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Tuesday, September 07, 2004


On Hebrew reading

Okay - I know I've been away for a while, and I apologize to my loyal fans (all two of you). I wanted to comment on something that I noticed last week, and that disturbs me to no end.

I do not have any degrees in Education, but I do tutor a lot. I give Bar Mitzva lessons. I volunteer for youth groups. I read the Torah and lead services on occasion, too. Recently, I was learning Maseches Brachos with a child, and we encountered the word "Shchiva" - resting. We know that we have to read Sh'ma when we lie down, and when we arise (uv'shachbecha, uv'kumecha), and the Mishna and Gemara discuss what time that is, exactly.

Now, the word Shchiva is fairly common, and (I would hope), most yeshiva students at the sixth- or seventh-grade level have encountered it in studying Chumash. The shoresh (root) is SH-CH-V, which is common and easy to remember, and thus fairly easy to apply to other occurrences of words with that shoresh.

The child in question wasn't able to translate the word right away. So I asked the child to isolate the shoresh. The child did. I asked whether the child had encountered that word before, and the child was hesitant. I asked the child to recite the famous verse from Sh'ma - and the child said, "...uv'shavtecha, uv'kumecha."

Well, of course he wouldn't recognize the shoresh that's common to the two words - he's been misreading the word in Sh'ma for his whole life.

Now, this is a common mispronounciation -- in nursery and kindergarten. At those ages, children learn the words of popular prayers by rote and song, not by reading, so they produce something that sounds like whatever the teacher is chanting. The word uv'shachbecha is fairly complex, so children compensate by creating shortcuts and saying the word quickly. Even more often, you find children doing this in bentching - birchat hamazon.

The problem is, they carry these mistakes over to grade school and beyond. And nobody's doing anything to stop it.

Diligent educators ought to have these children revisit the popular prayers once they are thoroughly comfortable with Hebrew reading - usually in third or fourth grade. This will prevent some of the problems I've encountered with some of my students.

When I was in 12th grade - that's senior year in High School - my shiur rebbe had us open up a siddur and read Sh'ma and Sh'mone Esrei. We were somewhat insulted by this exercise, but we went along with it. His goal was to point out how many grammatical and definitional errors we make when we misread certain words and and mispunctuate certain phrases. And there were plenty. We were humbled by the experience, and improved our reading skills. Optimally, this should not be happening in a High School classroom - but earlier in the process.

This same rebbe made a point of telling us that whatever other skills one may need to grow into a serious learner, reading and comprehending are the most fundamental. And this skill is not being emphasized sufficiently in the yeshiva system today. I hope someone in a position to make some changes actually reads this and thinks about it.

Kesiva v'chasima tova!

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