Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Teves 5759, December 22, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Why Is My Child Not Doing Well in School?
by A. Ross, M.A. in Speech, Expert in Remedial Reading

Children do not think about the way they speak. They can learn one or two and even three languages quickly and manage to use them more or less correctly in different situations. However, their needs are not very elaborate and they do not use a large vocabulary. Before the child starts school, parents are delighted with his verbal skills and appreciate the fact that he is intelligent.

Then the child starts school and is exposed to an entirely new language. Both parents and teachers are convinced that the child will "pick it up easily" and that he will be chatting away within three months. Their predictions are proven correct, and the child displays an astonishing surface fluency as he plays with his peers. Unfortunately, neither parents nor teachers realize that there are many words missing from his vocabulary. Many difficult words will be explained and elaborated on by a good teacher. (Although young teachers often do not realize how their words are misconstrued or taken out of context. Most parents have some anecdote of a funny malaprop which the child insists the teacher had said.) But adverbs, adjectives and prepositions are assumed to be part of a pre-school child's vocabulary, and neither repeated nor stressed. Words like over, behind, between, under, wide etc.

The child begins to underachieve and is `assessed'. He is withdrawn into a smaller group for individual attention and seems to do better. He is returned to the classroom and is still below average. Besides which, the results of his assessment are often far below his actual ability. The child senses that he is not doing well and feels himself a failure. He does not even attempt much of the class work, and begins to misbehave. The teacher labels him as slow and does not give him as much attention in the classroom as he gives the bright, more confident children. Teacher expectation is often an additional cause for a child's failure, but that is not the subject under discussion here.

All the above applies not only to a bilingual child. It also applies to a child who begins to speak a good deal later than other children. A child with normal hearing and intelligence, can simply be a late speaker. By the time he is five, his vocabulary will be less advanced than that of his peers, and like the bilingual child, he may need help. Not just help in the subjects in which he is weak, but help in language. His school vocabulary is deficient.

This brings me back to assessments. Educational psychologists who administer these tests are beginning to realize that the tests, while tried on thousands of children and standardized, are geared to a certain culture. For example, a child is shown the picture of a bowl of fruit consisting of peaches, apricots, strawberries, oranges and plums. He is meant to pick the odd one, which in this case would be oranges, as they have an inedible peel. A Jewish child may suggest strawberries as the odd one becasue they have a different blessing! A few wrong answers, for whatever religious reason, can consideably lower the child's score. [For example, he may not even recognize a fruit that is not eaten in his home because it is usually worm- infested.] On non-verbal tests, where he has tasks to test his intelligence without having to speak, the child does extremely well, often well above the average standardized score. In the Warnock report on education in England in 1978, there is one clause: "Whenever a child's first language is not English, at least one of the professionals involved in assessing the child's needs should be able to understand and speak his language."

Feuerstein claims that negative findings in assessments are often the result of ineffective attitudes, faulty work habits and inadequate modes of thinking. He argues that children of low level functioning, who had been diagnosed as learning disabled by conventional assessment procedure, when provided with appropriate intervention can achieve normal levels of academic and intellectual functioning.

I saw a child of seven and a half in Israel recently who had been recommended for a special school. He was from an English speaking family, but had been born in Israel. His English was remarkably pure and when I questioned this, the parents admitted that he had been in America for five of his seven years. Then he had been sent to a cheder. His reading was poor, and he was still confusing several letters and sounds. His basic number concepts were non-existent and even in non-verbal tasks, he did not achieve high scores. I had the feeling that he had just stopped trying. After only four weeks of daily one-on- one tutoring, he was a changed boy. Happy, confident and participating in the classroom instead of being disruptive.

Not all children are transformed so quickly. And many definitely are not capable of doing as well as the parents think they they should be doing. But I am speaking of those children who have the ability and not the language. If parents understand that a child does not master the new language fully, as quickly as they think he does, they will be more tolerant of his lack of ability for the first few years of school. He must not be allowed to lose confidence in himself, as this is very difficult to overcome. If s/he is a monolingual late talker, s/he probably needs help for a year or two.

Some parents change their minority language in the home, and now begin to speak the language of the school only. The opinion of researchers the world over seems to be that bilingualism is a definite advantage. Findings suggest that it is ill advised for educators of children who seem to have potential learning difficulties, to switch to the majority language in the home. For parents, it is their weaker language, and it may lower the quantity and quality of interaction with the children.


Your English Family editor has raised a Sabra family with Hebrew as the home language, mainly because the first child was a late talker. In the early grades, teachers used to complain that the girls' vocabulary was somewhat lacking, that it was not rich enough, compared with their peers who had Israeli-born parents. To remedy this, I took to reading to them at night, at first simple stories, and later, more complex ones. I would explain certain difficult words as we went along, but made sure to pick interesting stories to whet their appetite for eventual reading on their own. When they reached this stage, I encouraged it very much and did my best to provide literature for them. We also used to play word games frequently.

It was interesting to note the trilingual development of the boys in the family who went to a Yiddish- speaking cheder. The exercise seemed futile in the beginning, since they were translating chumash words they already understood, more or less, into a language which they didn't understand. Bereishis - in onheib... (We had a great time with "Noach, Noach" - Noach, Noach.) But months later and a few parshiyos down the road, they had caught on and were able to converse. This is because the rebbe persevered. In later years, this cheder did not insist as strongly upon the Yiddish, and the younger boys are far weaker in it, while the older ones are able to give shiurim in that language. The bonus here was that the similarity between Yiddish and English - which I always pointed out to them - helped, in the end, to make them trilingual, at least in understanding.

We would be very happy to have our readers share their insights and experiences on the choice of mother- tongue or step-mother-tongue, as I call it. Our FAX:02- 5387998.


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