by Rabbi Moshe Schwartz
Every year, children sit down on the first day of Pre1A, excited to learn. They are graduating from the childlike way they learned before, ready to build a strong foundation for their future in Yeshiva. They open their books, looking forward to being able to read just like their big siblings, or older cousins.
Sadly, not all of these children will successfully learn kriah in their classrooms that year, and as they continue to grow, their skills and their confidence will needlessly suffer.
It is necessary to address this difficulty that our children are facing, once again. Kriah is not simply learning how to read – it is absolutely crucial to a child’s development as a Yarei Shamayim and his personal confidence in so many ways.
Many years ago, I decided to tutor some of the boys in my class who were weaker students when it came to kriah. I was concerned that they would be embarrassed by the special attention – but I quickly discovered that all the students wanted to be personally tutored by the Melamed. This experience eventually developed into a system in which every student reads individually at the Melamid’s desk for a few minutes on the page that he is up to, almost every single day.
This ensures that the class is geared to each child individually. One child may be able to pick up kriah just from reading a siddur, another will need to do every single page in the aleph beis sefer quite a few times until he gets it. At a certain point, one child will be reading well on page 10 of the sefer, another on page 35. That is why their homework can also be personalized; each child has to review a different page at night, depending on which page he needs to work on.
Every day in class, it is good for each child to have an opportunity to be Chazzan, and read a few lines out loud. Some are concerned – won’t the weaker students be embarrassed in front of the other talmidim if they are seen to struggle? But: there are no mistakes! – they are learning what they never learned before. The motivation that the talmidim get from knowing they must read helps them to live up to the challenge. With time and patience, their skills – and with it their confidence – will grow. If a child is allowed to not read, he will inevitably fall behind, and worse than that, we are confirming a lack of ability Chas V’Sholom. If more difficult lines present a problem for him to read in front of the class like everyone else does, than easier lines that he can read out loud, even quietly, should become his job and that student should be praised for doing that job.
Someone once asked the Rebbe how long it should take for a child to learn how to read. The Rebbe responded that it doesn’t matter how long it takes. If a child is struggling with a certain concept, he has to do it again and again until he understands it. He should work personally with the Melamed to be able to master it. If it takes him three times, five times, ten times – so be it! The important thing is that he does well before he moves on.
It happens that sometimes students need to start over again on page 10 of the sefer when they were already reading, with difficulty, on page 50. One boy started close to the beginning of the sefer four times during tutoring time, and also in his homework – and now he is reading. A homework chazarah contest, individually tailored to each students level, for about 2 weeks improves their entire level of kriya. It’s good to do this after Chanuka, at least twice during the year. When a child is at page 80, they go back to page 40 and do two pages a day for 2 weeks. What happens afterward? His reading on page 80 and 90 is so much better, because he became so much more familiar and comfortable with the earlier material. Chazarah is something that is used in every single part of Torah learning, why shouldn’t it also be used in kriah? It’s really unbelievable to see the results.
There are so many different Aleph-Beis seforim available today, and they each look at kriah in a different way. This is a huge advantage for us. For a child that takes longer to learn, it’s great for them to be able to go through 2 or 3 of these seforim until they can read really well. Sometimes we are tempted to look at a child who is doing sort of okay and say “He’s fine, he’ll figure it out, he’ll learn it from a siddur.” He won’t. He won’t get it, it won’t work, and his kriah will be destroyed. I’m not saying that to be cruel or critical – it is the reality. There are bochurim today who can’t daven, who went through the whole system. Why is that?
For example, shin and s’in are one of the obvious obstacles for a weak kriah student. If you make a list of all the shins and s’ins in the Siddur, you’ll find that there are about 9 shins to every s’in. So, if your student is practicing in a siddur or a chumash, he’s never going to get it, because 1. He won’t remember the s’in when he sees it the 9th time and 2. He will remember that it’s something different and become confused. But in an Aleph Beis sefer, you have a shin and a s’in, and they teach it and reinforce it over and over so that the child can master it.
When your car isn’t working, do you fix the whole car? There is a specific detail that needs to be fixed, and when you fix that, it makes the car work again. Therefore, I am proposing that instead of PRACTICING KRIYA in a Chumash, Siddur or Tehillim in the older grades (and even in the younger ones,) that we open up a different Aleph Beis Sefer from what they are used to, even the ones that deal with the basic issues. The child will then really have a chance to master kriah, which will give him so much more confidence and the ability to read properly. Why are we rushing? Of course, the talmidim daven from a Siddur and learn Chumash at the same time, but reinforcing kriya needs to be with an Aleph Beis sefer that goes back over and over again, to the basics.
At a farbrengen many years ago, we had a debate amongst the Aleph Beis Melamdim. The debate was – who do we gear the class to? The answer was that it definitely is for the weaker ones. There are so many students today on the streets, and although this is not the only reason, it plays a part.
We have to give our children a chance. We have to give them time. There is not a kovod to rush. We need to do chazarah, over and over, nachamal un nachamal. Why are we rushing? What are we doing to our children? They’ll get it, if we only give them the time.
If you are an Aleph Beis Melamed, don’t ever stop learning. Learn from other teachers, every single one will have something else to offer, and some technique you can give your class. Back in the day, they used to cut jewels by taking a rough jewel from the ground and hitting it with a hammer.
However, the kuntz was to hit the jewel in the right place so that it wouldn’t shatter completely, and the beautiful diamond inside would remain. In order to do that they would observe the diamond from every angle and perspective. Each Kosher Aleph Beis sefer looks and approaches this subject from a different perspective. Some children learn easily, but for those who have a challenge, learning a few seforim well is an invaluable tool.