HaYidion Article in Summer, 2019 Issue

The umbrella organization for North American Jewish Day Schools, PRIZMAH, invited me to submit an article for their most recent educational journal.  The volume’s theme, ‘Deepening Talent,’ focuses on “cultivating growth and vitality for all its [school] stakeholders, from students to board members.”  My article, “Reimagining Modern Hebrew Instruction,” appears in the ‘Study and Reflection’ section, and mentions many of the precepts contained in my articles on this blog, with a focus on transforming Hebrew teacher and learner attitudes and outcomes.

Here’s the link to the journal:  https://www.prizmah.org/hayidion-digital/#/shelf/view/default

And here’s a direct link to my article on page 54: 

https://www.prizmah.org/hayidion-digital/#/reader/24790/744521

As always, I invite readers to reflect, question, challenge and engage.

Please leave a comment and/or contact me through the blog!

 

Comprehensible Hebrew: Big Ideas

When I’m invited to present or consult with elementary, middle, high school or supplementary (temple-based) administrators and parents who are unfamiliar with the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), I often provide a “Big Ideas” hand-out for later reference and reflection.  I offer it here on the blog, and invite your questions, wonderings and feedback.

Comprehensible Hebrew  –  BIG IDEAS

*Primacy:  Humans acquire language one way:  By understanding messages, a.k.a. Comprehensible Input (CI).

*Communication:  Modern Hebrew is a tool for communication.  A focus on phonology, morphology, grammar or syntax constitutes linguistics – and does not serve our communicative goals.

*Input vs. Output:  Listening and reading, the receptive/input skills, precede writing and speaking, the productive/output skills.  Therefore, we must build a foundation via input, then set appropriate and reasonable expectations for output.

*Compelling Interest:  When the incoming messages are compelling, listening and engagement skyrocket.

*Personalization:  By tailoring the messages through co-created images, scenes & stories, we optimize the input and attention to it.

*Literacy:  Reading compounds language acquisition.  Once the sound and meaning of the language are in their heads, reading feels natural & effortless.

*Program Content:  Modern Ivrit for interpersonal communication is different from liturgy, religious study & sacred text, though there is overlap.  BICS/CALP continuum – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills & Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency.

*Instructional Time:  A 90-minute/week Hebrew offering means that after 4 years, students have logged +- 200 hours.  Compare that to nearly 12,000 hours of native English input that kindergarteners come to school with (VanPatten).  Bottom line: Most of our students are Hebrew language ‘toddlers;’  every precious class minute counts; optimizing quality is paramount.

*Outcomes:  Set realistic, developmentally appropriate goals, and align our teaching with them, across the offering.

*Instructional Quality:  By rededicating ourselves to quality instruction with well-trained, Hebrew-proficient faculty, we can deliver compelling Hebrew at the discourse level.  By monitoring and refining our offering, we ensure for our students an enjoyable & effective Ivrit experience.

*CI Hebrew Resources:  Currently there are precious few research-aligned Hebrew trade materials.  Many CI teachers adapt or create original materials based on their teaching environment, student proficiency level & interests.

*Professional Development:  We can support our Modern Hebrew instructors by: Providing high-quality training that aligns with SLA; engaging in mentoring & coaching; observing & reflecting on other experienced CI teachers’ practice.

*Community:  Stakeholders will embrace the re-envisioned Modern Hebrew offering when they hear positive student buzz, and see the camaraderie it fosters.  CI strategies are appropriate for students of all ages, including adults!

*Reflection:  I invite you to read and comment on my Comprehensible Hebrew community blog.  This free resource is dedicated to teachers improving Modern Hebrew instruction, and, in turn, enhancing student attitudes, learning experiences & outcomes.  

*Take a Peek:  I invite you to view this blog post for a captioned video of DAY 1 Hebrew instruction at my temple-based supplementary school program.

*Inspire:  Your school has a unique opportunity to pioneer a research aligned, re-envisioned Modern Hebrew offering.  Your bold leadership in this area will influence Modern Hebrew instruction, attitudes & outcomes both locally and globally.  

Revamp:  Now that SLA is ‘out of the bag,’ we must:  1. Take a hard look at current Ivrit classroom practice and school offerings; 2. Abandon those methods that don’t align with SLA;  3. Deliver compelling & comprehensible Ivrit, the driver of acquisition!

*Transform:  Ivrit class ought to be inviting, positive and joyful for our students and faculty, affording continued growth in proficiency, while sparking interest and encouraging pursuit

Finally, it’s been an honor and pleasure to open this exciting dialogue with you.  Please contact me with questions & comments.

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 #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.

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.

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.

BUT HOW WILL WE KNOW FOR SURE?

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)

BUT AGAIN, WHY WOULD WE ASSESS THE OUTPUT SKILLS [Writing and Speaking] OF OUR YOUNG NOVICES?

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!

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.

Shoring up Our Modern Hebrew Programs (Part 2)

You can read Part 1, “Why We Need To Legitimize Modern Hebrew,” here.

Since Hebrew programs offered in seven area public high schools are experiencing a crisis of enrollment and qualified/certified Hebrew teachers, the community response, with its best intentions, has been to advocate for saving their programs at school board meetings.

The more I explore, though, the clearer it becomes that Hebrew teacher and student shortages are a symptom of a bigger dilemma that no amount of clamoring will resolve.  If we’re able to save a high school Hebrew program from the chopping block for one more year, this temporary solution will only delay the next crisis, and the program will soon end up at-risk again.  Why are we having these Hebrew program stability issues?

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-10-10-35-pm

THE CRITIQUE:    Because from what I’ve seen and heard so far, the quality & consistency of these high school Hebrew offerings varies widely.  And these variations aren’t unique to public high school Hebrew programs; they are, unfortunately, ubiquitous.

Some high school programs relegate the fundamental input job to a Hebrew online computer course.  Some rely on a dry, grammar-heavy & outmoded text book.  Some are so stretched and strained that they don’t allow a teaching setup that meets the needs of individual students and levels; still others focus on Israeli culture and Jewish identity (delivered in English), punting on their stated goal: Hebrew language proficiency.  Many teachers dedicate their precious instructional minutes to teaching Hebrew linguistics – grammatical and syntactical features of the language, with a heavy emphasis on accuracy over meaning – at the expense of copious Hebrew input to build acquisition for real communication.  Most don’t scaffold the language enough for the novice to comprehend messages, or map meaning of individual words.  The strongest tool in the Second Language Acquisition box, READING, isn’t leveraged effectively.  No Hebrew curriculum that I know of focuses on students acquiring a corpus of the highest frequency words, to afford greatest coverage.  This last strategy eluded me for the first two decades of my Spanish teaching career 😳 !

THE PROPOSED SOLUTION:  With the kind of material and community support we have at our disposal, we can, no doubt! shore up our Hebrew offerings.  Not just the public high school programs, but all our programs.  We want the highest quality early start – long sequence learning (acquiring), so let’s start thinking about coordinating the entire progression.  Let’s create pre-K to 8th grade programs so effective and enjoyable that a considerable number of students will elect to continue taking Modern Hebrew in high school, and beyond!  It’s not too great or too difficult a goal to fathom or accomplish.  It will take energy and will, but, speaking from my experience, it’s definitely doable! 

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-8-58-24-pm

Here’s my first draft Road Map to Improving Modern Hebrew Instruction:

A.  TRAIN/RE-TRAIN TEACHERS:

I was a veteran Spanish language teacher for nearly 20 years before I retooled my teaching with Comprehensible Input (T/CI).  I attended workshops, got support from my administration and department colleagues (we all retrained together), and tinkered in my classroom.  I read, watched demonstration videos, went to conferences, was coached by master teachers, and participated in two Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).  I also visited CI-based classrooms for the best training of all – live observation and debriefing with the teacher.  All these teacher-to-teacher experiences knit me into a network of inspired and inspiring colleagues, from whom I continue to learn.

I propose an 8-10 hour (total) beginners’ workshop (3-5 hours per day?) with sessions in Rationale (Second Language Acquisition) and Comprehensible Input strategies, coached skills practice, and resource assessment & development, for all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, Hebrew camp counselors & directors, etc.  Such groundwork will get us ‘all on the same page,’ ready to dive into CI strategies in our classrooms/learning environments.  (Read about the 8-hour Hebrew teacher training I led this summer.)

I hope to organize and lead broader Hebrew trainings this academic year, aimed at any Hebrew language teachers/levels and attended by all aforementioned stakeholders, as the basic principles (for absolute beginners through intermediate level students of any age) are the same.  It would be wonderful to bring different area institutions together to host a regional training, thereby building teacher and administrator networks!

Once we are all enlightened on how the brain acquires language, and we can discern which strategies we need to dump, keep or add, we’ll be ready to…

B.  ORGANIZE FOR ONGOING SUPPORT:

This step is part & parcel to training, and helps insure shared vision, consistency, and a common language experience for our students, as well as resources & materials for teachers.   As we train, we group Hebrew teachers by the grade/level they teach, to build networks of colleagues across the area/country/world:
screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-8-57-47-am*Elementary Pre-K to 2nd grade &  3rd to 5th grade sub-groups

*Middle school to junior high, 6th-8th grade

*High school & adult learners

(We can combine above groupings for many aspects of training.)

Next we form and/or participate in online users’ groups (i.e., moreTPRS Yahoo! group, Facebook ifltntprsciteaching, shared Google docs, more blogs and such,) so that teachers can support each other, sharing documents, questions and reflections in user-friendly, archive-able and searchable platforms.  A YouTube channel of Hebrew teacher demonstration videos could be a tremendous resource!  I’m happy to start building a repository on my blog, but let’s hope we bust out and need a different ‘file cabinet,’ because my blog can’t handle the volume!

Broad, effective, ongoing training, plus support and mentorship, will set us on the path toward reclaiming real Hebrew proficiency-oriented classrooms.  My (day-job) grades 1-8 World Language department was able to completely shift our teaching, and re-invigorate our classrooms, in a matter of months!  Most of us felt the earth move, as our students leaned in, and our administrators/evaluators basked in the positive feedback streaming in from their parents.  Best of all, with such enjoyable strategies as collaborative story-asking, dramatization, and drawing, our teachers were eager to improve our CI delivery skills, experiment with different formats, and mine students’ ideas and preferences while building scenes and stories together.  Now, work is more fun for all of us, and we email and text each other regularly, sharing funny incidents and ideas from our classroom story-spinning. (After the Big Cubs Win, my students seeded the idea, and we collaborated on a Spanish re-telling of the ‘Three Bears,’ called, ‘The 3 Chicago Cubs,’ aka, ‘Los Tres Cachorros de Chicago.’)

Ongoing support also means regularly sending our teachers to training (meetings, workshops, conferences) for sessions in additional CI strategies, networking and coaching.  Our field is dynamic and exciting!  Some sessions may focus on integrating video or electronic text activities (i.e., Textivate), others on incorporating authentic literature, art and music; still others may focus on working with pre- and emergent literacy learners.

 C.  RECRUIT HEBREW-SPEAKING TEACHERS:
Since this is a grass-roots teacher movement, it’s highly unlikely that Hebrew candidates would be trained in T/CI strategies, as university prep programs aren’t teaching them yet!  (See this open letter to university World Language departments from SLA expert Dr. Bill VanPatten, pleading for upper level language instructors who are well-versed in Second Language Acquisition Theory).
But as long as teachers have an open mind and are willing to learn,  יאללה!! (Let’s go!)
 We MUST assertively recruit Hebrew teachers (including from universities) and train them in CI strategies, as well as retrain current teachers, who will, if they’re anything like the thousands of other WL teachers I meet at regional and (inter)national conferences every year, feel energized, and, finally, effective and successful in their Hebrew classrooms.  This first cohort of Hebrew T/CI teachers will enthusiastically spread the word to potential Hebrew colleagues.  This is precisely what happened in my department.  We continue to mentor, model lessons, and host observers – both newbies and veterans –  willing and wanting to shift their instructional strategies and improve their students’ proficiency.
This recommendation addresses the effectiveness of appropriately trained Hebrew teachers, but not the hardship in finding and hiring qualified, credentialed candidates.  One obstacle to hiring qualified Hebrew teachers is the difficulty in passing English language exams for native Hebrew candidates.  Clearly we must also recruit native English speakers and bilingual Hebrew candidates, and not only Hebrew dominant teachers, in order to expand the Hebrew teacher corps.
D.  INCREASE THE NUMBER OF HIGH SCHOOL HEBREW STUDENTS:
 To address the irregular flow of students into the high school Hebrew pipeline, we need to create an expectation in the Hebrew supplementary school, by:
*Exploiting & creating opportunities, beginning in the early years, to promote our public high school Hebrew programs.  To do this we must integrate a powerful and consistent message early on, and, of course, have a great program worthy of endorsing, to kids and parents alike;
*Ensuring parents hear our well-planned high school Hebrew presentations; inviting current high school Hebrew student testimonials for 8th graders, when it’s most critical – before January of 8th grade, when kids elect their high school language;
*Preparing our supplementary school students for high school Hebrew 2.  We do this through excellent & optimized programming and instruction from Pre-K to 8th, and coordination with the high school, for a smooth transition.  Entering at Hebrew level 2 insures that Hebrew doesn’t feel inferior to the Spanish/French option.
There you have it:  My first draft Road Map to Improving Modern Hebrew Instruction.
The single, most powerful step to improving the quality, reputation and outcomes of our Hebrew programs is teacher (re-) training.
If you are interested in reimagining your Hebrew offering and starting down the path toward Hebrew proficiency for your students, please contact me and let’s plan a training in your area!

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.