Eli walked into my office with an anxious smile.
He didn’t know why he was meeting with me. He claimed he knew his Chumash perfectly and had no need for tutoring. His Rebbi thought otherwise, which is why I invited him to take a seat. He rattled off the first few pesakim, without batting an eyelash. He knew the teitchwell.
Until I asked him the first question.
“What is the first pasuk telling us?”
“Do you know who is talking in the second pasuk?”
“Where is the story taking place?”
Eli started fidgeting.
And I had my work cut out.
Eli is not alone. There are countless bright children out there that struggle with Chumash, Mishnayos, and later Gemarah. Why is that?
Simple answer. Language delays.
There is a strong need for a basic language background in order for a child to successfully master the skill for learning chumash and understanding it.
The children with language delays have a very limited selection of words. They will adapt by memorizing, but they have absolutely no understanding of the context.
What’s more, they have no idea that the text is there to give them information.
To them, it’s all about recitation. Chanting the words. How can that be?
Children with language delays don’t read. They don’t think in terms of words, they don’t play in terms of language. To them, words lack symbolic representation. They have no ability to connect a word to what it represents. The result of that? Words are just words. There’s no knowledge to be gleaned from text.
They do not read with the goal to walk away with new information.
In other words:
There are no context clues. No sense of a timeline. No cause and effect. No actions. No meaning. Because language is a thinking tool. You think in words. And if there is no language, the text is inanimate.
Now for the question you’re all thinking.
Fine, we have a problem.
How to solve it??
Let’s dive into the strategy.
Like everything in life, the answer is relative to how complex the language delay is. Is it a complete lack of language concept? Or is it just the link that every piece of text is there to give information?
I took out a big, full colored photo depicting the parshah and showed it to Eli. I asked him to describe the scene using direct and concrete questions to prompt him. Eli described it in detail. Then, I pointed to one pasuk. I told him that this pasuk tells us something that’s in the picture. I led him to the answer using the same form of questioning. He knew exactly what he was looking for, with no need for formulation. We repeated this exercise a number of times. Different pictures, different pasukim.
Until it clicked.
The words give information. They are telling a story. At this point we were able to progress to open ended questions where the answer cannot be derived directly from the text. He needed to summarize the information in his head before coming to a conclusion.
In time, we no longer needed the pictures. I was able to ask Eli:
He realized there is a connection between the text and a story. We moved on to phrases. To the difference between a person, a place, and an action. Subjects and predicates came next. He realized there’s a pattern. A thought process.
When did Eli grasp the Chumash?
When he realized that there is something there to grasp. That is when the child is missing the link between information and language.
What happens when it goes deeper than that?
Yes. Many times, there are children that have no idea that words represent symbols. They have serious language delays. And there is a need to go back and start from the beginning. The basic concept of language. Preschool level.
Take an object. Name it. Describe it. Compare two objects. Say the words. Point to an image of the object. This word = this object.
Words through play. Point out colors. Point out prepositions. (The red goes on top. The green goes behind.)
Yes, the basics.
How can they learn Chumash when they have no idea that a word is symbolic of a concept?
The good news?
Everyone can learn. With the right techniques, language is accessible to all.
By: Rabbi Y.H. Katz, MSEd