Current Research Projects

Children Read Biblical Joseph

Childrens conceptions of the characters and stories in the Hebrew Bible can be different than adults. Yet when studying the Hebrew Bible with young students, adults often fail to take into account all the possible interpretations that young students can make of the Biblical text. This project starts from the theoretical premise that children are experienced interpreters long before they begin reading print texts, and that ignoring student interpretation is detrimental to students learning and love of the Biblical text and of any text.

Children approach texts with a toolbox of resources. When children are taught the Biblical flood story (Genesis Chapters 6–9), for example, they already have resources for understanding the story including ideas about boats, water and animals, as well as knowledge of other stories in which those concepts appear. As they read, these ideas and concepts shape how they make meaning of the text.

The pace of the classroom can be fast and it can be hard to tease apart the important interpretive work each individual child is engaged in with any given text. A seemingly off-topic comment that may require refocusing in the classroom, given the space and time, might reveal itself to be a deep insight into the text and the reader.

This study looks at young readers outside the context of the classroom. Through ongoing think-aloud interviews with a set of students coming from three different schools and communities: Orthodox Jewish, Evangelical Christian and secular public schools, it seeks to understand patterns of textual interpretation among children broadly, and how they understand the biblical story of Joseph specifically.

The Science of Reading: Chumash (Hebrew Bible)

This ambitious research agenda builds on Professor Hassenfeld’s work in the Pursuing Fluency project (see Hassenfeld, 2019; Hassenfeld forthcoming book). The goal is to create a curricular framework to move day school students towards Chumash fluency and comprehension through five instructional principles: fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge, comprehension strategies and text discussion.

Fluency refers to the ability to read accurately, automatically, with appropriate rate, and appropriate expression (Allington, 1983; Hudson, Lane and Pullen, 2005; Klauda and Guthrie, 2008; Pikulski and Chard, 2005). Vocabulary refers to sight recognition and comprehension of the most common words students encounter (Beck, Perfetti and McKeown, 1982, NRP, 2000, Hiebert, Goodwin, Cervetti, 2018; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Perfetti, 1983, Ricketts, Nation and Bishop, 2007). Background knowledge refers to the necessary information to make sense of a text. Finding the right balance between providing necessary background knowledge and guiding students to “connect the dots” themselves is one of the many challenges in helping students build comprehension. Reading strategies are the thought processes and skills that advanced readers engage automatically to gain deeper understanding of a text (Duke and Pearson, 2002). These include, among others, summarizing, making predictions, integrating prior knowledge and generating questions about the text. Finally, researchers have found that keeping students engaged in reading and discussion is an essential component for developing comprehension. This means prioritizing students’ textual inquiry and interests (Aukerman, 2006; 2007; 2008; Aukerman and Schuldt, 2016; Aukerman et al., 2017; Chinn et al., 2001; Eeds & Wells, 1989; Lewis, 1993; Paley, 1986; Reznitskaya et al., 2001). In other words, engaging in textual meaning-making supports language skills.

This project scales out the curricular materials developed during the Pursuing Fluency project to offer a comprehensive program for biblical Hebrew vocabulary, grammar and text scope and sequence for Grades 2-6. The project will also develop complimentary lesson plans for fluency, reading strategies and text discussions. It will recommend student workbooks and biblical texts for each grade.

A main component of the Common Core Standards for literacy (CCSS) were the various quantitative algorithms and qualitative coding schemes developed to determine a text’s “text complexity” (Fisher and Frey, 2014). There are more than 100 readability formulas, including Lexile Framework for Reading, the ATOS formula, and the Flesch-Kincaid readability. Each of these formulas uses a computer algorithm to count and weigh a variety of factors such as words per sentence, the average number of syllables per sentence, frequency of vocabulary, number of prepositional phrases, etc. There are also qualitative measures that analyze the variety of elements that make a text easy or challenging to read, including complexity, text purpose and figurative language. We will follow and modify these existing templates from literacy to develop a metric for determining “text complexity” in Chumash (Hebrew Bible) texts.

The Science of Reading Chumash (Hebrew Bible) project has multiple components:

  • Summer 2021- Develop Curricular Materials and Assessment Materials: these materials will offer scope and sequence to vocabulary and grammar, keyed Hebrew texts with word banks and grammatical constructs highlighted, identified levels of “text complexity,” and proposed scope and sequence for parshiot and texts for Grades 2-6.
  • Summer 2021- Convene Educator Advisory Board.
  • Fall 2021–Spring 2022- Pilot implementation of curricular materials and assessment materials.

Past Research Projects

Children and Text Study During Emergency Remote Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive realignment in the delivery of Jewish education in the spring of 2020. Almost overnight, schools, synagogues and other Jewish educational institutions moved their programming online, including countless hours of synchronous teaching of Jewish texts and topics. Suddenly, more American Jews were studying Jewish texts online than ever before.

At the same time, COVID-19 may have merely accelerated an ongoing trend. In 2019, a group of researchers led by Ari Kelman published The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here (pdf), which described the rapid growth of online Jewish education. They argued that Jewish education online makes Jewish education available to a wider population, allows individuals to customize their Jewish journeys, and connects them to a diverse community of learners and teachers.

At that moment of radical change in the delivery of Jewish education, little was known about what was happening in these online environments. Narrowing the scope to synchronous teaching of biblical texts in particular, what actually happened? What did teaching and learning look like in the virtual Jewish studies classroom? How did teachers use textual materials, and how did students engage with those materials? What questions did teachers ask, and what questions did students ask? How did an online setting enable or inhibit discussion of meaningful topics or the co-building of meaningful interpretations, and what obstacles emerged? How were communities of inquiry cultivated, connections made and skills developed?

Qualitative research allowed for a far deeper and more nuanced investigation of an educational context. Pursuing the questions above about what really happens this research project sought to build a knowledge base for teachers, which could then be leveraged to create more powerful learning experiences — to prepare the field of Jewish education for a future which will almost certainly include an expanded role for online learning.