Cracking the Written Code…One Name at a Time

Recently, as I was observing some of the teachers whom I’ve begun to train in CI strategies, I was struck by how our issues in Hebrew school environments are generally the same as those of any World Language instructors, with the exception of a few pesky details:

•Hebrew reads from right to left and doesn’t employ the Romanized alphabet (like Spanish or French, for example), making it less ‘transparent’ and harder to decode for the English-dominant learner;

•Hebrew texts – textbooks for learners, religious texts, children’s books, newspapers, etc.- are printed in square-edged block, yet most Hebrew teachers (and speakers) hand-write using flowy-er cursive;

•Many traditional teachers and Hebrew instructional texts include vowel pointing, called ‘nikkud,’ but proficient Hebrew speakers do not use nikkud in their writing, nor need it for reading.

These clunky realities regarding written Hebrew have conspired to preserve outmoded ‘isolate & copy’ exercises that even my parents (and theirs?) suffered through at least a generation ago…. in favor of more engaging and meaningful learning experiences for our students.

Raise your hand if you had a (light blue?) lined mach’beret in which you dutifully copied the isolated Hebrew ‘letter/s of the day’ over and over, this time with a kamatz, this time with a segol….

Or maybe you learned to decode with a primer.  On the third or fourth line of the page, the target letter was combined with another to form a sound chunk, or phoneme.  Perhaps half-way down the page the gimmel in question was clumped with two or three other Hebrew letters, to form a nonsense word, or even a real one, whose meaning, unknown and without context, sounded equally befuddling!

This is how we did it, baby.  Squiggles and dots on the page, without a schema for sound, and utterly devoid of meaning.

But Second Language Acquisition reminds us that the durable linguistic foundation is built on compelling and meaning-bearing auditory input.  We need a sense of what is being expressed, and we need to develop, through exposure, an ear for how it sounds, in order to extract a message.  Input precedes output, as sure as listening comprehension precedes reading.

So, back to the practical classroom question:

How can we help crack the written Hebrew code early on, clearing obstacles so our students can access the power of reading?

We need a way to get our students reading in the target language ASAP without overwhelming them, to bolster and broaden their input, reinforcing and extending the language they’ve been taking in aurally.

I say we begin to resolve this conundrum with the most personalized and intriguing bite-sized input available from Day One:  The students’ Hebrew names.

Some students have been together before, and know each others’ Hebrew names.  I’m not suggesting a simple round of, ‘Ari’eh, meet Rami;’  ‘Liora, meet Ester.’  I’m recommending exploiting the Hebrew class roll as compelling yet narrow language, to flood the students with comprehensible auditory and written input.  This readily available resource, I believe, can provide the contextualized exposure, repetition, and interest to break the code, flex the decoding muscle, and build confidence, all with a friendly & light-hearted community-building vibe.

Our task is to capitalize on our students’ names, which echo through generations of family history, to help our students recognize the letters, sounds and contours of these new Hebrew words.  How can we harness the power of a name – likely one of the first words our students ever read or wrote in their native language, to jumpstart Hebrew literacy?

It’s simple.  More PERSONALIZED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS  (PQA) – purposefully combined with literacy.

Here’s the scenario.  The teacher has, in advance, a class list of the students’ Hebrew first names.

S/he copies it, in cursive Hebrew (NO VOWELS), onto poster-size chart paper, making sure the font is large/bold, consistent and legible from the back row of seats.  There’s plenty of space between names (2 columns is fine); consider alternating colors for enhanced legibility.

The teacher posts the entire class list (possibly several sheets) onto the central teaching board.

The Aleph Bet Chart is also posted and visible.

The teacher initially engages in predictable circling, including Pause-Point & S-L-O-W (PPS).

All questioning occurs in the target language, using the interrogative word posters from the adjacent Word Wall, as necessary (with PPS).  Ideally, the students are somewhat familiar with their names and already have seen their name cards or name tags.

[To read more about Hebrew names and name tags, click here.]

Phase 1:  Identifying Students By Name would work to kick off the year’s first day/s lesson/s.

T:  Where is Yosi [pointing to first name on chart]?

T:  Are you [pointing to student]  Yosi?                S:  No.

T:  You’re not Yosi…Hmmm.  [Approaches a different student, points]  Are you Yosi?                S:  No.

T:  Oh, you’re not Yosi [pointing to student A],  and you’re not Yosi [pointing to student B]. Hmm…Where is Yosi?

[returns to chart; points to the word, “Yosi”].

Students raises hand.  Teacher approaches student.

T:  (Surprised)  Are you [pointing to student] Yosi?  [Pointing to name on chart]                    S: Yes.

T:  Ahh, class, he’s Yosi!  [Points’ to student, then name on chart]  He….is….Yosi!

Teacher applauds, encouraging others to applause for figuring it out.  Teacher continues with another student, pointing first to the chart, modeling the decoding, and trying to find/match the name of the student in question using similar banter.  As each student is identified, s/he celebrates, then groups them next to each other, affording movement and a ‘shuffling the deck’ challenge.

Note:  Students may answer teacher questions in English; the focus, at this early stage, is on demonstrating comprehension, not on Hebrew output.

Since it’s already October and we know our students’ names, we’d skip Phase 1 and move straight to…

Phase 2:  Simple Name-Focused Personalized Questions & Answers 

With the Hebrew class names chart front-and-center, decide upon a compelling survey question or two.  In my last series of posts we focused on favorite ice cream flavor, which lent itself, in the heat of the waning summer, to some pleasantly compelling & comprehensible banter.  Then we followed with sample literacy extensions, creating a simple data table to record the class info, and used it to review, count, compare, contrast and draw conclusions, all while staying narrow and in-bounds.  Such T-charts and bar graphs also employ student names and cognate ice cream flavors, and therefore serve as appropriately contextualized, and heavily scaffolded Hebrew literacy experiences!  Students are invited to decode and comprehend (i.e., READ!) the limited Hebrew text, recognizing letters and generalizing their sounds in context.  Written input is predictable, building success and confidence!

Say this time we mine another universally popular topic of convo, pets.  Who has a dog?  Who has a cat?  We can set up the topic, building a bridge of interest, and scaffolding meaning by first showing and comprehensibly ‘talking through’ a brief slideshow of, say, 5 funny cartoon animals:  a dog, cat, kangaroo, flamingo & llama (the latter three are direct Hebrew cognates).   If possible, also print these pictures, and have them posted to refer to in class.

For students who don’t currently own a pet, you’ve already, by including the three cognate animals above, introduced the possibility of owning a fantasy pet.  Tell them to pick one they like, and stick with it.  Draw from a broader list of  Hebrew cognate animals, (scroll down!) the more outrageous, the better.  List a few fantasy choices in Hebrew on the board, and add the real pets to this short list as they are claimed by students.

Notice that among these three animal cognates alone, קנגורו, פלמנגו, למה the students will have in-context exposure to nine distinct Hebrew letters/sounds!  Add dog & cat – כלב, חתול – and that’s more than half the Alef Bet.

CAVEAT:  You may choose to Hebrew label these cognate fantasy animals, though since you will be saying their identical-to-English names while pointing to the picture, it’s not necessary, and too much text could overwhelm the absolute novice.

Remember: We want reading to feel automatic and effortless.

In this version of PQA, the phrasing of the personalized question often begins with, “Who?” because we want the students to successfully answer our questions with their classmates’ Hebrew name.  We are asking them to repeatedly associate the sound of their classmate’s name with its written chart counterpart.

As the information is initially collected, the teacher, as usual, is working the crowd.  S/He is circulating, ‘teaching to the eyes’ (Susie Gross), ascertaining, confirming, misunderstanding, negating, affirming, comparing (with self and other student/s), grouping, counting and summarizing.   As every name arises, she is Pause-Point-S-L-O-Wly drawing attention to the student’s name from the central name poster/s.

Say we asked, “Who has a kangaroo?” and learned that, in fact, Sagit does.

T:  Nofar (PPS), Sagit (PPS) has a kangaroo (PPS).   Do you (points to Nofar (PPS)) have a kangaroo?  (PPS)

S:  No.

T:  Oh, Nofar (PPS), you don’t have a kangaroo…Nofar, do you have a dog? (PPS)

S:  Yes.

T:  Nofar (PPS), you have a dog! (PPS)  Class, Nofar (PPS) has a dog! (PPS)

Note that the teacher is free to pepper Yes/No and Either/Or questions, which work well when the answers are animals (‘dog’ & ‘cat’ would need to be listed/translated on the board) or kangaroo, etc.  Here, s/he is Pause-Point-S-L-O-Wly indicating the animal type from the posted Hebrew words/pet pictures.  Our mission is to converse comprehensibly at the discourse level (back and forth in meaning-filled chunks) while attaching the written code to the sounds our students are hearing.

Sound & Meaning… Then Add Reading.

T:  [Confused] Class, Sagit (PPS) has a kangaroo (PPS), or Sagit has a dog (PPS)?

Ss:  Dog (PPS).

T:  Ah, Sagit (PPS) has a dog?

Ss:  Yes (PPS).

[Teacher points to previously modeled Yes/No Hebrew poster.]

T:  Who has a flamingo (PPS)?

S:  Ze’ev (PPS).

T:  Ahhh, so Sagit (PPS) has a kangaroo (PPS); Nofar (PPS) has a dog (PPS); and Ze’ev (PPS) has a flamingo (PPS)?

Ss:  Yes! (PPS)

Phase 3:  Follow-up:  Creating a Literacy-Rich Visual Anchor

We can interview all the students in the class in one go (though it’s a lot to process for the absolute novice reader – so monitor for attention/fatigue), then project or post a simple three- column (Hebrew) chart:  Student’s Name; Student’s Hebrew Name; Student’s Pet.  In our parallel T/CI universe, everyone has a pet, even if it’s a gorilla:}   The teacher can then re-ask the information with new purpose, this time filling in the missing info.

It may feel repetitive to you, but if you approach the info as fascinating, and the chart as a task worthy of the class’ time, then the novelty of the chart will feel fresh, and the students will follow your lead, this time guided by reading input.

Students are noticing letter formation as the teacher fills in the information, so exploit the opportunity for the students to watch you write, emphasizing sound/letter correspondence aloud.  Not the name of the letter, but the sound it makes within the word.  After you finish writing the word (student name or pet); review the info yet again:  (In Hebrew), ‘Ze’ev (PPS) has a flamingo.’ (PPS)

Perhaps in the teacher’s mind, one purpose of this CONVERSATION is writing and repeatedly reading students’ names & pets in order to, as we said above, lay in some foundational Hebrew literacy skills.  However, in the course of the conversation we are also contextually exercising the heck out of the high frequency verb, “has/have” and its (completely different) negation, not to mention the essential Hebrew pronouns (I, you, he/she; we; they, etc.)  A series of simple, yet high-interest sentences, all with a similar format, “Student X  has/doesn’t have a Y pet,” provides many permutations of playful, in-bounds, beginners’ discourse-level Hebrew!

B-I-N-G-O!

If you have more class time, or another day, try distributing the dry erase board materials (also discussed in the blog post linked below) and ask the following kinds of sure success questions:   Who has a flamingo?  Does Ze’ev have a cat?  Have Ss flash their boards with written answers – for a quick comprehension check and peek into their developing letter/word formation.  (The students copy the words from the class posters & lists.)

And as a double extra credit one time only super bonus:}, model (on the board) a full sentence, such as, “I have a gorilla.”  Have the students copy the ‘I have’ part, and allow them to choose and copy whichever fantasy animal suits their fancy, completing the written sentence on their boards.

Then, simply circulate and observe your students’ emerging Hebrew literacy…. This is a baseline for later comparison.  Throughout the year you will notice fewer letter reversals, more automaticity, and growing confidence in writing for meaning… one name at a time.

That was pretty painless, no?

For more on this topic, please read my earlier blog post, Demystifying Hebrew Literacy.

Starting The Year #3: Scripted Circling & PQA

As teachers new to Comprehensible Input strategies get their feet wet in the classroom, it’s often helpful to imagine a beginners conversation and script the language use, insuring that the novice-level students don’t get overwhelmed by too many new sounds and words coming in.  As teachers gain experience implementing the strategies, they may be able to deliver Hebrew language more improvisationally.  But to start, it’s nice to have a road map!  Feel free to print and highlight the questions (listed in Hebrew without English how-to commentary at bottom of blog  post!), and use them as a loose script, until your own Circling & PQA become more automatic and effortless!

Let’s say that in the interest of laying in the highest frequency Hebrew verbs in order to build a practical foundation in Hebrew, you decide to interview and survey your students about their preferred ice cream flavor, focusing primarily on the verb, אוהב/ אוהבת.

This slide is from my Intro To T/CI presentation on the blog, here.

A series of affirmations, negations, compare & contrast, counting and summarizing questions may ensue, as follows:

T= Teacher; S = Student; Ss = students; C= (whole) Class

NB:  All of the parts of the initial statement will be clarified through gesturing, Pause-Point-Slow, sketching, establishing meaning, and ongoing comprehension checks, as discussed and modeled in parts #1 & #2 of this Starting The Year blog post series.

כיתה,  אני אוהבת גלידת ׳מוס טרקס.׳

Teacher comes close to next student to interview and addresses him/her by name, looking at her and ‘teaching to the eyes’:

T:  זיוה, את אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס?’

Zivah gestures a thumbs down.

T to Zivah:  

?אהההה, את לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס?’  

?כיתה, אני אוהבת גלידת ׳מוס טרקס.׳  זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס, נכון זיוה

The word, ?נכון is a rejoinder.  If not already posted because it hasn’t emerged yet, then establish its meaning by writing it on the board, underlining it, and writing it’s English translation below, Correct?  -in a contrasting color.  Pause-Point-Slow every time you use it, until students demonstrate acquisition by recognizing/using it independently.  This may take several sessions.

.זיוה:  נכון

Teacher acknowledges Zivah’s comprehension with a high five or fist-bump (‘יש!’) and moves to the next student, or summarizes/contrasts the 2 opinions:

T:  .’אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס.’  זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

Depending on grade/age and decoding ability, you may decide to leave these as 2 separate (if choppy & short) sentences, for now. Once the incoming message is more effortlessly and automatically understood, you may wish to introduce the conjunction, ‘but’ in context, so simply establish its meaning and restate:

‘.כיתה, אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס’ אבל זיוה לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

T:  ?זיוה, איזה גלידה את אוהבת

Teacher asks with great interest, continuing to gesture, Pause-Point-Slow, and support the conversational language with non-verbal cues.  If the student can’t produce a flavor, offer a few cognate flavor choices, as in:

T:  ?זיוה, את אוהבת גלידת בננה, או את אוהבת גלידת וניל

Teacher may do a comprehension check here:  “What do you think גלידת בננה is?”  “What do you think גלידת וניל means?” Acknowledge student comprehension with warmth, smiles, a fist bump (יש!).  Though they hopefully don’t feel it, our students’ brains are working hard to understand!

T:  !כיתה!  זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

At that moment you hear a ‘buzz’ in the classroom as other students concur with or differ from Zivah’s choice.  You follow the energy and go right to someone you heard who likes or doesn’t like  .גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

T:  !רגע, רגע, רגע

You gesture the Israeli !רגע with one hand, and establish meaning, orally and/or on the board.  You walk over to Tammy.

T:  ?טמי, את אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

Tammy shakes her head ‘yes,’ or says, “yes,” or maybe even, “כן.”

You report back to the class, taking care to gesture, pause, and chunk the phrases:

T:   .כיתה, זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה, אבל אני לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

 וטמי אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

C:  .הוווווו

T:  ?  (Point to self)  ?ואני כיתה?  אני אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה    

?’או אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס

C:  Moose Tracks.

T:   (Expectant pause) ?…נכון, כיתה, נכון.  אני אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טרקס,’ זיוה אוהבת

C:  Mint Chocolate!

T:  כן, זה נכון!  זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה,  וטמי גם אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

C:  !כן

T:  What do you think גם means?  

T:  נכון, גם means ‘also.’

גם זיוה אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה, וגם טמי אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה!

C:  הוווווו!

T:  ?דניס, גם את אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה

 D:  .לא

T: ‘?דניס, את אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טראקס

D:   לא

T:  ?כיתה!   דניס לא אוהבת גלידת ‘מוס טראקס’ וגם לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה! הםםםםםםם, דניס את אוהבת גלידת בננה? 

At this point (or before!) you may wish to take out a cheat sheet of cognate or borrowed word ice cream flavors from the Israeli ice cream shop menu linked in the previous blog post:

http://www.glidabeersheva.com/%D7%98%D7%A2%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9D/

D:  Salted Carmel.

T: ?או- לה- לה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל!  נכון, דניס? את אוהבת גלידת קרמל

D:  כן.

T:  !כיתה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל   

At any natural point the teacher can add an additional rejoinder when she learns new, (EXCITING!) information, as in:

T:  ! מקסים!  כיתה, דניס אוהבת גלידת קרמל!  דניס, זה מקסים

Teacher establishes meaning, writing the Hebrew rejoinder word, underlines it, and in a contrasting color, writes the English word ‘Awesome!’  below it, pausing and pointing every time it comes up in conversation.

Other rejoinders that may work nicely here – but not all at once – use, then post for future use:

   !יופי!         פנטסטי!      סבבה!         מצויין

The class carries on as the teacher works her way from student to student, in an unpredictable pattern.  While it’s preferable to make sure everyone is interviewed during a single class period, she takes her time, questioning-negating-affirming-comparing:

Comparing students’ preference with each other;

Comparing a student’s preference with her own;

Counting how many prefer a particular flavor (if that happens);

Peppering the banter with rejoinders;

Insuring that she ‘hits her targets’ by including the verb chunk every time -either לא/ אוהב/ת  or, if you are starting to branch off the conversation to talk about which flavors have/contain chocolate, then the addition of the verb form יש.  (No, it’s not really a verb but it functions as a verb in terms of meaning, and is super hi-frequency!)

T:  ?כיתה, יש לגלידת קרמל שוקולד

C: No.  (Don’t worry that their response isn’t in Hebrew!  We are ascertaining whether they understand the question.)

T:  .נכון. אין לגלידת קרמל שוקולד. קרמל זה לא שוקולד, ושוקולד זה לא קרמל

Comprehension check.  Possibly write the sentence on the board, depending on decoding skill, and comb through it, establishing meaning as you go.

יש and אין  are on one of your hi-frequency posters and subsequently find their place on your Word Wall.

By the end of the class you should be able to surmise everyone’s preferred flavor, and they, each others.’  Depending on the number of Ss, this whole process may take upwards of 20 minutes.  We are trying to draw out an engaging conversation, and keep it interesting; we are NOT trying to hurry through in order to extract or list the information.  It’s the compelling topic, the repetitions in context, the variations within a narrow set of language, punctuated by rejoinders, fist bumps, smiles and celebration that make this surveying activity so effective in building foundational language.

Next class might begin by inserting the collected favorite flavor info into a graphic organizer, in this case perhaps a bar graph with flavors as column titles, and student names sorted into each column.  This visual anchor allows us to reconfirm as we build the graph, review, count, sort, compare, and, on the literacy side, decode low stress/hi success names of students and flavors. 

For more on using visual anchors read my previous post, Starting the Year #2:  Extending CI While Staying In Bounds.

For a copy of the Hebrew only ice cream survey Personalized Questions & Answers (PQA) and Circling script in this article, but without the English ‘How-to’ commentary, click here.

Starting the Year #2: Extending CI While Staying In Bounds

For Part 1 of this post on student surveys and PQA, click here.

How can we get lots of repetition on hi-frequency language, so that the students develop a practical Hebrew foundation?  Here are some ideas for after you take an oral survey of student interest, such as ‘Which ice cream do you love?’  (See an extensive Hebrew menu of  ice cream flavors here.)

Layer on a Visual Anchor:

When we casually ask the same question to each class member and orally collect personalized survey information, massaging it into a compelling conversation, we can later insert this new-found information into a graphic organizer.  This allows us to focus on a visual anchor as we review the community’s preferences, and since we’re doing it with a new visual, it feels fresh and novel.

Simple visual aids may include:  

  • A labeled T-chart
  • a bar graph
  • a tally chart
  • a simple list

We can easily draw this on the white board at the front of the room.  We can get fancy, adding colorful artwork, borders, graphics, etc.

Then, we review and discuss (same or next class) based on that class-specific visual.  No extra work for teacher – we build the graphic in real time or after the initial conversation.  We may need to think through what we’ll want the info graphic to look like, and prepare, print or draw a template.

We may also choose to create a paper template, so that each student can track the data as it’s collected – but wait to do this until after the students demonstrate a secure foundation in basic Hebrew – several hours/months into the school year.

By the end of this session of circling, interviewing and asking details using repetitive language, comparing and contrasting preferences, restating and re-telling in slightly different phrasing (“They love; they do not love”), and presenting the data visually in a graphic organizer, you’ll be ready to add some new questions to the mix.

How many students love Tutti-Frutti?  

How many girls love ice cream that has chocolate?

NB:  Make sure the ?כמה interrogative poster from my Hebrew Corpus Word Wall is posted for Pause-Point-Slow.

Another easy visual way to anchor a survey discussion is via a slideshow – in this case various internet images of different ice cream flavors.  (Requires projector and screen).  Simply narrate your way through the slides, asking questions and making comments as you flip through.

Experiment with different formats, beginning with those that seem easiest for you to execute, allowing you and the class to remain comprehensible and interesting.

Literacy Extensions:

*To practice writing their names while creating a simple bar graph, have each student write/copy his/her Hebrew name  (from a prepared slide or chart) on a sticky note and ‘vote’ in the appropriate survey column. (In this case the column titles will be preferred flavors of ice cream.)

*Create a brief reading on the board in real time by writing sentences from the discussion and model reading them aloud.  Ask students to join in if they want, otherwise visually track the words as you read.

*Write up a ‘class story’ – a series of patterned statements based on the conversation –  and a sentence about each student -and read it to the class.  

Kids of many ages (not just the youngest!) love to illustrate their class story page – experiment with giving a few minutes/crayons to do this – the resulting ‘book’ is a lot more inviting to read.

Writing/Dictation:

*Point to written class list of students’ names – this is good to have on chart paper for all to see and decode throughout the year. 

Do target language dictations on dry erase boards, (lowers anxiety), one sentence at a time.  We want sound and meaning already in their heads when they come to a writing/reading task.  Let’s say we want to dictate these 3 sentences:


1.  Alisa loves Moose Tracks ice cream.      .עליזה אוהבת גלידת מוס טרקס

2.  Talia has an allergy to chocolate.            .לטליה יש אלרגיה לשוקולד

3.  Gavriel loves Mint Chip.              .גבריאל אוהב גלידת שוקולד מנטה  

The purpose of dictation, for our setting:

  • Associating sound and meaning to the letters/ written word
  • Hebrew cursive letter formation (muscle memory)
  • Building student confidence

Follow the dictation protocol below, keeping dictated sentences short and simple to guarantee student success.  

Before starting, briefly discuss behavioral expectations regarding dry erase board/materials use.

For example:

We respect these materials, insuring that they can be used again and again by:

  • not tapping, scratching, doodling, throwing, etc.
  • demonstrating we understand my instructions

Back to the task: 

Students write the one sentence they hear on lined side of dry erase board.  

Hebrew alphabet poster -block and manuscript letters -at front of room.

Teacher repeats the sentence aloud as requested.

Teacher circulates and notices non-standard inventive spelling/letter formation.  It’s OK!  Spelling emerges over time from reading.  It probably won’t be accurate to start.  Resist your impulse to correct student work!

After students have attempted to write it, teacher models/writes correct sentence in large cursive print on the board.  Students are noticing how you form your letters, so write big, slowly and clearly here.  We give them a minute to compare their version with yours, noticing differences, then students copy the correct version below their initial attempt.  Afterwards they may erase, or if they want and there’s room, go on to another dictated comprehensible sentence.  

Briefly point out ‘final letters’ in Hebrew, or other surface features.  

Students look at the 2 versions, then erase or continue same protocol for next sentence.

See my related blog post:  http://cmovan.edublogs.org/2016/09/22/demystifying-hebrew-literacy-part-1/

Practice Hebrew classroom survival phrases by having students follow your commands:

  • pick up/put down boards/markers
  • uncap/close markers
  • write/ erase

By laying in these instructions, you insure that you can conduct subsequent dictation activities entirely in Hebrew.  All repeated class routines, such as materials distribution and collection, are worthy of laying in in the target language, since they will come up over and over again.  Materials management is a great way to provide concrete language and allow students to demonstrate their understanding with a performance task.

Read about Classroom Hebrew survival phrases here:

http://cmovan.edublogs.org/2017/03/21/survival-for-the-comprehensible-hebrew-classroom/

and find my Classroom Survival Expressions when you scroll down on the Hebrew Corpus.

Teach, write, establish meaning and point to the Hebrew words, “Please repeat/Again” so that students can self-advocate whenever necessary.

I recommend not sacrificing more than 5-7 minutes at the end of CI class time for dictation.  It serves as a brain break & alternative literacy activity, and to help develop recognition of the letters and their formation, but focus on your primary goal of driving acquisition by providing a flood of compelling, comprehensible input. 

Everything I learned about Dictation, before trying it and tweaking it in my own elementary classroom, I learned from master CI French instructor, Ben Slavic.  See his Dicteé protocol, here.

Summary Of T/CI-Aligned Practices:

All this personalized surveying at the beginning of the school year and throughout, serves several crucial purposes in the Comprehensible Input framework:

  1. Provides lots of connected, compelling, tailored Comprehensible Input at the discourse level
  2. Provides massed exposure through repetition of hi-frequency practical language
  3. Slowly builds students’ stamina for processing conversational /discourse-level Ivrit
  4. Builds a community that is warm & playful, where each individual feels known and therefore safe
  5. Establishes class norms and behaviors, by pointing them out/modeling norms if/when there are infractions
  6. Sends a strong message that in this class, we communicate primarily in Hebrew – that you understand – to build our Hebrew skills

Caveat On Survey Questions:

We want interesting info without being too personal or potentially sensitive (asking abt parents if there is divorce; asking about a pet when someone’s dog just died, etc.)

SOME SAFE TOPICS FOR INTEREST SURVEYS:

(Advise older students that only vetted and appropriate topics will be included in this class)

-Favorite ice cream flavor ‘Which ice cream do you love?’, fruit, etc.

-Favorite childhood picture book

-Do you have a pet/ pet name – non pet owners can pick a dream pet (including fantasy pets – here we offer cognates like dragon, flamingo, gorilla, etc.)

-TV – possibilities are endless but must be appropriate – train your Ss to suggest only ideas appropriate for a the setting – no violence, romance, swearing, etc.

-Least/favorite – restaurant; chores; vegetables 

-(Least)/favorite book/movie; or character (or any art form)

-(Least)/favorite place to hang out (specific) other than school

-(Least)/favorite music type/song/artist

-Dream vacation – where (specific)?

-Is your room neat or messy?  ?החדר שלך מסודר או יש בלאגן

-Secret talent

-Secret fear (all secrets can be invented – this is Hebrew class – where anything is possible!)

Again, we the teacher are very interested in our students’ answers, we are teaching to the eyes, spinning the conversation out of the (sometimes fantasy) ‘facts’ we are collecting – comparing and contrasting – extending the language and getting lots of repetition; recording the info visually and/or in writing – via info graphic and/or a class story.

Here is another survey questionairre you may be able to use – click on “See Inside” above the graphic.

https://teachables.scholastic.com/teachables/books/Student-Interest-Survey-9780439303026_028.html

Whew.  A lot to think about at first.  How much language?  When to establish meaning by writing on the board?  How often to circle, and which parts?  (Go for the verb-containing chunk!)  You will try it, and it will get easier.  Like the language itself, you’ll begin to acquire some practices with automaticity, freeing up your brain space for other concerns.  Your skills will grow!!  The main thing is to get started, give it a try, and watch your students bask and thrive in a warm pool of compelling, comprehensible input!

*Terry Waltz, PhD.  See Hebrew ‘Super 7’ verbs here – scroll down to page 15.

Starting The Year #1: Build A Solid Foundation With PQA

Where to begin?

Starting the year in a proficiency-oriented Hebrew classroom, where we aim to soak our students in compelling and comprehensible messages, can seem like a daunting task, particularly for teachers new to the strategies, and students who haven’t really heard a lot of connected Hebrew-for-communication before.  With any luck, this series of posts will serve as ‘Golden Rails’ to follow, on this first exciting leg of your Teaching with Comprehensible Input (T/CI) journey.

Personalization & Circling Through Surveying

First, select a compelling topic of interest

Criteria:  

  1. Is it developmentally appropriate & compelling for the age group, and topically appropriate for the setting?  
  2. Is it simple, concrete, and can you support it with visuals – gestures, dramatization, sketches, images, props, etc.?

Say I decided to comprehensibly circle the survey question,  “Which ice cream do you love?”  ?איזה גלידה את אוהבת

I might:  

  • Point to the interrogative poster, ?איזה pausing after I say the word
  • Pretend to hold and lick my (imaginary) ice cream cone
  • Draw a sketch of an ice cream cone and an arrow pointing to the scoop – soon after I say the word and gesture its meaning
  • Write the word  גלידה  with the English translation words, ‘ice cream’ clearly below it, in a contrasting color
  • Slowly pause and point, indicating the ‘Super 7’* hi-frequency verb, אוהב/אוהבת  
  • Gesture the ‘love/s’ verb by forming a heart shape with my hands near my heart
  • Check for comprehension, by repeating the Hebrew question, then asking a student, “What am I asking?”

Let’s assume that during the course of my conversation, surveying student after student, I get lots of repetition of similar sentences that contain ‘love’ and it’s negation, ‘doesn’t/don’t love.’

Say I learned from this initial survey question that:

•Tova loves Mint Chocolate Chip

•Gavriel loves Rocky Road

•Alisa loves Moose Tracks, etc.

I can include my own opinion on ice cream, thereby inserting the אני pronoun and voice, as in,

אני לא אוהבת גלידת שוקולד מנטה’

As I ask each of my students’ preferred flavor, I compare and contrast loves and dislikes as I move about the room.

‘Tova, you love Mint Chocolate, but you don’t love Rocky Road?  Class, who loves Rocky Road?   I really love Moose Tracks…and you, Gavriel, do you love Mint…?’  

If I wanted, I could offer cognate flavor choices in advance, writing them on the board and pausing/pointing each time.  

Otherwise, I write down the flavors in Hebrew or English (names of ice cream are not the goal of the lesson, but do offer opportunities for success in decoding.)  

RESOURCE:  Familiarize yourself with many borrowed name flavors written in Hebrew with this Hebrew ice cream menu

These are only a few of the many flavors on the menu!

If your class already has solid letter/sound recognition of the Hebrew alphabet, then you may choose, if possible, to project this ice cream menu and decode it together as a class at the end of the oral surveying phase, (skip over the non-cognate flavors – they won’t have meaning) or print it out.  Alternatively, copy only the direct cognate flavors onto chart paper, making your own more limited but comprehensible menu.

Back to my students and their flavors:

I notice that all three of the above students love ice cream with chocolate in it.  “Ahhh, Tova likes Mint Chip, Gavriel likes Rocky Road and Alisa likes Moose Tracks…they all have chocolate!” – I write the word for ‘has’ in both languages to establish meaning.  I gesture ‘has’  by cupping my open hands side by side as if I’m scooping up water.  I insure comprehension by telling the students that this is my gesture for יש /have/has.

I encourage the students to use the gestures, too, every time they hear the word.

Then I ask the class and/or individual student for confirmation:  

“Class, does Mint Chip ice cream have chocolate?”

“Avi, does Rocky Road ice cream have chocolate?” 

“Ya’akov, does Moose Tracks ice cream have chocolate?”

“Class, does Banana ice cream have chocolate?”  

I can ask about as many flavors that were mentioned in class as I want – following the demonstrated group interest and energy in the room.

Now, I have used two important hi-frequency verbs in context, ‘love/s’ and ‘have/has’ with their negations, ‘doesn’t love,’ and ‘doesn’t have.’  I am gesturing, pausing/pointing and spot-checking for comprehension as I extend a conversation based on the information I’ve collected.  I’m noticing trends in ice cream preference, comparing & contrasting, grouping, counting, and confirming, all within this narrow set of language in use.  

I am staying ‘in bounds.’

I make sure to ask a full question each time;  that way the verb-containing chunks (love/s; has/have) are always repeated.  I gesture the heart shape for ‘loves’ and my hand cupping  ‘have/has’ gesture, whenever the words arise. 

‘Tova loves Mint Chip, yes, Tova?  You love…? Class, she loves Mint Chip but she doesn’t love…Banana?  Tova, do you love Banana?

Class she does love Mint Chip….’

I check for comprehension regularly.  What does ‘יש’ mean?“  “What does this (heart gesture) mean?” 

“What does, גבריאל לא אוהב גלידת בננה  mean?”  

Then I move on to a different student, Ester, and ask her what kind of ice cream Tova likes; ask someone else to confirm Alisa’s favorite ice cream, etc. In this way I am constantly recycling the language, checking to make sure the information was understood, and extending the conversation to include more participants.  All the while we are communicating and learning about each other as we build our light-hearted community.

I continue comparing and contrasting students and their favorite ice cream until I’ve surveyed everyone in class.  I may introduce the connecting words, ‘but,’ and ‘also/too’ as in, ‘I like Moose Tracks ice cream, but Ya’akov loves lemon ice cream.’  Or, ‘Ya’akov loves lemon ice cream and Smadar loves it, too.’

Rule of thumb:  If it feels automatic and effortless for the students to understand, then you are in the Sweet Spot.  Resist the temptation to pile on more new language.  Wait ’til next time.  And these new words will have to undergo the full treatment:

-Using them in context

-Writing them on the board with translation, to establish meaning

Pause-point-slow
-Use a gesture / image / prop

-Comprehension check

Some students like fruity flavors.  I ask Talia if she (also) likes Moose Tracks.  I establish meaning of the word ‘also,’ pausing and pointing to it on the board with each subsequent use, and doing comprehension checks intermittently.  She exclaims (in English – no worries) that she’s ‘allergic to chocolate.’  !היא אלרגית לשוקולד

Hurray! a direct cognate.  I walk over and tell Tova, Gavriel and Alisa the news – each separately, that Talia doesn’t like their specific ice cream – because she’s allergic (If you choose to use it, establish meaning of ‘because’ on the board in both languages).

How long the oral survey/classroom banter carries on depends on your growing skill in maintaining interest and understanding.  We try to reach all the kids in the class in one session, so pace yourself accordingly!

In the next Starting the Year post, learn how to be repetitive without seeming repetitious as you circle your way through PQA….Or is it repetitious without seeming repetitive?  

What The Avi Chai Hebrew Report Tells Us (And What It Doesn’t)

The long awaited Avi Chai Foundation Hebrew report, Hebrew For What? Hebrew at the Heart of Jewish Day Schools, was released this month, and is enjoying broad discussion and commentary among Hebrew educators and administrators.

While I read it closely and with great interest, I was left scratching my head, surprised both by its content, and by what failed to make its way into the hefty 64-page volume.

On this Pesach 5777, our season of fundamental questions, let’s start with the report’s Executive Summary, which, right off the bat, outlines some of my concerns.   As the summary opens, its researcher/authors lament the difficult and complex task of teaching Hebrew, due to the multiple purposes that the Hebrew curriculum serves (studying both classical sacred texts, and acquiring modern Hebrew communication skills) in a day school setting.  The authors seem to be seeking readers’ leniency by describing a nearly impossible feat, relating that Hebrew faculty is hard to find; instructional minutes are hard to come by; parental demands add stress; maintaining older students’ interest is challenging; and my personal favorite, the non-Romanized alphabet makes Hebrew harder to learn than other commonly taught world languages, such as Spanish and French.

Before we continue, I say we need to come to some common understanding about what it is we are trying to accomplish with Hebrew in the day school classroom, refine and articulate our goals regarding Hebrew instruction, and align our teaching with our goals.  I believe that a better handle on Second Languages Acquisition (SLA) research, which is, lamentably, all but absent from the Avi Chai report, will aid our grasp of the issues above, and how to address them.

Big Idea #1:  Humans acquire language one way only –  by understanding messages (Chomsky/Krashen).  If we want our students to acquire Hebrew for any purpose, sacred or secular, conversational or literary, then we must begin by delivering comprehensible input, aural/oral and written messages that they can understand and that are so compelling that they attend to them effortlessly and automatically.

The Avi Chai report researchers uncover a curious trend in their surveys.  The day school kids, they report, seem to be losing their Hebrew ability after fifth grade!   Interestingly, this deterioration of skill in not found elsewhere in the literature among students of other languages, nor is the Hebrew phenomenon explained in the report within any SLA framework.  So I offer these fundamental questions:

Could it be that after 5th grade, many Hebrew programs shift from a more experiential, conversational, compelling comprehensible input (CCI)-rich communicative model, to a high-stakes grammar and vocabulary-heavy memorize-and-test grind (unsupported by any SLA research)?

Could it be that after 5th grade, Hebrew is no longer used as the lingua franca of the classroom, but that upper level teachers talk (in English) about how Hebrew’s grammar and syntax, morphology and phonology work?  Such a focus on the surface of the language in lieu of language as a tool for communication is also unsupported by any of the best-practice research, and would come at the expense of CCI and its attendant student comfort and engagement.  As the amount of CCI, overall program interest and therefore quality decline, so do student outcomes.

Could it be that some programs abandon communicating in modern Hebrew altogether after 5th grade, instead shifting their limited instructional minutes to classical sacred texts – using mostly English?  This possibility would most certainly render the class less conducive to Hebrew language acquisition.

Recommendations:  Create and defend an early start-long sequence modern Hebrew language program, rich in CCI, that broadens students’ linguistic foundation from year to year.  Insure that the content is compelling by incorporating student interests and ideas.  Integrate lots more reading into the program from an early age, with literacy materials connected to and based on the acquired aural/oral language.  Reading compounds language gains, and can be leveraged for the study of sacred texts.  The handicap of a non-Romanized alphabet can be overcome if students are exposed to appropriate reading materials over the long haul.  Protect the time dedicated to modern Hebrew instruction; it is different from sacred text study, and should not be substituted at the beginner-to-intermediate levels. Educate faculty, parents and students about your new (department-wide!) approach.  Demonstrate CCI lessons at go-to-school-night, which is sure to create a buzz.  Parents will be more likely to support you if their children are happy and successfully learning, and they understand the framework and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Watch student enthusiasm take off and soar, alongside acquisition.  While face to face modern Hebrew communication will grow proportionately with the amount of quality CCI, it will not keep pace with the complex concepts, parables, allegories and commentaries contained in the Hebrew sacred texts.  Either these will have to be adapted for beginner to intermediate Hebrew learners’ needs, or their study will have to take place in English, or in combination of Hebrew and English, whichever arrangement best meets the linguistic needs of the students.  We cannot hope to teach beginners’ basic modern Hebrew for daily communication, and Talmud Torah as it appears in its original form, on the same day.  It’s like reading a high school social studies textbook to a kindergartner!  We must adapt our Hebrew texts to meet the needs of our learners, insure our students are engaged and comfortable – NOT STRESSED OUT or made to feel inadequate.  A high affective filter can be a major obstacle to language acquisition, so we must be vigilant that we aren’t freaking out our kids, or they will tune out and turn off.  And researchers will conclude that they are ‘losing their Hebrew language,’ when it’s really the program, itself, that has lost its way.

If it’s not clear by now, I am advocating for two (or more) entirely separate classes: modern Hebrew, and ‘Judaics’/sacred texts.  Let’s treat modern Hebrew like the secular subject it is – like Spanish or French – and inform our instruction with both the tenets of Second Language Acquisition research and the intuitive strategies that have been embraced by thousands of world language teachers over the past 20+ years.  Of course we’ll apply and enjoy the strong modern Hebrew literacy skills our students develop over in their classical Judaics/Talmud & Torah classroom, where they’ll also benefit from the linguistic knowledge they’ve gained in modern Hebrew class (general vocabulary, familiar verb forms, prefixes, transition words, etc.)  The sounds and meanings are already in their heads!  By starting with language for meaning – modern Ivrit –  we will build capacity for the more intellectual pursuit of classical text analysis by prioritizing and insuring the development of comprehension, literacy skills, interest and confidence.

Big Idea #2:  Listening comprehension and reading, the receptive/input skills, precede writing and speaking, the productive/output skills (Read this blog post).

Among other benefits, familiarity with this basic tenet of SLA research helps manage student, parent, teacher, administrator (and researcher) expectations. Students require copious amounts of CCI before they are able to produce the target language at the discourse level.  “A flood of input for a trickle of output,” according to linguistics Professor Wynn Wong.  And yet, according to the Avi Chai report researchers,
           “At a few, although not all, of the schools we visited, we observed classes in which students’ speaking proficiency was evidently poorer in the higher grades than in lower ones.  While elementary school students responded in Hebrew to their teachers’ promptings, and seemed able to express themselves quite fluently in Israeli-accented Hebrew, by the time they reached the higher grades students struggled to express themselves. They groped to find the vocabulary to convey their thoughts.  Even where the rule in class was to speak only in Hebrew, students would often opt to find the right phrase in English before reverting to Hebrew.” (p. 29)
Could it be that the elementary teacher-prompted responses required only a perfunctory one word or short answer, demonstrating the students’ listening comprehension, whereas the upper school request demanded Hebrew speaking above the students’ level of acquisition, and at the discourse level?  Is the latter task reasonable, and does it reflect understanding of the SLA research?  Rather than bemoaning their students’ low interpersonal Hebrew proficiency, teachers (and researchers) must instead learn how students acquire, appreciate the natural stages of language emergence (not forced output), discern what kind of production is typical for the amount of CCI they’ve received, and ascertain how to continuously engage students in a Hebrew language-rich atmosphere.  Expectations are lower in the lower school, but then, suddenly, at the higher levels, students are expected to make a developmental leap, even as the quantity and quality of language input is diminished.
Recommendations:  Teachers and researchers are encouraged to master the theoretical underpinnings of SLA as well as the pedagogy that aligns with it, to get a better grasp of appropriate expectations for language output.  Continued high quality CCI, the driver of language acquisition, is as important as ever in the upper grades.
Big Ideas #3 & #4:  When the classroom messages are compelling, listening and engagement are greater; By personalizing and customizing comprehensible messages through class-elicited scenes, stories and images, interest skyrockets, and we optimize the input.
It’s hard to tell from the Avi Chai report just how interesting (or not) the general content of modern Hebrew classes is (at the places they studied), though stakeholders’ complaints seem to suggest a general disinterest in Hebrew class particularly at the upper levels.  Either the content or the instruction (or both) are souring students’ attitude.
What can we do about it?
Recommendation:  We need to take a sober look at our content.  Many schools embrace a pre-fabricated all inclusive curriculum that blends modern Hebrew with Judaics and prayerbook Hebrew, killing many proverbial birds with a single stone.  But they are, regrettably, also killing student (and teacher) interest and engagement, because the set curriculum is…OK I’ll say it:  mind-numbingly boring.   Set curricula often ‘covers’ static and humorless topics about which the students are not interested or passionate; nor do many of the themes incorporate the highest frequency words for greatest linguistic coverage.
So how can we insure that all students will be interested and remain engaged in the banter of our daily classes?  By involving them in the creation of the content!  By including their hobbies and passions in class stories and conversations!  By surveying their interests, and intentionally inserting this personalized information into the ‘curriculum!’  By, once knowing our students well, finding stories, video clips, commercials, poetry and songs, etc. that appeal to our group!   Once we accept that modern Hebrew is separate from Judaics/sacred texts, we are free to converse on an endless array of fiction/real topics, so long as our messages are compelling and comprehensible, and contribute to an ever-widening linguistic foundation.  By starting with student interest rather than imposing a prefab or teacher-driven curriculum, we guarantee broader relevance and authenticity, we build a community where individuals feel known and recognized, and we engage in pleasant conversation, in which all students have a foothold.
We democratize the language classroom!
Whew.  Perhaps those are enough big ideas to chew on for one blog post.
The Avi Chai report sheds light on stakeholders’ negative attitudes about Hebrew instruction, informing the quagmire in which we find ourselves.  I contend (with no blame) that often vague and contradictory instructional goals, poor and/or spotty Hebrew language teacher training, limited support and quality materials, all uninformed by SLA research, have landed us in this predicament.
The good news is, we can address our dire situation immediately and to great effect.  If my own teaching experiment is any indication, stakeholders are all eager to learn a better way.  The light and humorous beginners’ Hebrew scenes and stories are a welcome respite from the drudgery of grammar paradigms and vocabulary lists, nonsense words both spoken and copied into מחברות (notebooks).  Teachers, students and parents all report renewed enthusiasm for Comprehensible Hebrew, and kids look forward to class.
Recommendations:  Let’s re-think what we’re doing – but through the lens of Second Language Acquisition research.  Acquiring language isn’t like learning chemistry or social studies.  It’s an unconscious process.  It’s driven by compelling, comprehensible input.  Let’s rebuild our community’s confidence in Hebrew instruction as a worthwhile endeavor by demonstrating success after success.  What constitutes that success?  Our students will have a joyful experience in effective Hebrew classes; they will feel capable and successful at acquiring, comprehending and utilizing Hebrew, and they will embrace it as their own.

Training Wheels

I get it.

For a teacher, change can feel risky.  The admin and the community (parents, teachers and students) have expectations, based on observations, murmurings, your bulletin board, an Open House presentation you gave a few years back….  You have a reputation to uphold.  Plus, for years you have tweaked and streamlined and created ancillary materials to accompany the (pre-fab?) curriculum you currently use.

But it’s not really working.  The kids aren’t interested or engaged, and their language skills, growth and retention are, ahem,…unremarkable.

By now, you’ve grown more familiar with the Second Language Acquisition research, which points to Comprehensible Input as the primary conduit for language gains.  So it’s hard to fathom going back to your grammar-based textbook, or even a curriculum that claims to be new and different…  but when you delve further, it, too, is filled with conjugation charts, rules about masculine and feminine, singular and plural endings, and thematic vocabulary lists, like, “places in the house,” or, “weather expressions.”

But we don’t communicate in lists.

We can’t go back.  We can’t teach letters/sounds with nonsense words, and we can’t continue to teach sets of related nouns, hoping that our kids’ brains will magically fill in the rest of the sentence.  And we can’t slice ‘n dice the language into rules and exceptions, tenses and endings, hoping that our kids will reconstitute it like some kind of powdered astronaut food.  We need to scaffold the language, flesh it out, and communicate naturally,  at the discourse level.  No substitution drills.  No scripted dialogues.

We need to provide TONS of comprehensible input so that our students’ brains can unconsciously and deductively uncover its patterns.  If we’re new to this, we need strategies and guidelines for how to make the target language comprehensible, compelling and contextualized.

We need a roadmap.

What might a Comprehensible Input-based curriculum look like, considering that we are trying to build language based on student interest and ideas, to keep it compelling?  How can we create a flexible course-long sequence to follow (or cherry pick), while laying-in a foundation of the highest-frequency language?  Sounds like a tall order for a teacher who is also trying to change her practices, and learn new teaching strategies herself….

There is a way.  It’s older than cave-painting, yet it constitutes the latest research-aligned approach:

Stories.

We can create collections of compelling mini stories,+- 10- line fanciful tales or scenes, employing a smattering of the most foundational vocabulary combined with cognates and proper names/places.  These could be used to teach our youngest readers, or serve as independent reading for any age group;

We can author interest-based scenes, episodes or chapters for story collections, each with its own parallel readings (different versions),  literacy extensions and activities;

We can write (or translate existing) inviting leveled chapter books or novels, geared to the unique needs of Hebrew language learners, controlling vocabulary and syntax to ensure reader ease, pleasure and success;

All these readings, great and small, provide teachers with curricular content – the students and stories are the curriculum – from which to plan her classes.  Once she internalizes the new T/CI strategies by practicing with these written collections, she may choose to then abandon the pre-written stories, and collaborate instead with her own students on mini-stories and scenes, episodes and extended stories, or a class-spun novel (it’s been done in other World Language classrooms!)  But until then, she’ll feel sustained, supported, and balanced by the training wheels of a story-based written curriculum.

I plan to begin writing such a curriculum.

Students and stories.  Students’ interests and ideas, magically spun to create customized group stories.  Stories, creating an imaginative and magical context for foundational language.

Students, stories, inventiveness and communication.  Rules, verb endings, tenses, and lists.

Let’s call it:  No contest.

Leveraging Leining

A friend recently asked for my advice on the following:  His friends, two successful professionals who speak English as a Second Language, wish to learn to decode in Hebrew for the purpose of following along in temple during the holidays.  They aren’t really interested in learning to speak or understand Hebrew, I gathered; they just want to feel competent among their temple community by reading/chanting the prayers.  A noble goal that many a Jewish institution has dedicated considerable resources to fulfilling!

Here’s where, for me and many other language educators, though, it starts to get very dicey.  From a language educator’s point of view, deciphering and articulating lines and dots on the page is a precursor to reading; it does not constitute reading.  Reading means comprehending written words.  Pairing letters and their sounds is decoding – often the first step towards reading.screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-39-16-am

So the tens of thousands of us who attended a traditional supplementary Hebrew school (or cheder in my dad’s case), and who spent countless hours learning the letter/sound correspondences, and then tediously practiced repeating their sounds with vowel pointing (i.e., nikkud), didn’t really learn to read Hebrew in the full sense.  We learned isolated phonemes and nonsense words, (and some real words, without knowing what they meant).  This is how many modern-day Hebrew basal readers are still set up!  (See sample below from Shalom Ivrit 1, Behrman House)screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-3-08-55-pm

One  problem with this decoding approach is that it’s tedious, boring, and worst of all, it’s devoid of meaning.  Very discouraging for many students, especially youngsters, at 5:00pm on a Wednesday evening.  For religious or Hebrew day-school students, it’s usually a short phase on the path to more satisfying, meaningful reading, as there’s the promise of comprehension during the considerable time spent on content-based literacy.  For the rest of the temple-based Hebrew school students, with very limited Hebrew instructional time, not so much.

On the rare occasion that I go to shul with my siblings, as when they came to my son’s Bar Mitzvah this past May, I know that my experience during the service is wholly different than theirs – or from most of the attendees who can decode the prayers and readings in the prayer book.  Those who retained their ability to decode but do not comprehend (like my sibs), may spend their mental energies merely tracking the text, perhaps occasionally checking the translation or commentary during liturgy transitions or English recitations.  I, on the other hand, often understand the general meaning of the prayers as I read them, though biblical Hebrew is stilted. (Some compare it to Shakespearean English.  I remember relying on footnotes, how about you?)  All this to say, or rather to ask, how much time should we dedicate to decoding if it doesn’t get us meaning in the synagogue?

For my friend’s purposes, I responded like this:

As far as Second Language Acquisition theory goes, reading usually follows tons of comprehensible, contextualized and compelling aural input, so that the reader knows both what the words mean and how they’re supposed to sound, before sitting down to read a block of text.  This is particularly important when the target language alphabet is so radically different, as in the case of Hebrew.
But that’s for acquiring the language; not for simply cracking the written code.  It’s kind of unusual in world language teaching circles to have the goal be just the decoding and not mental mapping of the meaning, but hey, we’re Jews.  We’ve been doing it this way (unwittingly?) for generations.
[There are prolly plenty of people who want to be able to read along in Hebrew, without worrying what the words actually mean (they have the English translation in the margin and commentary below!)….
Then there are tons who resent all the time spent decoding words they don’t comprehend.  (You saw the Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man?)]
I guess the best way for your friends to learn would be the way that so many of us and our parents did – by learning the sound/letter correspondence, together with  the predictable melody that the prayers are wrapped in.  But the order is important – learning it as a song FIRST will make the task, IMO, infinitely easier.
screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-3-43-56-pm
I would, then, after they know the short songs, use the simplest  kid’s prayer book or Hebrew school workbook to look at the words in the most common blessings to start learning to decode.  If they learn the first 6 words to most general prayers – 
ברוך אתה __ אלוהינו מלך העולם
then they’d have several high-frequency prayerbook words under their belt, plus nearly half the letters in the Alef bet.
Before we start teaching discreet letter/sound correspondence, I’d see if they could do some “cold character reading” after they committed some of the short musical prayers to memory.  Here’s a link to a brief video about Cold Character Reading, developed by Mandarin teacher Terry Waltz, PhD  – again the technique rests on comprehension – which is very different from what your friends are looking for:
If they get a friend who’s willing to sit and teach them say, the 3 (short version) shabbat blessings (candles, wine, challah) to a melody (supports memory) – and they have a backup via a weblink with music – so they can commit it to automatic memory – then after several of those are slotted in, the letter/sound mapping will proceed more smoothly.
Here is one resource I just googled – it might be helpful:
There are more – you can find them at: prayer-eoke
Here’s a blogpost I wrote on Hebrew literacy, though again, it’s centers on attaching meaning.  Still you may be interested!
http://cmovan.edublogs.org/2016/09/  called,  “Demystifying Hebrew Literacy:  Part 1.”
  I see I’ll need to get cracking on Part 2 soon!
Best,
Alisa
Do you understand the Hebrew prayers you read in synagogue?  How did you (Or did you?) learn to decode, then read in Hebrew?
Any advice for this couple?  Thanks in advance for posting a response and sharing your thoughts, experiences and advice!

The Horse and the Cart

Some say the aural-input-based Hebrew instruction I’m championing may very well represent a departure from our 4,000+ year old Jewish tradition of prioritizing literacy – of teaching Jewish content through Hebrew texts.screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-8-45-53-pm

Not so, I protest.  It’s just that starting with Hebrew writing is putting the cart before the horse.

My father and his father before him attended a Hebrew school (or ‘cheder’) whose sole purpose was to get the students decoding Hebrew, well and fast enough to daven (pray) from a siddur (daily prayer book).  It’s purpose wasn’t explicitly to understand the prayers therein – not even their main ideas – and certainly not their constituent words.  It was to engrave the order and content of daily and holiday prayer into the collective memory of the next generation.  Not a small or insignificant undertaking.  And it was quite effective.  My father, Saul Shapiro, ז׳׳ל, davened fluidly and could read the prayers accurately, even though as a busy doctor and parent of four he rarely attended synagogue.  I used to love watching his whispering lips as he sailed through the quiet, meditative prayers during high holiday services.screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-8-48-05-pm

But we must ask ourselves now, what do we want from our kids’ Hebrew/Jewish education?  And what do our kids want and need?

We have the benefit of brain science and evolving language pedagogy, not to mention a vast cultural shift, allowing and inviting us to search for meaning in our Hebrew and religious school offerings.  If we want only to prepare our students for traditional life-cycle events such as as bar/bat mitzvah or confirmation, and how to blast through a holiday מחזור, then the status quo of starting (and ending) with Hebrew texts gets the job done, I guess….  But many a Hebrew school student (and traditionally taught French, Spanish or other World Language student) complains about taking 4+ years of language class with NOTHING – NO USEFUL RETENTION to show for it.

Most of us want more, and more importantly, our kids want more.  Not more work or aggravation.  More meaning.  Less drudgery.  Inherited traditions and liturgy are cloaked in a veil of Hebrew mystery to less-observant Jews who don’t attend day-school.  So how can we make them more visible, comprehensible and meaningful?

We need to front load tons of oral Hebrew understandable input before setting our kids to the task of Hebrew reading.  This is the proverbial horse.
Just as our toddlers were drenched in oral language before we taught them the letters, their sounds and words they form, so we must flood our Hebrew school students with interesting and understandable aural messages in Hebrew, if we want them to recognize, and attach meaning to the words and sentences we later ask them to decode and read.

Will the simple, high-frequency-verb-filled scenes and stories we create and later read in Comprehensible Input-based Modern Hebrew class transfer to comprehension of ancient prayer texts?  Not entirely – but there will be some overlap.  Students may begin to see other forms of familiar verbs (i.e. אומר – ויאומר) – and deductively make connections based on verb roots.  They’ll see familiar prefixes & suffixes, articles, connection & transition words.

But my practical question, as a Modern Hebrew language enthusiast and instructional reform advocate,  is this:  What are the odds that someone who can decode the prayers but not understand any of them, will continue seeking more comprehensible Hebrew input, which will inevitably lead to more acquisition?  Will they even see a connection between the prayer words they can read, and the living breathing Modern Hebrew language?screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-8-53-28-pm

Compare those unfavorable odds to the kid who’s been exposed to plenty of comprehensible auditory input, and has enjoyed pleasure and success in a meaning-centered Hebrew CI class, chock full of conversational exchanges.  Put a prayer text in front of her and ask, “Do you understand this?”  Depending on the CI-taught kid’s ability/level, she may extract some nuggets of meaning.  Even if she doesn’t yet understand the antiquated and stilted prayer text before her, she’ll still come back for more CI, because it’s fun, its effective and success begets success!  Keeping our kids in the Hebrew game is crucial.  Getting exposure for only an hour or so per week (in supplementary school) or 3.5 hours (in a public high school elective program) is slow going toward proficiency.  I’ll opt for Plan B, with Comprehensible Input instruction affording a greater likelihood of longer-sequence and more pleasant engagement with my students.

Hebrew text is important and, many would argue, the epicenter of our tradition.  Reading is the single most effective way to grow one’s language acquisition.  But the order is crucial, particularly for beginners:  Slather on the aural input – drench and soak in quality, compelling comprehensible messages.  THEN, read, rinse, and repeat.

Let’s put the listening horse back where it rightfully belongs:  Before the reading cart.

 

Hebrew School and Religious School: 2 Parts of a Harmonious Whole

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-10-36-23-pmHumans acquire languages one way only:  By understanding messages, aka, Comprehensible Input  (Krashen, Foreign Language Education The Easy Way).

By the time they’re 5 years old, most kids have racked up around 15,000 hours of quality comprehensible language input.  So our 200-400 hour total, after 5 years of supplementary Hebrew school programming, is paltry to say the least.  All this suggests that we must be clear and realistic about our language-outcome expectations.

What kinds of student results can we anticipate from our twice-weekly Hebrew program in grades 3 through 7 (about an hour or so total per week)?  Unlike World Language classes in public school, our kids do get some additional Hebrew input through literacy (reading & writing) instruction as part of the liturgical/lifecycle curricula, which together with Modern Hebrew, makes up the Hebrew supplementary school offering.  Though our supplementary schools have traditionally seen these two domains – Modern Hebrew and Religious Hebrew instruction –  as mutually exclusive, I argue that they can and ought to purposefully inform each other, to fortify the overall program.

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-4-07-15-pmOur rich and diverse liturgical/lifecycle/holiday curricula – hereafter called religious school – explores prayers, songs, religious artifacts, images, communities (including Israel), food, customs, and some texts.  Let’s discuss the texts.

Until now, when our children first formally learn prayers at religious school, they do so by rote memorization, often with the support of predictable melodies.  The prayers are reinforced in temple music class, through assemblies and special events in the sanctuary, through attending services outside of religious school, and perhaps at home or summer camp, as well.  But we can easily put the written Hebrew words into our students’ hands right away and help them develop at the very least, a right-to-left concept of print, as they didscreen-shot-2016-10-07-at-3-52-52-pm as pre-schoolers (or even earlier these days!) with their native English.

Consider Pat the Bunny or Good Night Moon.  Kids who heard these early favorites on their loved-ones’ laps eventually came to predict and recite the tender words, and many kids began to develop letter-sound correspondences, too!  If they didn’t begin to decode the words by discreet sounds, then they often learned them as sight words, recognizing the combined letter shapes and contours as a whole chunk.

I contend that even with the first 6 words of most standard Hebrew prayers, (ברוך אתה __אלוהינו מלך העולם) our kids could be internalizing nearly half the Hebrew alphabet’s letter-sound correspondences!   After all, these 6 words contain 12 distinct Hebrew letters, including some final-letter forms.  And, BONUS!  One of the words is mega-hi-frequency (conversationally):

אתה means you!

Once the kids are literate in English, we ought to matter-of-factly present the additional modality of Hebrew reading to support and fortify our instruction, specifically AFTER our kids have had ample aural Hebrew comprehensible input of the words in question:   Students’ Hebrew names (a very personal and therefore powerful way to recognize letters and their sounds); prayers and song lyrics; the names of religious objects being studied, etc.  It’s a missed opportunity to refer to such Hebrew words as Shabbat or challah, or תפוחים ודבש  (i.e., apples & honey) screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-4-00-13-pmwithout simultaneously presenting their written Hebrew counterparts in context.  But I’m not advocating for isolated word labelling, like we used to see in so many bilingual classrooms in the 80’s – 90’s.  I’m talking about contextualized chunks of written Hebrew language, chunks that will be repeated orally throughout the normal course of class.

My original question was, “What can we expect our kids to be able to do with Hebrew after 3rd through 7th grade supplementary Hebrew & religious school?”  I just explained how the religious/liturgical/lifecycle studies can reinforce our kids’ Modern Hebrew acumen through increased exposure to contextualized Hebrew text, the more comprehensible & compelling, the better.

As I wrote in my manifesto (here) to our temple’s Education Director, Lori Sagarin, back in November, when I first embarked on this mission to reform Modern Hebrew language education, “By the end of 7th grade, we could realistically hope to graduate students with a strong ear for Hebrew, a great Hebrew accent, resulting from copious auditory input, excellent listening, decoding and reading comprehension within the limited high-frequency Hebrew corpus in which they’ve been immersed, discourse at the paragraph level…, and, in the upper grades, some writing skill beyond simple sentences.  Most importantly, we will bring our students to a proficiency level at which they can seek more language input independently.  We call this early but impressive skill set, ‘micro-fluency.’ (term coined by Terry Waltz, PhD).”

If, by 7th grade, our kids feel that their Hebrew journey thus far has been enjoyable and worthwhile, if they feel confident in their growing Hebrew communication skill set, in their ability to understand and produce comprehensible messages, then they’ll be more inclined to continue their Hebrew trajectory.  In high school, college, travel, ulpan…wherever.screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-9-00-44-am

And we know that mutual understanding is the foundation of trust and peace.

!יאללה    Let’s get going!  There’s work to do in 5777!

Demystifying Hebrew Literacy: Part 1

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-11-22-33-pmTo most American English speakers, languages written in non-Romanized letters seem impossibly difficult.  Their very unfamiliarity is off-putting at the least, and constitutes a deal-breaker for many.  “How can I possibly learn….? (Fill in the blank:  Hebrew, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, etc.)  The writing is downright indecipherable!”

After 4 sessions (around +-2 hours total) of high-frequency-verb-containing Hebrew Comprehensible (auditory) Input, I decided it was time to shift gears for a moment and have our kids try their hand at Hebrew writing.  I also wanted to dispel any fear of ‘cursive without vowels’ for my students and their parents before it surfaced.  Not that they haven’t written Hebrew before….All but this year’s 3rd graders have explored the Hebrew written word to various degrees.  The younger grades (3rd – 5th) have mostly decoded liturgical Hebrew and have muddled through Modern Hebrew basal readers that slice and dice the language into isolated letters, phonemes and chunks in an effort to lay-in letter-sound correspondence (plus nikkud = vowels).  This laser focus on discreet sounds has been all but abandoned in most Language Arts classrooms, in favor of reading instruction centered on whole words and phrases, the building blocks of meaning.  The 6th graders explored trope last year as they prepared for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and have happily retained their solid decoding skills.

Since September 7, my 3rd through 7th graders have seen me establish meaning by writing words on the board in Hebrew, and translating them to English right below, regularly pausing and pointing to reinforce & connect the written word with sound with meaning.  Now it was time to scaffold another language experience where they’d feel successful and encouraged.  It called for a fail-proof process, so I employed my secret ace-in-the hole tool:  The humble and hardworking dry erase lap board.

Any multi-step procedure in the CI classroom is but a (cloaked) opportunity/invitation for careful listening and repetitions, so I turned the distribution and handling of the materials into Total Physical Response (TPR):

(בעברית)

Put your board, pen and eraser under your chair.screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-23-57-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-19-52-pm

Pick up your board.

Put your board under the chair.

Pick up the pen.  Open (un-cap) the pen.  Close the pen.

Put the pen under your chair.

Pick up the eraser.   Put the eraser under your chair.

Pick up the board.

I gestured and paused/pointed to all necessary vocabulary written on the big board.  So far so good.

Next I had the kids take off their name tags and place it on their lapboards, on the lined side (the flip side is un-lined).  I asked them to copy their Hebrew names with their pointer finger between the lines on the board.  I referred to this simple print and cursive Alef Bet poster I’d hung on the wall, reminding them that we’d be using cursive exclusively.  Finger spelling IS NOT BABYISH when you’re learning (reviewing?) to form new letters!

I invited my kids to uncap their markers and, with no regard for letter formation, copy their Hebrew names onto their dry-erase lapboards.  Again and again.  I circulated around the room with the other Hebrew teachers, insuring that the sofIT letters were long/tall enough, that the ’ר’ didn׳t look like a ’כ’ and so on.

It never fails.  Students love to skate and glide their markers across the shiny board surface.  And the task is so forgiving.  If you make a ’ד’ that looks like a ’צ’, then simply sweep it away with your eraser and try, try again.  Mistakes are good.  They mean you’re trying.  Confident students were encouraged to write their names without looking at their name tag exemplar.

Soon I was looking at a sea of proud faces and Hebrew-filled lapboards.

Next I modeled these instructions (I used some English here):

Erase your boards.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-11-16-11-pmStand up.

Raise one arm.

Close your eyes.

See your Hebrew name in your mind.

Copy your name in the sky.  (That’s right.  3rd through 7th graders skywriting.)

Sit down.

It was nearly time to go.  I asked who wanted to try a bit more writing – this time a complete sentence.  Hands shot up like weeds after a summer storm.

I urged them to write the word, ’אני’ followed by their Hebrew name, as in, ’אני עליזה’.  “I am Alisa.”  A notebook exercise blossomed into a meaningful message before our eyes.

Their faces lit up with success.

“Is Hebrew writing as hard as you thought it would be?”  “Not really.”

Not when you have what you need.  Not when your message is simple and narrow.screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-11-05-14-pm

Before class ended, I assigned the first ‘major’ homework assignment of the year:

To skywrite their Hebrew name as often as possible over the next few days – in the shower, in bed, in the car…. And for extra credit?  To extend to a sentence by putting ‘אני in front of it.   .אני שמחה