The Foundation Skills for Torah learning – Part 2 | Rabbi Dovid Abenson

In my previous article Foundation Skills Part 1, I described how a lack of emphasis on foundation skills has resulted in a global learning crisis. We saw how the failure to address missing foundation skills during a child’s formative years may cause behavioral issues in the classroom. In this article, I would like to add an outline of what I take to be a more constructive approach to recurrent misbehavior and some ways to avoid it in the first place.

The Correct Approach to Behavioural Problems

When a child demonstrates behavioral issues, the trend is towards medication as the solution. At Shaar Hatalmud I have worked with many “medicated” students over the years. The following scenario is typical of cases I have seen: 13-year-old student Michoel A.* had been medicated for nearly two years. His parents approached me for help. To obtain a correct analysis of Michoel’s learning issues, I asked the parents to take him off medication before the evaluation and remediation. The evaluation revealed underdeveloped skills in letter and vowel recognition. Before restarting medication, I worked with Michoel on developing the missing skills. Sure enough, once the learning issues were addressed, his behavior improved and medication was no longer required.

Frequently, a child with unaddressed foundation skills misbehaves in class in ways that mimic ADD/ADHD. Impaired knowledge of aleph-beis and vowels will cause a child to lose focus on class material and consequently become bored and act up.

Imagine attending an advanced Chinese language class without any ability to read Chinese characters. Would you not be bored? Might you not feel it would be a waste of time? Perhaps you would even become agitated or aggressive? No doubt medication (or a few cups of coffee) would help you feel more focused and motivated, but they will not teach you Chinese characters. You will never succeed in learning Chinese. We must evaluate and address foundation skills before resorting to medication.

Avoiding Learning Problems

Whilst programs such as Shaar Hatalmud can identify and treat learning problems, there are some important steps our schools can take to avoid them developing in the first place.

First, we must take care that aleph-beis is taught according to our Mesorah. Increasingly, I see children who have been taught Hebrew letters and vowels phonetically. This method of teaching deviates from our Mesorah — the traditional method of “kometz aleph oh” — and is acquired from non-Jewish sources.

Deviating from traditional methods has resulted in a proliferation of Hebrew reading problems throughout our educational system. Parents frequently come to me because their child mixes up similar-sounding letters or vowels. If a student identifies the letters phonetically, it may appear that the student is reading fluently. However, when a student is simply sounding out letters, not properly distinguishing between homophonic letters, he will fail to see shorashim and hence fail to build a solid vocabulary bank. This lack of word recognition will hamper all future reading and translation, including reading Rashi.

Secondly, we must be diligent to ensure Hebrew is taught with a consistent pronunciation. If a chassidishe rebbe teaches in a litvish yeshiva, care has to be taken to pronounce the letters and vowels using a litvish pronunciation at all times. I have seen students use multiple pronunciations in one sentence. Such confusion can have a devastating impact on the road on comprehension and translation.

Aleph-beis teachers must also be adequately prepared for the job. Learning aleph-beis is truly vital to real success in learning and cannot be compromised. I recently received a phone call from a young female teacher. She had taken an 8-day kriah course, then accepted a job in a school helping children in reading. Since she had very little experience, she asked me for training. I explained that preparation for teaching kriah skills can take up to one year and would still not guarantee success in the classroom. This depends also on a natural aptitude for teaching. She was quite shocked to hear this, having imagined I could equip her to educate the next generation of Torah-learners in this essential skill in just a few sessions.

In a similar vein, a kriah rebbe called me a few months ago, asking if I could give him “tips” on how to be successful with his talmidim. He emphasized that he was not looking for training, just tips. This is why we have problems today with kriah and why we have a global learning crisis.

The problem is one of the misplaced priorities. Aleph-beis is seen as “easy”, so institutions do not wish to invest heavy resources into teaching it. They frequently opt for the less expensive route of hiring girls just out of seminary or young Rebbeim with little or no teaching experience. I know a kriah expert who applied for a position in a school as a kriah rebbe. The principal told him that he was too highly qualified for the job and that they preferred a sem girl who would be more affordable. If our Torah institutions knew the true “costs” of improperly laying down these crucial foundational skills they would invest much more highly in kriah teaching.


Menahalim are responsible for making sure that aleph-beis is taught in schools according to our Mesorah. Unfortunately, many institutions unwittingly use non-Jewish ways to teach the aleph-beis. These contribute greatly to learning problems later on.

Additionally, proper training in kriah teaching for all teachers is crucial if we adequately equip our children with the first brick in the foundation of Torah learning.





Contact Rabbi Dovid Abenson

Tel. 1514 739-3629

Cell/Whatsapp 1514 993-5300

Email: [email protected]


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