TEACHING TORAH to YOUNG CHILDREN: Creating a Community of Torah Learners

Shira Horowitz • South Area Solomon Schechter Day School •

Telling & Retelling Acting Torah Talk Torah Journals
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The development of this case was supported by the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University
Assumptions About Literacy

My approach to teaching Torah originally stemmed from an interest in integrating my teaching of Torah with the teaching of early literacy which is so central to the early grades in school. I want my students to learn Torah for its own sake and appreciate its unique place in our tradition. At the same time, this approach to teaching Torah helps to build students’ language skills in listening to stories, making sense of stories and responding to them, and using writing and drawing as ways to record their thoughts. It also uses what we know from literacy teaching, including reading response approaches and journal writing, to enhance students’ understanding as they learn Torah.

I started with several assumptions about literacy which I continue to hold today.

  1. First, oral language is an important skill for young children. Long before they can express their ideas through writing, children have so much to say. As teachers, we need to make sure that children have the opportunity to express themselves through talk, both for the sake of oral language development and as a rehearsal for their writing.

  2. Second, children need to learn to respond to texts that they hear or read. Reading (or listening to a story) is a process of making meaning, in which the reader (or listener) interacts with the text. When children hear or read a text, they should be able to retell it, to respond to parts they like, or to make a personal connection. They should be able to ask questions of the text. These kinds of responses can happen in oral discussions, and they can also take place in response journals. Both the talk and the writing are useful tools for making sense of the text. When we allow children to share their ideas about big and important themes such as those found throughout the Torah, we will find much worth listening to.

  3. Third, children just learning to write can begin to learn to use written expression as a way to record their ideas. When we offer them a journal to record their ideas, we broaden our ideas about their “writing” to include talk, drawing, and writing. Often this writing can offer us a window into children’s thinking beyond what they might tell us.

  4. Finally, speaking, listening, reading and writing are all important literacy skills which children can use across the curriculum. If children spend time writing in a Torah journal, they will practice important writing skills that will transfer to other times of the day. If children practice responding to stories in the context of Torah, this will enhance their ability to understand and respond to other books. Therefore, a literacy-based Torah curriculum does not “take away” from time spent on other areas; in fact, it only enhances it.

In addition to these assumptions about literacy, I also began with some assumptions about children and Torah.

Children wonder about their world and often think about big, difficult ideas. Given the opportunity, children will ask questions that are often deep and philosophical, the type that adults often shy away from. While the Torah is certainly a difficult text for young children, it is one which is integral to our identity and education as Jews. It is also filled with stories and ideas about many of the same questions that children wonder about: How was the world created? What is a family? What are right and wrong ways to act with other people? What do we know about God? Given the right support and structures, Torah learning can truly be lifelong learning, beginning at the earliest ages of school.

With these assumptions in mind, I began to develop a routine that I called “Torah Talk and Torah journals.” While I have refined my teaching and broadened my methods, I continue to use the basic techniques of allowing children to respond to Torah in talk and in writing through a structured approach.