Reading as the Gateway(s) to Learning

David Farbman, Senior Director of Education, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

The challenges of reading in English and Hebrew

I have loved reading ever since I was a small child. Teacher and student readingWhether I’m seeking entertainment, information, or to be challenged, I look forward to reading like almost nothing else. Give me a good book and the time to sit and absorb it, and I am in my happy place.

I suspect that many of you reading this share my passion. But we all know that for many students, reading is distinctly not pleasurable. Indeed, it can be almost intolerably painful because they suffer some form of language-based learning disability (LBLD). The process of transforming symbols on a page into letters and words—the mechanics of reading—or the act of turning words into something with meaning is a perpetual struggle. With that struggle comes frustration and feelings of inadequacy that extend far beyond the classroom. Reading is essential for absorbing and processing information, and those who cannot read fluently are severely hampered from succeeding both in and outside of school.

Imagine the difficulty of a Jewish student who is finding it difficult to read in English and is then expected to learn to also read Hebrew. The barriers to further success are that much higher. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that the addition of a second language to the educational program can be a breaking point for many day school students.  Witnessing their child’s struggles, parents justifiably conclude that it is simply impossible for their child to meet the learning expectations of a dual-language curriculum. Rather than watch their child continue to flail, they simply pull him or her from the school.  Another Jewish student is then shut out from the education they are seeking.

The good news is that there are solutions to this challenge. Language-based learning disabilities may slow the acquisition of language and reading skills; but, in most cases, with the right interventions and the support of professionals, children with LBLDs can catch up to their peers. Indeed, here at Gateways we have worked with hundreds of students over the years who have faced and then overcome the challenge of learning both English and Hebrew. Our reading specialists have used reading programs like Orton Gillingham or Wilson for English and Gateways’ own similar multi-sensory curriculum in Hebrew, and have turned reading struggles into reading triumphs.

Gateways has partnered with day schools and congregational schools to help them put in place the curricula and the infrastructure to support struggling readers. We have trained dozens of educators to implement our Hebrew reading program so that they can help students realize the dream of reading a second language. to students. As for broader strategies, our focus has been on early intervention, for so often the key to conquering LBLDs is to work intensively with students in the primary grades. The sooner children can develop reading fluency—a process that intensive interventions can promote—the sooner they will be able to make the switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and from there they are more likely to meet with success. In order to assist schools in identifying reading struggles early, we at Gateways have promoted the implementation of the Response to Intervention methodology in Jewish day schools. This process involves carefully tracking every student’s reading progress and, then, if and when deficits are noted, intervening immediately.

Throughout all our work with children, with individual educators and with whole schools, our goal is constant: ensuring that every student, no matter his or her learning challenge, can thrive in a robust Jewish educational setting. Because we’ve seen so many students who were once struggling readers come to succeed, we know that the next success story is right around the corner.  And we can’t wait to be there to help that story unfold.

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