites begins to coalesce - cognitively and emotionally - and only then is he taught Mishna, which deals with forbidden and allowed, exempt and responsible, etc."

Aside from methodology, the Orot Israel course encourages a childhood learning style and physical school environment modeled on the Talmud Torah. Children are taught to read with "joy, music, repetition, rereading and reading texts linguistically precisely, and according to pronunciations found principally in the scriptural writings, as well as emphasis on the interaction between the student and the class," says Sharbit. "The preferable seating arrangement during studies is in a semi-circle around the teacher, not as practiced today in the educational system - in rows or groups - with some of the students' backs or sides facing the teacher."

Sharbit insists that the semi-circle arrangement allows for greater and better emotional and educational interaction, and a feeling of togetherness, which contributes to the experiential aspect of learning. The centrality of the instructor also takes on a greater meaning in this system, with a literal expression of it in the classroom seating.

Though known as a women's college, an Orot Israel program in traditional teaching methods for childhood reading was set up specifically to train male teachers. The reason for the move was the significant lack of male teachers in the lower grades, especially in religious schools, where such teachers are needed most. As of now, there are slated to be 40 students in the Orot Israel degree program.