Survival! For the Comprehensible Hebrew Classroom

As we careen toward פסח and then to the end of another Hebrew school year, I’ve transitioned from my role as teacher trainer and lesson modeler, to coach and mentor.  I enjoy observing and providing positive feedback to my colleagues as they experiment with their newly adopted teaching with comprehensible input (T/CI) strategies, and I continue to learn so much about how to support both our students’ Hebrew acquisition, and our teachers’ acquisition of the T/CI skills!

My coach/mentor comments after I observe a lesson focus on:

  1.  What the teacher did to help her students feel welcome and comfortable (to keep the affective filter low, and optimize the environment for acquisition);
  2.  How she made the Hebrew comprehensible, contextualized and compelling for her students.

One pattern I have found across observations is the need for a compilation of Survival Hebrew for the CI Classroom.  We need to have Hebrew go-to phrases for general classroom management; materials distribution and collection; director’s cues for student actor dramatization, and more.  Of course every time we try something new requiring instructions, we can make the Hebrew utterance comprehensible by establishing meaning (writing the Hebrew and it’s English counterpart clearly on the board, followed by gesturing and other extra-linguistic supports).  Of key importance is maintaining the flow of input in Hebrew without constant English intrusion or code-switching (i.e., alternating between languages in the context of a single conversation).

Incorporate the specific required ‘teacher talk’ only as the need arises.  If, for example, you don’t use the dry erase boards, markers and erasers for the first say, 3 weeks of school, concentrating instead on flooding students with aural input, then when you do decide to bust out the materials, think through both the distribution/collection protocol (so that it’s efficient and repeatable) and the Hebrew you will use to operationalize the task.  There are the names of the materials to consider, and also such imperatives as:  Take, pass, put, give, open/close (the door/marker); draw, show, write, and erase, just to name a few!  Practicing a subset of these commands in advance, a la Total Physical Response (TPR), is both a fun way to manipulate the materials as well as an effective form of comprehensible input.  This year, I had my Hebrew students practice manipulating the materials according to my instructions for a few short minutes, every time we used them.  (For a discussion on TPR, see this blogpost.)  Many successful CI teachers have very particular protocols for materials management, allowing them to minimize interruptions & English usage, while maximizing target language input and enjoying a concrete demonstration of student comprehension.

Here’s an example of using target language to manage materials distribution.  Notice how I choose a simple way to express my wish, and then repeat the heck out of it, using individual students’ names, while they manipulate the materials.  It feels kind of like kindergarten, only for our students, it’s more novel and challenging in a new language!  I designate some passers (often people sitting at the end of the row) to distribute a row’s worth of boards, pens, or erasers to their neighbor, who then passes across the row.  Materials are also collected row-at-a-time in this fashion.  So to practice, I might say,

“Chaim, you give 5 boards/pens/erasers to Shira.

Shira, you take one board/pen/eraser and please give the boards/pens/erasers to Yoni.

Yoni, please take one board/pen/eraser and give the boards/pens/erasers to Ronit,” etc.

Hopefully, you can see how such narration and repetition during this ‘training’ phase also provides tons of contextualized comprehensible input!  To spice it up, some teachers practice this (narrated or not!) distribution routine with a timer, and repeatedly try to beat their class’ best time.

I’ve added my Classroom Management and Survival Hebrew to the bottom of my Hebrew Corpus.  It’s a go-to list for some of the survival Hebrew that might arise in your T/CI classroom.  I invite you to respond to this post with suggestions for additional entries, as the list will be periodically updated.  Please note that not all the classroom directions need be expressed in the ציווי or imperative tense.  We can also express commands using the Hebrew infinitive, and in the indicative, as in, “Now you (the students) are drawing a giraffe.”  We can sometimes change the ‘person’ when speaking to an individual (male or female) or the group, so long as we establish meaning, without grammar explanations, unless specifically asked (grammar explanation requests are rare among young learners).  There are no rules about this, except that we don’t interrupt the flow of Hebrew by naming or explaining (in English) which tense/person we are using and why, or how the tenses/persons are formed, or how they compare to one another.  We’re just going to say it; establish meaning (translate the Hebrew utterance by writing underneath in English); and when possible, add a gesture and/or use a prop to help support understanding.  And don’t forget, for our novice learners we can choose to substitute an oral instruction for an extra-linguistic prompt, as in gestures & facial expressions, which can be combined with props, pictures and sketches.

It’s my hope that having a handy list of common classroom management expressions to be introduced and used as needed will help keep our Hebrew comprehensible input train chugging happily along the rails!

Hebrew Through Movement And TPR

When I first embarked on my Reimagining Hebrew Instruction project, I scoured the internet for Comprehensible Input-aligned modern Hebrew resources for my classroom and blog.  I found close to nothing, and I do mean, כלום.

One link that kept popping up in my searches was עִבְרִית בִּתְנוּעָה – Hebrew Through Movement (HTM).  Turns out this is a popular program, and has been adopted by many synagogue-based supplementary Hebrew schools.

I won’t denounce it or any SLA research-aligned approach that purports to improve the experience and outcomes for our Hebrew learners (acquirers), though I do have issues with HTM.

What is  עִבְרִית בִּתְנוּעָה  – Hebrew Through Movement – and what’s my beef with it?

According to its website description, Hebrew Through Movement (HTM) is:

“…a language acquisition strategy in which students learn Hebrew by hearing and responding to Hebrew commands.  עִבְרִית בִּתְנוּעָה is an adaptation of James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR).[1]  While TPR was designed by Asher as the foundation of a full language program, it has also been effective in situations with limited language goals.   Hebrew Through Movement is being used in Jewish congregations, day schools, camps, early childhood programs and other settings.  This curriculum guide for עִבְרִית בִּתְנוּעָה starts with a foundation in modern Hebrew, but has as its goal making the prayers in our siddur, as well as synagogue and Jewish vocabulary, more easily accessible to those with limited learning time.  HTM does not teach communicative Hebrew, but students can easily move on to other Hebrew forms.” (Bold mine).

My first wondering is one of focus and purpose.  If HTM calls itself a ‘language acquisition strategy,’ then, since language is a tool for communication, it ought to teach communicative Hebrew skills.  But the above explanation clearly specifies that HTM does not.

Also, HTM severely constrains a powerful and research-endorsed tool, TPR, to make isolated “synagogue and Jewish vocabulary” accessible to students.  But, to what end?  What are our kids supposed to be able to do with those isolated terms?  Wouldn’t a program claiming to teach Modern Hebrew be better off using such a communicative tool as it was intended –  for real communication? And, if the purpose of HTM is also familiarity with the artifacts and observances of Jewish life, then why teach those thematic targets through movement?  Why beat around the bush?  Just call a shofar a shofar!

Furthermore, if the goal is to familiarize kids with siddur prayers, then how does slathering on dozens of modern Hebrew verbs, (served up only in the infinitive form,) help us reach that goal?

עִבְרִית בִּתְנוּעָה (HTM) started with the great idea of exploiting TPR, an ideal conduit for delivering Comprehensible Input, so our kids could hear the sounds and cadence of our Israeli mother tongue. In TPR students respond to the instructor’s commands through whole body movement rather than words.  “Students are not asked to speak, only to try to understand and obey the command.” (Krashen, 1998)*

But then, to my mind,  HTM meandered astray, attempting to stuff and cover all the traditional Hebrew school content – language, religion, prayer, holidays, customs & traditions –  with this one tool-turned-curricular package.

Surely Modern Hebrew overlaps with specific ‘synagogue and Jewish vocabulary’ and prayer words from the siddur.  But if we limit our Modern Hebrew instruction to a field delineated by this religious/cultural criteria, our kids won’t come away experiencing Hebrew as a World Language for communication, and certainly won’t engage in real-world Hebrew usage.  We must provide a flood of comprehensible, compelling and contextualized Hebrew for our students to acquire it – not merely commands using pre-selected Jewish lifecycle vocabulary.

Can TPR help us facilitate Hebrew language acquisition?  Absolutely!  TPR is an effective and appropriate comprehensible input tool for language teachers, and has the added benefit of providing much needed and developmentally appropriate movement and brain breaks to our young students. But is a steady diet of action commands, based on Jewish artifacts and prayers a la HTM, compelling to kids?  I think not.

Dr. Krashen writes, “TPR is not a complete method.  It cannot do the entire job of language teaching, nor was it designed to do this.  For beginners, there are several other powerful means of supplying comprehensible input, means that utilize other ways of making input comprehensible (e.g. the use of background knowledge and pictures, as in story telling).”

I say, let’s use TPR in our Hebrew classrooms as a tool for delivering comprehensible input, but not exclusively.  Let’s not hijack it with a religious studies agenda – inserting prayers and isolated Jewish and synagogue words at the expense of the most practical and high-frequency foundational language.  Let’s use correct grammar in context as we need it, and not restrict our utterances to one tense, for fear of letting the conjugation cat out of the bag.  So long as we insure our messages are comprehensible, our students will acquire.

Finally, let’s deliver Hebrew messages worthy of our students’ attention – by having our kids collaborate and create with us, on scenes, stories and conversation.

Oh, and the siddur prayers probably belong in a different conversation, altogether.

*See my Hebrew Day 1 Demo; lots of TPR especially near the end.

Assessing Acquisition

If you follow my blog, you’re probably used to reading this again and again by now:  When the input is comprehensible and compelling, chances are good that our students will acquire the language.


Of course, Pearson has a device-based a$$essment for that.  But really for language acquisition, it’s pretty Old School.  You start with this Essential Question:

‘Do my students understand the message, and can they show me?’

So as you are chatting, asking story details, reviewing the facts, dramatizing, reading a leveled novel, viewing/narrating a video clip, etc., you insure that your students are comprehending language in real time.  How?  You teach to the eyes, you monitor individual and choral responses, you measure engagement (student posture, eye contact, appropriate reactions – laughter, surprise, rejoinders), you may occasionally even ask, “What does this (word) mean?” or have the group translate a sentence or passage into English.  These ongoing formative assessments insure that the input is always comprehensible. (See Teaching with Comprehensible Input Foundational Skills, here.)

Knowing that Comprehensible Input drives acquisition strongly suggests that the great majority of class time, particularly for novice-level learners, ought to be spent taking in the target language – either aurally or through reading (‘input’ or ‘receptive’ skills).  And yet, many novice level language assessments focus equally on writing and speaking, the two later-acquired ‘output’ or ‘productive’ language skills.  (For a discussion of input before output, read this.) During the first several hundred hours of instruction, students require copious amounts of compelling comprehensible input, and their progress, therefore, ought only be monitored through measures of comprehension.

Before digging into what an SLA-informed comprehension-based assessment for young novices might look like, I feel compelled to question our motive for formally assessing students before 5th grade, with, depending on the program offering, fewer than 300+ hours in the target language under their belts.  By formally, I’m referring to nationally normed foreign language assessments such as the ELLOPA (Early Language Listening and Oral Proficiency Assessment for grades PreK-2) or SOPA (Student Oral Proficiency Assessment for grades 2-8).  These are “…language proficiency assessment instruments designed [by the Center for Applied Linguistics or CAL] to allow students to demonstrate their highest level of performance in oral fluency, grammar, vocabulary, and listening comprehension.”  Another similar commonly used assessment tool is the Avant STAMP 4Se (Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency, grades 2-6):  “STAMP’s [computer interface] adaptive test design adjusts to a student’s level so s/he is challenged, but not overwhelmed.”  These instruments claim to dovetail with the American Council for Teacher of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines, yielding a ranking in each of the 4 language skills:  Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing.  Such inventories also claim to help schools and language programs “refocus their curricula and introduce professional development to hone their teachers’ ability to deliver improved outcomes.” (STAMP 4Se)


Instead, here are some teacher-made test item types that might comprise a comprehension-based assessment for the young novice language learner (acquirer):

•Listen to a prompt and circle the correct picture representation of it.

•While viewing an image or storyboard, re-order the pictures according to the Hebrew oral story or instructions, or answer Yes/No or Either/Or questions.

•Demonstrate comprehension through oral performance-based tasks such as those in a Total Physical Response (TPR) series (i.e., Simon Says) or Listen & Draw.

•Listen to a brief mini-story in Hebrew, and circle the correct facts, in English (this way the student demonstrates comprehension, not just recognition of similar Hebrew text/words).

•(For literate students):  Demonstrate comprehension by reading performance-based tasks (i.e., written instructions for drawing a picture).

What do all these novice level assessment items have in common?  They require comprehension of the aural or written message, but they don’t require speaking or writing (output).  They rely on language that the student has already been exposed to, but in novel contexts.  They don’t ask the students to produce language beyond their level of acquisition.  No oral interviews which presuppose facility and control at the discourse level.  The tasks and items are unrehearsed, not studied or practiced.  The assessment doesn’t emphasize grammatical accuracy or discreet vocabulary knowledge.  In these ways, students can demonstrate what they do know, and not feel anxiety or shame for what they don’t.

For the novice-mid level and up through the intermediate low (again on the ACTLF proficiency scale), teachers may ask students of say grades 6 and up to do prompted free writes, in which the students write in Hebrew as much as they can on a given topic, or retell a story that was generated in class.  Here, teachers simply count the Hebrew words (proper nouns like ‘Disneyland’ and ‘Barney’ are excluded), and watch the length of these writings grow over time.  They are not corrected, but rather assessed for comprehensibility and complexity, and may provide critical information to the teacher.  If the same written error is repeated by several students, the teacher may choose to include the difficult or confusing word chunk in her classroom banter and story-asking, in order for her students to hear it correctly,  repeatedly but without drilling, and in context.

Video-recorded student retells also provide insight for the conscientious teacher and her students.  While not all students need be recorded at each testing interval, the teacher may choose to collect such documentation to:  share with parents as a window into their child’s developing proficiency; study for patterns, holes and phenomena;  gather longitudinal data for comparison/documentation in a portfolio.  Such extemporaneous output-based assessments are not recommended for beginner novices who have yet to build a Hebrew language foundation.  Open-ended oral interviews are frustrating and discouraging for novice-low students.

Let’s review:

Our assessments ought to reflect what we’re doing in class (T/CI for novice through intermediate-level classes), and provide valuable feedback for informing and refining our instruction;

According to SLA research, we can’t expect our students to speak and write before they’ve had copious amounts of comprehensible input [“A flood of input for a trickle of output,” Wynn Wong];

By teaching with CI, our students develop spontaneous, unrehearsed, and fluent output.  Even our novice students create with language in response to our constant questioning, although it may only be in short-answer format;

Assessment that triggers the affective filter (i.e., anxiety) or discourages our ‘language babies’ is counter-productive for students and teachers alike;

Teacher-student interactions ought to focus on meaning, not form (grammar, syntax, morphology, phonology);

The best way to measure acquisition for beginners is to teach to the eyes, form a trusting community in which the affective filter remains low, and collaborate on compelling comprehensible input;

Early start-long sequence language programs are better in the long run, affording students a better ear and accent, more exposure to late-acquired features, and overall more time to acquire;

We can do our best to optimize the input, but we can’t rush Mother Nature!