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.

Survival! For the Comprehensible Hebrew Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew Through Movement And TPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing Acquisition

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

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!

#PRIZMAH17 Chicago Conference

I just got back from attending the Prizmah, 2017 Jewish Day School Conference which, lucky for me, is in Chicago this year.  I only heard about it a few weeks ago, so it was too late to pitch a proposal to be a presenter.  (Maybe next time?)  Instead I attended a most intriguing session:

As far as I could tell, this was the only session (among hundreds) that focused on Modern Hebrew instruction, and many respected speakers participated on the panel.  My goal was to get a read on current thinking in the field, in part, because I am obsessed with the topic, but also to gauge how ‘ready’ the day school community seems for the primacy of Comprehensible Input message.

The session was fantastic and did not disappoint.  Thanks to the wonderful panel of Hebrew leaders.

Here are some of my takeaways:

+Our pre-k-12 Jewish learning institutions, no matter how religious or what their modern Hebrew programming looks like – immersion, foreign language, content-related, lots of or limited instructional minutes – are all struggling to improve the quality and effectiveness of their modern Hebrew programs.  They are fully aware that their stakeholders (students, parents, teachers) aren’t satisfied, and that their Hebrew outcomes are generally…underwhelming.  (I wasn’t sure everyone knew, but they do.  This is very good news, indeed!)

+Our institutions are talking about embracing proficiency-oriented programming for communication.  THIS IS HUGE!   When I was a student, it was rare to question any, let alone the Audio-lingual (grammar drills) or translation teaching methods.  Now, though, our leaders realize that face to face communication does not arise from ‘slice ‘n dice’ methods that chop the language up and explain how the parts work.  Day schools want a vibrant Hebrew culture where the language is a tool for everyday communication – in the library and cafeteria, as well as the Hebrew classroom.

+Our day school leaders realize we need to create a cadre of knowledgeable teacher leaders for ongoing improvement and sustainability.  They believe in quality professional development and common experiences for our teachers.  They realize that a native Hebrew speaker does not an expert in teaching strategies make.  THIS IS GIGANTIC.

+Our day schools are willing to experiment in their buildings, tweaking the program delivery model, scheduling, offerings, team-teaching, coaching/mentoring, teacher meetings and collaboration time, peer observations, curriculum, etc.  They are finding creative ways to re-brand their programs to increase visibility, information, and positive press among the community of parents and students.  And importantly, many are willing to shine a flashlight on their existing program and perform a self audit (by an outside/objective observer) to ascertain weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.  Many are undergoing massive revision-ing.

+Many schools are finding ways to extend modern Hebrew beyond the classroom and throughout the schoolhouse by hosting Hebrew language sports classes (Krav Maga); using Hebrew in the lunchroom, and integrating Hebrew across the curriculum by singing Hebrew songs in Music class; employing Hebrew in Art, etc.

+Hebrew is gaining legitimacy by affiliation with the national parent organization, ACTFL (The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages).  Many Jewish schools are looking to the ACTFL proficiency guidelines to set standards.  Hopefully soon there will be a Hebrew Special Interest Group (SIG) within ACTFL, as well as a National Association of Hebrew Teachers, providing more support and resources for Hebrew teachers nation-wide.

+Delet l’Ivrit through Hebrew Union College has a new university program to train Hebrew teachers with their best practices pedagogy.

And the list of innovations goes on!

HOWEVER, I do see some challenges, though I have no doubt we will clear them.

Challenges and caveats:

-Many of the day schools talk about data-driven decision making, the new ABCs of education in a post NCLB world.  But language is different than math and science, in that it is NOT CONCEPTUAL.  There are no formulas or causalities to be learned; on the contrary, language acquisition is unconscious (SD Krashen), and the key ingredient driving acquisition is comprehensible input (CI).  No one knows exactly how much input it takes until a student starts speaking (and there are many variables), but we in the field say, as a rule,  “A flood of input for a trickle of output” (Wynn Wong).  So output-based (speaking, writing) assessments for beginners are inappropriate, because these novices are still building a linguistic foundation.  Would you proctor a speaking test on a 14-month-old?  Assessments of comprehension are formative and ongoing by the well-trained T/CI instructor.  Evaluators can see in class if students demonstrate comprehension of the input; parents can see it in a video of class.  Later, once the students have built a broader linguistic base and have the literacy skills necessary, students can write and even speak more in Hebrew.  According to the research, though, practicing speaking through memorized dialogues and cloze (fill in the blank) activities is not real communication, and does not beget real communication.  (See this article on Principles for Language Teachers from my SLA comrade in arms, Chris Stolz).

-Related to assessment, above:  We must be skeptical of written level-placement tests based on discreet vocabulary items and/or speaking/writing output, especially for the novice to intermediate proficiency levels.  In fact, many placements tests, for admission to Hebrew camps, day schools, ulpanim (intensive Hebrew study programs), university and other programs, are outdated and do not align with SLA research.  Check out this study packet for Chalutzim, a 7-week Hebrew immersion camp experience that my son attended.  While he had a fantastic summer, the entrance test likely created obstacles and anxiety for many potential campers.  It sends the message, ‘If you don’t know or memorize this random list of low frequency words, you aren’t a good fit.’  Is that the pronouncement we want to convey to our 15-year-olds?  The study packet asks students to (be prepared to) memorize semantic sets (i.e. – a list of colors, nature words, numbers), but this is not how the brain acquires (Robert Waring); and potential campers are invited to study verb endings for tense formation, but this practice constitutes a focus on form, which is linguistics, not language acquisition.  Many of the language instructional practices once at Chalutzim also lack research-based alignment, and the program as a whole (and others like it) would greatly benefit from an audit and overhaul, to optimize Hebrew acquisition, its stated goal.

-Teachers and administrators must know how humans acquire language (SLA research) in order to establish and monitor an acquisition-conducive program, (as stated in my manifesto, here.)  Otherwise, we’ll be chasing our tails, trying new curricula and materials, substituting one expensive, misguided and ineffective program for another.  Our teaching strategies must align with the research.  We know that humans need comprehensible input to acquire, and that by making the input compelling, the likelihood for attending to messages is greater, optimizing our time and effort.  (Read about SLA here.)

-Many well-intentioned teachers and programs insist that their novice level youngsters speak/respond only in Hebrew, say in the cafeteria or in other school common spaces.  We call this practice, “forced output,” and it flies in the face of what we know about acquisition and the affective filter.  If a student is forced to speak in Hebrew before s/he is ready, (before the utterance comes unprompted, confidently and without hesitation), then we run the risk of raising the student’s affective filter, making him nervous/self-conscious and less likely to willingly speak the next time around.  WE MUST BE PATIENT UNTIL THE LANGUAGE FALLS FROM THEIR MOUTHS, giving students ample invitation and opportunity to speak in more supported and natural ways.  This point cannot be overstated.  Often teachers and schools feel pressure to prove that their Hebrew classes are effective, by showing what the kids can say/do with the language (“using complete sentences!”)  Instead, we must re-educate our whole community on the importance of investing our time and energies in CI, and showing how it works by:  1.  Demonstrating T/CI on parents; 2.  Inviting them to observe Hebrew class: 3.  videotaping our classes so that observers can appreciate just how much Hebrew our kids are hearing, attending to, and comprehending.  There is no research that I know of supporting forced output (“You may only speak Hebrew in gym class”) or language practice, (as in, “Repeat after me:”) as a pathway to proficiency – for beginners.  On the contrary, Comprehensible Input provides the fertile soil from which speaking and writing (output skills) grow.

-Many schools assume that teacher-made thematic units are the way to go, and map their curriculum accordingly.  But we know that young students (and most people, no?)  like to talk about one thing more than any other – themselves!  Therefore, setting a curriculum focused on exploiting the highest frequency words (& verb-containing chunks), while incorporating students’ interests and ideas through story-asking, is a fun, lively, engaging and creative way to customize classes for the group in front of you!  Using hi-frequency verb-chunks to talk about “my house” or “my morning routine” is flat and boring, while collaborative, creative and personalized stories bring light and laughter into a discipline in which the brain is already working hard!  We can decide upon a corps of foundational verbs we want to use, and recycle & add more each year to articulate a curriculum up through the grades, realizing full well that we may deviate while following student interest.  The key to good language instruction is sustaining engagement and attention to the comprehensible message, while using Hebrew all the while.

Clearly I could go on, but I’ll stop here, to bask in the knowledge that great and positive changes are within reach for Hebrew teaching and learning (acquisition)!   Change takes courage, and the Prizmah session was filled with courageous Hebrew leaders.  I believe we are ready to transform Hebrew instruction, and improve the experience and Hebrew language outcomes for our students!

I wish to be part of the wave that’s coming.  If I can help you or your institution realize your dream and re-imagine your Hebrew offering, please reach out! and we’ll set up a training for administrators, teachers, parents and/or students.

I’d love to hear your comments on the Prizmah session, and/or the future of Modern Hebrew instruction.

Let’s make it happen!

I’M ALL IN.

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.

Modern Hebrew – A Love Story

What’s the story of Modern Hebrew – how was it revived, and how’d it come to be a modern national language less than a century ago?

This is one cool story.  I will give it a most cursory treatment on this blogpost, but I encourage you to delve into Hebrew’s fascinating evolution to a modern lexicon, and share your resources with us by posting a response!  Modern Hebrew is a baby compared to other languages, such as Arabic and Greek.  However, it derives from Ancient Hebrew, the language of the Torah, our core text.

In 1880, a highly-educated Litvak with a vision, known as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, believed in a homeland for Jews (before his time), and a common language, Hebrew, to unite us.  Realizing that Hebrew would only gain traction as the lingua franca by insuring ‘Hebrew in the home, Hebrew in the schools, and words, words, words!’,  Ben-Yehuda began teaching in a school (in what was then Palestine,) whose population was linguistically diverse.  Later he published an all-Hebrew newspaper, where he disseminated newly coined vocabulary.  He worked passionately to develop a lexicon based on ancient Hebrew, and developed the first modern Hebrew dictionary, containing words for everyday items, as well.  While teachers in that era had no published Hebrew materials and curriculum to work from, they were inspired by Ben-Yehuda’s vision and used whichever textbooks they had at hand – French, Russian, etc. as a template to teach their Modern Hebrew lessons.

By 1881, waves of immigration from Eastern Europe to Palestine helped Ben-Yehuda realize his vision, as thousands of persecuted Jews dreamed of a united community in a safe homeland, and readily took up the Hebrew cause.  “Thus, within a biblical generation, in the forty years between 1881-1921, a core of young, fervent Hebrew-language speakers was formed, with Hebrew as the unique symbol of their linguistic nationalism. This fact was acknowledged by the British mandate authorities, who on November 29, 1922, recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine.” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ben_yehuda.html)

Surely this dramatic story of the birth of Modern Hebrew, a purposefully forged tool of communication and unity, based on our beloved Torah, has inspired many non-native speakers to pursue acquiring and using Modern Hebrew to listen, read, write and speak  – בעברית!

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?

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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! 

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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.
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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!

An Open Invitation

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-47-16-amI sent this letter of invitation below, explaining my Hebrew educational reform project to family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, administrators, and organizations.  If you know anyone interested in improving the Hebrew learning (acquiring) experience and outcomes for students of all ages, please read and forward this letter!

I hope to get more teachers and decision-makers to explore and subscribe to my blog, become familiar with the tenets of Second Language Acquisition theory, read about Teaching with Comprehensible Input, engage in enlightening conversations, and seek (re-)training for our Hebrew teachers.  Once I have a group of interested ‘stake-holders,’ I’d love to organize a conference and/or workshops to present and train, like I did at my temple this summer.  For more on my temple training, start reading here.

I also plan to submit proposals to present at Jewish educator conferences, and, if accepted, seek sponsorship to attend and share my work.  I am aware of the NewCAJE conference in San Francisco in August – please email me with information on other relevant conferences!screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-38-46-amHere’s the letter to circulate, and thanks in advance for helping get the word out on improving Hebrew instruction:

October, 2016

Dear Friends,

This summer, I embarked on a new project that I want to share with you.  In a nutshell, I am reimagining Modern Hebrew language instruction.  I believe my vision is timely, and doable with community support.

With the goal of improving our kids’ Hebrew learning experience, I received a grant through the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE), which allowed me to start training Hebrew teachers in teaching with comprehensible input (T/CI).  Comprehensible Input (CI) refers to brain-friendly language instruction that is understandable to the learner, and focuses on meaning and interest.  Aimed at beginning-through-intermediate-level students, classes are conducted almost exclusively in conversational Hebrew.  T/CI is engaging, fun and effective, employing collaborative ‘story spinning,’ improvisation and acting, and exploits Hebrew’s most practical, high- frequency words.  

I’ve started a blog to share my instructional resources and reflections at cmovan.edublogs.org.     I invite you to follow and join the conversation by posting responses and questions!   Also, please forward this letter to as many friends, acquaintances and contacts you may know who are involved or interested in Hebrew instruction, whether they are affiliated with temple-based supplementary school, day school, ulpan, university or adult conversational classes. This list may include rabbis, classroom teachers, educational directors, administrators and students, etc.   

I hope to foster enlightening discussions around Modern Hebrew language instruction, through this platform, wherever my readers reside, and whatever native language they speak.

In the few short weeks I’ve been teaching Hebrew classes to 3rd through 7thgraders at my temple, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from kids, parents, teachers and the community.  I’ll continue to model teacher lessons, until our faculty feels sufficiently confident to take over.  I will also coach and mentor our faculty throughout the year.

I hope to train additional groups of Hebrew teachers who are interested in learning to teach with comprehensible input in the coming months, hopefully in a workshop or conference setting.

Thanks in advance for your support in helping me spread the word, and feel free to contact me directly at this special email address:  cmovanhebrew@gmail.com.

 

Sincerely,

Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

Comprehensible Hebrew, כמובן

cmovan.edublogs.org

cmovanhebrew@gmail.com