In my years of teaching Tanakh, I have always felt this dichotomy between language skills and meaning making to be misleading. Language skills and meaning making are not only not in tension, but the two enhance one another. In other words, instruction should leverage one in service of the other. Language skills serve the purpose of meaning making and meaning making is greatly enhanced by the acquisition of language skills. Nowhere is this better expressed than in current best practices for elementary literacy education.
This paper describes an approach to Tanakh education based in best practices from literacy education. Given the dichotomous history of Tanakh curricula, what would it look like to construct an approach to teaching Tanakh on the basis of nondichotomous literacy constructs? What are the choices that one might have to make? What are the challenges? What happens when the ideal meets the real in actual classroom implementation? As part of a larger research project, these questions of design led into questions of effectiveness and impact on students’ capacity to interpret as well as on their biblical Hebrew skills. This paper will focus on an exploration of the approach itself.
I began this paper by discussing the age-old tension in Tanakh education between language skills and meaning making. The approach to Tanakh described in this paper is rooted in two premises: first, when teaching language skills there is much to be gained from the wealth of research that exists in literacy education; and second, language skills and meaning making are natural partners.
In developing the Tanakh Literacy Curriculum (TLC) my purpose was to draw on the insights of literacy research to develop a program that would increase day school students’ fluency and comprehension in Biblical Hebrew. My goal was to use “best practices” from literacy to see how a rigorous, research-based approach (Shanahan et al., 2010) to the teaching of Hebrew Bible might improve students’ language skills and meaning-making skills. My instructional program focused on the five major components of teaching literacy: fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge, reading strategies, and engagement in discussion. The instructional program addressed each component in a consistent and routine manner.
There is no doubt that Jewish studies is distinct from general studies. But where there are shared goals, in this case language skills, there is much to learn from general studies. What is most remarkable about the literacy model is that it does not pit fluency and decoding against meaning making. Rather, the two reinforce one another. Vocabulary instruction and discussion are pillars of literacy education. Making personal meaning of the text, creating and debating interpretations that matter to the students, exists in a dialectic relationship with improved reading and understanding of Biblical Hebrew. When done well the two become indisputably intertwined and mutually reinforcing.
Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N., Pearson, D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). “Improving reading comprehension in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade: IES practice guide. NCEE 2010-4038.” What Works Clearinghouse.