Teaching Hebrew as a Second/Foreign Language

Mar 3, 2005

This time last year I sat at my desk thinking about what is wrong with the teaching of Hebrew as a second/foreign language. The fruit of those thoughts was an article I posted on the Mifgashim site. It drew many comments from teachers, parents and administrators. I detailed there some of the big issues which included, poor or no teacher training, teachers who could not run a class in Hebrew, the dearth of new learning texts, the continued use of old texts with old methods, no professional Hebrew, no second/foreign language journal to disseminate current knowledge, the lack of assistance or concrete support from national or even regional agencies, the insistence on stressing grammar and memory, poor or no support for those with language learning disabilities, and the lack of continuity from early childhood and up. Some responses were positive, some critical, but all agreed that there was a need to improve Hebrew instruction. All agreed that it was time to change the unacceptable status quo.
This past year I was invited to work with some schools in America to try and come up with fresh suggestions that could solve some of the difficulties I noted in last year’s article. I met with teachers, administrators, supervisors, members of the boards of education, and many educators at the CAGE Conference at Hofstra. All shared with me stories of frustration and aggravation while trying to find a better way to teach Hebrew. My recent experiences and the disappointments that I keep hearing have motivated me to write this article with suggestions which may solve this educational conundrum. I will present the rationale and application of a new paradigm for language learning, and propose a solution to curricula and methodology in the teaching/learning of Hebrew as a second/foreign language (S/FL). I will skim the philosophy of language instruction, the state of the art in second language instruction, and try to present a flexible, yet hardy paradigm of instruction, that can be simply applied in most school settings.
Because of the scope of the paradigm I will not delineate specific details regarding various techniques now available for instructional adaptation. I will however suggest a language methodology that offers many ideas for teachers to use in their instructional packages. I believe that those ideas will make Hebrew language instruction easier for teachers and pupils and certainly more successful.
Of the many volumes of research on S/FL instruction, a great deal of information has dealt with teaching adults and not children. Although more and more research is being done on children acquiring a S/FL today the bulk of past instructional paradigms, used or still in use, are based on adult learning. Since the seventies there have been some strides in second language research for children but very little has filtered down to Hebrew instruction where relatively little research has been reported. Even in Israel, where Hebrew has been taught for over fifty years as S/FL to new immigrants, not much research has been published until now. Most of the research in Israel has been done with English as a second language. Whatever information and knowledge available from that work, it is evident to anyone who visits day school classes that little or none of it has reached the teachers.
Looking at the literature of language acquisition we learn that from the thirties through the fifties theorists believed that children acquired word meaning because it was connected together with the “thing” which it meant or represented. Language, it was thought, was an associative link between words and things. It would be easy for most children to figure out what was meant when the words were presented in a non-linguistic context. When a child was learning language he was forming and strengthening these bonds (Donaldson, 1978). Infants would make sounds later associated with things they heard, repeated them, like those their mother made. Soon, through habit formation, the child learned that those sounds not only satisfied him (as they echoed mom’s sounds) but also pleased mother and brought pleasant responses from adults. The associations were mechanical and were set in his mind through a conditioning process. Language specialists and psychologists tried hard to explain how a child’s language grew through the association of sounds to things. But their explanations were weak and finally disregarded.
Chomsky caused a revolution in 1965 with his theory that humans are biologically programmed and have a special LAD- “Language Acquisition Device”, an automatic and mechanical predisposition to understand the grammatical system of language which enables him to learn a language. (It is a shame that he did not read Chazal where he would have learned about our “Keter Debur” The Crown of Speech, which Hashem gave to man.) Since children learn more about the structure of the language than we can expect of them from the sample of language they hear, they discover for themselves (without overt correction of errors and ungrammatical usage) some of the underlying rules and structures of their language.
Children make sense of what people say and do; this happens because of the “…child’s ability to interpret situations and actively process hypothesis and inference to arrive at a knowledge of language” (Donaldson). Interestingly enough the child has to first understand the non-verbal context, and then apply that knowledge to help with the verbal part. This ability is influenced and controlled by cognitive and emotional growth.
Understanding is not an all or nothing phenomenon. Word knowledge develops over time. The fact that a word is understood in one context does not guarantee understanding it in another, so the quality, degree and depth of understanding of a word varies with the child’s experience, maturity, and other such factors.
Children have to apply themselves to learn a language, even their mother tongue, because they do not absorb the language passively. They also restructure the use of words when they learn to extend the label to other situations.
In spite of Chazals’ writings and Chomsky’s LAD theory, the Behaviorist’s approach to learning was popular throughout most of the past century and children always had to be correct or be corrected. Language content was viewed in terms of forms -grammatical rules- lists of words, fill-in sentences. Repetition through memory was king; no need to understand what you were saying as long as you said it; similar to tefillah with no kavannah. (This is the way I was taught Hebrew over 50 years ago, and this is how my grand children are being taught today.) The learner had to practice the correct forms to be able to acquire the correct language. Making errors served no purpose, so teachers had to prevent incorrect language use before they became a habit. It was this traditional language learning approach in S/FL learning that failed, there being little classroom research to support this overused method. “There is also meager research that tests the concept that early and exclusive emphasis on form will, in the long run, lead to the higher levels of linguistic performance and knowledge than early and exclusive emphasis on meaning.” (Lightbown & Spada, 1993).
Interestingly enough, despite the upheavals and changes in physics, mathematics, technology, medicine, etc., in fact, in almost all areas of our lives, education and language instruction have not really changed. In spite of the creation of the State of Israel, and the re-incarnation of spoken Hebrew, Hebrew language instruction, remains as old-fashioned as it always was. Change is never easy. Moving away from the familiar and re-adjusting to the new is unsettling. You no doubt recall the difficulties you had in learning to use computers, in accepting cell phone calls at all times, in setting up the VCR, or the ‘schooner’ with complicated, computerized telephone tactics! Teachers tend to be conservative and find it difficult to change- especially when they have to rewrite their lessons, re-do tests, re-work lesson tactics. What is “familiar and comfortable” is difficult to disregard.
Those who attempted to modernize Hebrew language instruction faced difficulties in finding good materials to use. All of the old texts were “grammar bound” with typical excercises- learn ten new words, read the story, memorize a structure, answer the questions, fill in 3-4 work sheets that repeat and test your memory of the story, etc. There was also little publication of task-activities to use. The language seemed to be locked in an archaic “freeze zone” taught for its own sake or for some assistance while studying the Holy Texts, but not for a real communication tool and practical applications. Hebrew had then few practical applications. This methodological status quo left Hebrew language learning difficult, dull, and deadly. Although some dynamic teachers tried to find newer ways of dealing with Hebrew stressing “use”, Hebrew as a language for communicating, using it for making meaning, for connecting with others, for finding information, for understanding texts, most teachers remained trapped in the older teaching approaches.
Change in methods also meant a change in attitude. Not only did the teachers have to change their teaching tactics but they also had to relinquish frontal class control, work with the different student levels in the class, use multiple intelligence activities, adapt new assessment possibilities, and allow student to participate in classroom decision making. The teacher had to become a facilitator and guide of learning as opposed to the sole presenter, the fount of knowledge, and the only director in the class. Relinquishing some of the overt control was difficult, so few tried.
Even the games and other tricks teachers used were not really keyed to communication and content. (One recalls the “Game of Siddur Baseball” where students read and received hits for each word, sentence or paragraph read- usually 45 minutes was spent on the game and about 15 minutes on the reading.) Although the game was fun, much time was spent on the mechanics of the game and little on connecting the isolated words or short sentences to reading for tefilla. Teachers had to become more involved and provide authentic language activities. Some were more successful than others. Some even forgot the need to teach the necessary elements of grammar that would service meaning making. To exacerbate the issues, teacher training in language pedagogy that enhanced a communicative approach was sparse.
In Israel, second language (English and Arabic) pedagogy change came but only in the 90’s. In the beginning of that decade, although most teachers still remained with their worksheets and old text books, and continued to have difficulties teaching for communications, some new learning programs with newer learning activities slowly became available and gradually found their way into the schools. In spite of the newer materials and requests from the Ministry of Education, many training colleges still stressed grammar instruction over meaning making. Most instruction was focused on helping the student to pass the required exams but not necessarily to become fluent in the language. Only in the late 1990’s, the beginning of a new trend toward a more communicative approach to language learning was seen in schools and in teacher training colleges. The Bagrut (matriculation exams) were refocused, intensive teacher training and in-service planned and instituted. Although Israeli classes are still text-bound and are primarily frontal and teacher controlled, there seems to be a strong awareness and signs of change in S/FL instruction. Great improvement has been made in teaching English, but the methodologies of Hebrew and Arabic as S/FL lag behind and are still based on the old theories of language learning.
I must admit that I too have been guilty of such errors in thinking. In the late eighties I was the consultant to a new program teaching Arabic as a foreign language to Israeli students, “Ma-an” – “Together” (CET). We thought then that we were at the state of the art with comics, dialogues, video and audio tapes, set structures and the latest in workbook and reading anthologies. I then developed, with another team, a new course of study for Hebrew as a foreign language for the young Arab population (“Ivrit Zeh Kef”- “Hebrew Is Fun” (CET), also using what was then thought to be the best approaches. We developed tapes, games, new magazines, detailed teacher guides, and even created puppets. Some students learned to speak the language taught, but many did not in spite of the new materials used. Both programs are still being used in most schools in Israel, yet if I were to start again, I would do things differently and produce a different kind of learning paradigm, one based on what I intend to present shortly.
In the Diaspora where new texts (due to costs) come slowly, and are used for an eternity, the change has not occurred. Old texts with old ideas still constitute the basis for class learning. When a school has invested $20,000 to purchase language programs developed twenty to fifty years ago, administrators find it hard to change to new texts. Ironically, even after having purchased those texts, they are only used partially or not at all. Those old programs have lost their luster, their content is not always of interest to the students, the language is frozen, and their work sheets are dull, repetitive and boring, their layout and art work out of fashion, and their methods antiquated. So teachers, even those who speak Hebrew, continue to use the older, outdated language materials because they find it easier to use those texts as a crutch to get through the day. “Why bother preparing new materials or developing new methods, the students are busy anyway?” they say. The results are disconcerting, as one would have expected improvement in Hebrew instruction in this the twenty-first century in the Jewish day schools.
Perhaps one serious problem that amplifies this poor state of affairs is the fact that the learning objectives of our Hebrew classes are not clear. Are we teaching Hebrew just to allow students to pray? If that is the case, why bother with language rules or tedious meaningless decoding skills if prayer can be taught though rote practice and song? Or perhaps we should only teach Hebrew “reading” (misnamed, since we are only teaching decoding) that is, sounding out the words, because it is relatively easy. Anyway those “ancient” words from the prayer book remain for the most part nonsense words since most students have no notion of what they mean. Everyone can learn how to read phonetically- or can they? Since Hebrew is a living language shouldn’t we also focus on language communication goals? Or is that too difficult and complicated a task?
Most schools want their charges to know Torah. However, when we get to teaching Torah and communicating in Hebrew has not been taught, learners only mumble the pisukim and await teacher translation. Those translations are not effective because we then expect the students to not only remember the Hebrew phrase but also its English translation. We double up the memory system and in many cases the pupils forget the translation or its connection to the Hebrew phrase. Thus the translation becomes ‘disregarded labels’ filling the blanks when first taught but not retained by most of the students. Such poor pedagogy forces students to rely on “Artscroll” to get the meaning. In spite of “Artscroll’s” contribution to learning, Rashi, when explaining “V’debartem bam” as -‘ledaber lashon hakodesh’- to speak Hebrew, was not referring to Artscroll.
Teachers also teach some of the grammatical aspects of the language in Torah. As one of the effective tools for understanding Torah, grammar is most important, but since it is done piecemeal, and not part of a total language instruction sequence, many items are lost. If we want our children to be able to learn Torah and the other Holy Texts throughout their lives it is more than translation, piece-meal Hebrew, and memory that have to be dealt with in class. In most cases they may remember the grammatical point but not be able put the pasuk together, nor comprehend its meaning. Leaning on Artscroll then becomes the norm and we forfeit one of our greatest gifts from Hakadosh Baruch Hu- Lashon Hakodesh- and one of the most important links to our past and to our future, our language.
Tragically, language learning information that is available does not reach our teachers and Rebbies. And so “The Professional Knowledge Gap” (PKG) grows. Many teachers who come from Israel, do not feel comfortable with academic research in any language, especially in English, the language usually used for publication, or are unaware of the available information, even in Hebrew. Neither have most of them been trained to teach S/FL. English speaking teachers, those trained in the States, on the other hand, feel that they cannot deal with academic work published in Hebrew and so they rarely read the research that is published. Thus, little is known regarding current literature in the field. When practitioners are not aware or knowledgeable about current second language acquisition research, newer methodologies, and up-to-date pedagogy, teaching/learning becomes stale and stagnates. Neither the children nor their charges move forward.
Not only is the gap between the literature in language learning and the instructor wide but so is the gap between our knowledge of pedagogy and the way we train our teachers. Most teacher-training programs focus on subject matter; that is, how much the teacher has to know in the area being taught, rather than thinking about the developing processes required when training to become a professional, and what kind of curricula to provide the guidelines. How we understand and define teaching shapes and frames the methods we use to use to train teachers. If a frontal delivery system of instruction is the norm, then we should teach teachers in the same way. But if differentiation, variety, creativity, innovation, and meaningful concepts, are now accepted in wise educational circles, they must be present in our teacher training programs. The same stilted concept that stifles children’s learning- the “one size fits all” paradigm is being used to train teachers. The information is frontally transmitted to teachers, and usually focuses on content knowledge, general theories of learning, rote grammatical rules, and broad-based pedagogical applications that may help some learners. This ‘transmissional approach’, for teachers in teacher training settings and for children in the classroom does little to help construct learning and to connect what they already know toward building new information. Students in both situations are so busy recording the transmitted information that there is little time to internalize the material. Homework thus becomes the moment of possible absorption but, as we all know, it usually is not done or is done superficially, so that most learners rarely remember and use what has been taught. It may suffice for the exam but is forgotten as soon as the tests are over.
Rather than work with a transmissional model, teachers should be trained with the ‘transactional approach’ where they become facilitators, matching material and methods to the learner’s needs and allowing the student to meld prior knowledge and personal interest into the language activity. The teacher becomes the “guide by the side”, allowing each learner to build his own understandings of language learning, at his own pace. Teachers need more than just content, they need process training, skill and awareness in analyzing outcomes. They need to learn self-assessment, have external evaluations and consultations, in-service and continued leaning. We have to teach teachers the mastery necessary for a new and updated presentation of information and activities.
With the mention of change and new directions in instruction, teachers begin to feel ill at ease. They complain that it is impossible to carry the new load by planning and working with new material that they have to prepare on a daily basis. To add to their frustration and make matters worse teachers are not trained in curriculum writing. I too, as a teacher, for many years resented being imposed upon by my supervisors when asked to do things I was not trained to do. Similarly, asking teachers to teach Hebrew, when they themselves cannot speak it, is a Herculean, almost impossible, request. Perhaps principals should avoid hiring teachers who cannot speak Hebrew!
With little incentive or interest in professional growth, teachers become complacent and find it easier to continue with the ‘old’ way. They say; “Why bother? I have been teaching Hebrew this way for so long, why change?” Here is one example I would like to share with you. As consultant to a large and well known day school, I was asked to assist in expanding and enriching the early childhood curriculum so that the school could maintain its reputation as a good school where Hebrew was once taught with great success. In spite of the principal’s desire to move forward, the sizeable staff was not really interested in doing anything new, thinking that change was not necessary. A large group of teachers joined forces and sabotaged the program, deceived the administrators, and literally did next to nothing for two years. Naturally the program was dropped. There might have been other reasons for the failure, but once the teachers decided not to cooperate the project was doomed before its start. Either the fear of a new program, of hard work, plain laziness or perhaps a combination of all three, was the cause of failure.
So what can be done to encourage teachers of S/FL Hebrew to change their ways, turn Hebrew instruction into an exciting occupation and make the learning meaningful to children. Let us look into the English as a S/FL scenario and see what directions and inspirations we might find which can be applied to Hebrew S/FL.
Past and Present
A renewed interest in English in the context of S/FL pedagogy has motivated researchers to seek information on how one may improve language instruction. What has emerged in the last quarter of the century is that there are many similarities between first and second language acquisition, however, there are also many differences with specific salient features of a particular language such as script of alphabets, syntax, etc. which we must be aware of, not to forget the various contexts, natural and/or contrived, which each learner is exposed to when acquiring either mother tongue or the target language.
The trend, until recently, has been to apply many insights of first language linguistic elements of classroom interactions in second/foreign language learning(Tsui-2001). Now it is also clear that many aspects of teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, thinking and decision making are very important in analyzing and understanding teacher behaviors.
The research refers to the need for educators’ awareness of learner and teacher attitudes towards teaching/learning a new language, as well as the importance of the different stages of development when learning a language. All of the factors mentioned above have an impact on language teaching and learning and must be taken into account in S/FL instruction.
In seeking better methods, researchers are suggesting that we look to mother tongue settings to learn more about second language acquisition. Because of the many similarities between first and second languages, insightful language methodologists suggest that we teach second language with techniques that are as close as possible to mother tongue acquisition. This approach, they believe and we concur, will make learning a new language easier and more relevant.
To better understand language acquisition, let us look at some of the salient features of mother tongue contexts. Lightbown & Spada (1993) note that in a natural type setting:
Learners are rarely corrected especially when those who listen understand what has been said.
The language is not structured step by step.
The learner is surrounded by the language that is being learnt most of the day.
The learner is involved in a variety of language use as needs arise.
The learner encounters many different speakers, all using the same language in different ways, for communicative purposes.
Unlike the mother tongue setting, when a learner uses second languages, he has limited ability to seek information or answer questions. His emphasis is on getting meaning across, and better speakers are tolerant of less proficient ones. When conversations are held by native speakers, those learning the new language usually have difficulty understanding the conversation.
When learning a second language in the traditional classroom – The Classical Method or Grammar-Translation Method is used.
All input is presented and practiced in isolation, piece by piece, sequenced
and structurally simplified.
Most instruction and language experiences occur with questions and answers or a limited range of discourse topics.
Teachers teach in the same way, the same pace, the same text and the same methods to all.
Teaching/learning time is constrained.
To insure comprehension instructors often modify and simplify the language.
The teacher is usually the only proficient speaker around (in many of our day schools even that is not the case).
The pressure to speak and write is always on-students who must always produce correct language.
Priority is given to accuracy and errors are frequently corrected.
It is assumed that whatever the input, the learner will absorb and master the information and then be able to use it at any time.
This method was first used while teaching classical Greek and Latin to guide students when reading foreign language literature, In the olden days it was thought that the student would never use the language but would benefit from the development of his mental efforts (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). This was and still is, in most Hebrew classes, the method used. It is ‘form-based’ since the language is analyzed into a list of forms and then presented and drilled as a set of discrete items.
The educational philosophy that supports this method is Behaviorism.
A newer approach followed when educators became aware that a focus on language forms, out of context, lacked communicative relevance. As a result the, Audio-Lingual Method a kind of compromise to “only grammar”, where communication skills were included, was developed. In this teacher directed system, language forms were introduced only in context and only the target language was used in class. Teachers modeled the language and learners acquired it by habit forming repetitions. The major underpinnings of this approach are rote activities where the patterns and structures are repeated for over-learning. Mistakes had to be corrected immediately and learning was to be automatic with little time to stop and think about what was said.
The Direct Method which tried to bridge the gap between a grammar focus and communicative one followed, where:
There was no translation into the mother tongue.
There was no explicit grammar instruction.
Topics were provided by the teacher and used for context.
The stress on spoken language and vocabulary was more important than on grammar.
Teachers encouraged learner self-correction.
This method offered a closer connection to communicative language learning. It provided for a mixture of teacher and student control although in most cases it was still the teacher who was in control.
Suggestopedia another method, less popular than those noted above, took into account the emotional needs of learners:
It featured a relaxed comfortable environment.
It used peripheral learning techniques such as posters and other aids and
It built trust and rapport between teacher and students.
The method activated creativity and imagination, novelty and curiosity, applied music and body movement to reinforce learning, adapted play techniques and tolerated errors. Form was introduced once the basic language foundation was set.
During the past two decades educational psychologists and language specialists decided to move to a more practical approach. One which focuses on interactions and communication needs. The Communicative Method is learner-centered and emphasizes real communication. It attempts to be eclectic in nature and includes many of the positive elements introduced by the other methods noted above.
In second languages, a communicative teaching setting should be as close as possible to natural, mother tongue learning where:
Meaning is paramount.
Form is taught when needed as a ‘service’ for meaning. It is never decontextualized and always used to improve comprehension.
Error correction is limited.
Contextual clues, props, pantomime, all assist comprehension. There is no structural grading from simple to complex.
The language is taught by being used in class. In some cases some subject matter is also taught in the language (great for teaching Tanach, Tefilla, Hagim, etc.)
The teacher is usually the only proficient speaker around but now learners have the possibility of hearing the speech of other students in the class.
There is greater more exposure to various types of discourse.
There is use of real language materials such as newspapers, packaging, magazines, radio and other media.
The class works on fluency and use, rather than stressing accuracy. Comprehension and meaning making is paramount.
There is little pressure on accuracy in the early stages.
Teachers work on modifying the level of language acquisition. Students learn to listen and to speak the language. They use it with each other and improve their level of skill.
The emotional welfare of the student as well as his interests, needs, and capabilities are taken into account.
This teaching/learning setting is supported by constructionist concepts.
The Communicative method builds tasks that give the learner opportunities to use language in meaning making situations. Rather than a worksheet sequence of grammar drills with/or vocabulary lists, the learner is involved in a series of communication tasks where meaning exchange is the goal. Students comprehend, manipulate, produce, or interact in the S/FL with great attention to making sense rather than in mastering language forms. Not only can they read, write, speak, listen and view, but they can also deal with a problem, present information, share ideas, follow instructions, etc. Each activity’s goal is independent of the language. Each student is free to use any form of the language to express meaning, and to try to get the message across as best as possible. He may even use incorrect grammar- atypical forms- as younger children do in their mother tongue. This encourages him to develop a meaning system, and fluency the delivery. With less stress on accuracy, the learner is motivated to seek interesting and creative ways of expressing himself without being forced into a straightjacket of exact language. This generates language when sending and receiving messages and highlights communication rather than practice with grammatical forms. Naturally, by stressing the activities, we direct attention to goal completion. This allows for interesting talk, substantial interaction, fluency building, but not necessarily for learner control of specific language forms needed for accuracy (that is dealt with later on). The learner is using the language; he is functioning with and in the language, not just studying the grammar of the language.
In opposition to strict dry grammar (usage) drilling, the Communicative Method allows for open-ended, flexible talk. The practice (polishing language for accuracy) comes after the talk has been enjoyed, the task completed, by all. These tasks which are of great interest to the learner assist him in his desire to master the language in the execution of simple or complex tasks.
In the instruction of English as a second/foreign language, the most significant shift that has taken place is the understanding that communication (function) not grammar (form) should be the major objective of the curriculum. Both classroom practice and the research reinforce that emphasis (Curtain and Dahlberg, 2004). The key element and major goal for successful acquisition of any language must be the ability to communicate, and participate in true meaning making. Following Vygotsky’s (1986) dictum, that learning works when there are ‘interactions’ between people, the communicative approach- with teacher scaffolding- offers social learning with higher order thinking skills such as analyzing, synthesizing, and reasoning. In spite of the stress on fluency and communication, there is certainly room for grammar instruction (as the reader will learn later on in this article) but its place in the instructional sequence and its methodology must be modified.
Although there have been many gains and improvements, resulting in new knowledge, in study of other languages, Hebrew language teaching however has remained frozen; the method most often used is still similar to grammar/translation. The status quo is retained since many administrators and boards of education, believe that what they has worked in the past is good enough, and they continue to do little to improve and advance teachers’ knowledge. Lack of finances, in addition to lack of interest and/or missing knowledge, further impacts the inaction. A profession which begins with inadequate levels of pedagogical knowledge of language and which learning does not reflect upon its performance, falls prey to frozen, unacceptable standards. The situation is exacerbated by poor scholarship with the Holy Texts and gaps in the connecting links with the Jewish nation and Israel, its past, present and future. Furthermore, we lack current in-service training, and most schools never answer to a higher authority. ‘No one is watching the store.’ Since no educational agency keeps an eye on the quality of instruction, it is left to the skills (or lack of) of the principal. Indeed, most principals I have come across have never been trained as language experts. Thus, current Hebrew language instruction is a case of the blind leading the lame.
While discussing teacher training courses, Kerr (1996) shares his feelings about the tensions that exist between a basic methodology of language instruction and open-mindedness for experimentation and alternatives. The courses offer teacher training based on a “Transmission Model”- knowledge from instructors transmitted to trainees who continue the same type of ‘delivery’ to learners in their schools. Many such courses stress the view that grammar is the center of language learning, and consists of rules that can be taught and learned. This view is concerned with the construction of discrete sentences, with an emphasis on all the elements of form. Language is acquired through rote practice and not as a problem-solving activity and, in fact, exists independently from other aspects of language such as getting information, social interactions, learning about culture, etc.. Thus, the learning of grammar and its application are seen as separate activities.
The rules of the game
“The study of grammar”, notes Crystal, (1997), “goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Indians”. It has also played an important role in Torah study with its applications presented by our great Rabbis to understand the Holy Texts.
Grammar as such has developed around itself a hallowed, scholarly, and somewhat mysterious atmosphere. In the popular mind, grammar has become difficult and distant, removed from real life, and practiced chiefly by a race of shadowy people (Grammarians) whose technical apparatus and terminology require a lengthy novitiate before it can be mastered (perhaps that is due to the methods used in its instruction-[my addition A.W.]). The associated mythology has grown with time, and is now pervasive and deep-rooted. Millions of people believe that they are failures in grammar, say that they have forgotten it, or deny that they know any grammar at all- in each case using their grammar convincingly to make their point. It is such a shame, because the fundamental point about grammar is to so very important and so very simple.” (Crystal)
Crystal maintains that the fundamental purpose of language is to be intelligible and communicate, and I agree. In order to do so we must use a system of language that is agreed upon by all, and grammar is a part of it. Grammar gives us the system that allows for making and sending messages; it frames our linguistic dimensions. If we can ‘control’ our grammar we are able to use a stronger, richer, flexible and more effective language. Making sense goes beyond vocabulary since it is the way we present those words that give coherence and focus to our message. We need the form of grammar to actualize the meanings in words because words have multiple meanings, shades and understandings. When we speak of getting a better understanding of a word in context- in a sentence- what we are really saying is that the grammar-syntax of that sentence- allows us to grasp the meaning intended. Grammar adds the intended ‘sense’ to the words.
Grammar requires different types of knowledge says Crystal. We can ‘know grammar’: a sub-conscious facility which develops in every child when he learns his mother tongue. As the child grows, he learns to put the words in the correct order, add the correct prefixes and suffixes (not knowing these terms though), and even make some corrections. When one is formally taught grammar, one can become aware of the terminology and can speak about sentence structure, rules of syntax, parts of speech, etc. and hopefully understand the rules and when they are broken. This person now “knows about grammar.” But that does not mean that he knows to communicate in the target language. Students who are mother tongue English speakers in Israel have little difficulty with English language exercises since they ‘feel’ the errors; they can communicate with the language in spite of the fact that they may have difficulty in rule calling. They intuitively pick up errors heard and read but have some difficulty naming the rule- articulating the specific grammatical difficulty. Some second/foreign language speakers may know the technical aspects of the error, if they ‘know about the grammar,’ but they may suffer from a weakness in language ‘use’ (poor and little language application) and not know what to do with their technical knowledge.
Many native speakers have difficulty expanding on their knowledge of their language’s grammar, since the approaches used to teach them mother tongue grammar have been outdated and inappropriate as those used to teach second language ‘use’.
When grammar is taught for its own sake, for worksheet production or dull compositions, with little or no practical language use and no communicative purposes etc., learners become victims of stilted, distant, and unreal learning. Students, as we know, develop a powerful dislike for the meaningless, memorized grammar rules, which become their perception of what language learning is all about. Why do we allow a similar stilted approach for Hebrew instruction instead of stressing ‘use’ applied to our Torah learning?
The Old-fashioned/Out of Date “PPP” Paradigm
Teachers, like most people, like conformity; that is, they prefer to maintain a set of standard, repetitive activities (habits) under their control. It is easier to be in command of a class when the teacher plans the organization of the lesson, determines what materials are to be used (especially if it’s a book that has been used for many years) and is the only focal point of the lesson. When teachers orchestrate class behavior, maintaining total authority, the goals are clear-cut, the products expected are tangible and easy to grade, and accountability is simple. Learning focused on rules (grammar-translation) easily becomes the norm.
In this teacher centered approach, language classes are driven by ‘form’ where grammar is presented in manageable pieces, syntactical structures are discussed, and where vocabulary, usually out of context, is assigned for memory, drill and practice. The teacher presents information linearly, discusses its parameters, tries to explain when and where to use such forms, calls for focused drill, stands by and carefully corrects each error made, hands out reams of worksheets, then plans and executes simple language exams that mirror the worksheets, looks for expected language regurgitation towards memory not communication, and then continues, guided by the list of grammatical rules. Hopefully the children get it, at least for the test.
In the teacher directed Grammar-Translation, as well as the Audio-Lingual and Direct Methods, PPP (for its Presentation-the teacher presents, Practice- the students practice- and Performance- the students perform the techniques) is the dominant learning paradigm. In fact, Woodward (2004) notes that PPP is the accepted training paradigm that is also presented as the ultimate approach in most teacher training institutions. It is because of this accepted and endorsed paradigm, that it has become more difficult to create change and to suggest newer models or creative ideas to teaching language. Most new ideas have difficulty fighting their way to acceptance.
In addition to believing in the PPP paradigm teachers like it because the method is conducive to planning a ‘neat’ lesson, with distinct phases, and also enables them to orchestrate the behavior in the classroom. It is also easy for them to use existing materials while maintaining clear goals and objectives. The PPP paradigm, because it focuses on accuracy, has few accountability problems; the products are tangible and can be used for instant regurgitation of language bits (testing). But, as Lewis (1996) states:
Language and the ‘good lesson’ are organic, holistic concepts, where success of the whole is much more than the success of the apparent parts. Focusing on the discrete, apparently manageable language items; the teacher has control over what is being taught. But this control is only illusory. All forms of procedural or skill-based learning are, in fact, not subject to linear sequencing intrinsic to any assertion that we know exactly what is being learned at any given moment.
The teacher-centered PPP paradigm, thus, does not give us language for communication; it resembles the ‘show and tell’ method: the teacher ‘shows and tells’- the students drill and memorize- then the students are supposed to ‘show and tell’. At best, PPP lesson results are questionable. Like in the ‘show and tell’ classroom, PPP assumes the development of speaking skills will appear naturally after there has been sufficient work with grammar. This prescriptive, stiff, linear approach, what Wajnryb (1989) calls a “formulaic, prescriptive and rigorous straitjacket model”, to learning does not fit with what we know today about language acquisition.
A New Paradigm
In seeking solutions to second language learning we have to understand the three pillars which underpin language learning. The first, as Vygotsky noted, is that language is social. That means that when a learner becomes part of a social milieu he is surrounded by language outside himself. With sufficient exposure, he begins to absorb the outside, by listening and reading, by ‘doing’ with language, and it thus becomes a part of him.
The second pillar in language learning is that not all that the learner hears or reads or even uses will remain part of his language knowledge. Being exposed to language is not enough. Even if he has learned formally, it in no way ensures appropriate application and use in a variety of contexts/situations. Information formally taught and tested with successful results, is often forgotten or planted in our “do not or can not use” brain files. Without the intervention of cognitive decision making, language learning becomes limited. Students have to become cognitively involved, by mixing prior knowledge and old understandings with the new language material, for the new information to be stored and eventually applied. Language learning, void of real, relevant meaning, with little learner intervention-construction, leaves little room for real progress. Without this cognitive decision making, language learning becomes limited.
The third pillar deals with the manipulation of language and how we build new forms from what we know. It is those spontaneous, creative manipulations that enable the learner to discover what he can or cannot do with the language. A learners who ‘plays’ with phrase building- looks for a “special phrase” that says just what he wants to say- or uses words to express what he really means, or creates idea representations that matter to him, gains better control of expression and a better understanding and flexibility of language use. Lewis (1996) feels that the standard PPP paradigm lacks these three dimensions, which are intrinsic to all language learning. The social nature- is missing while the teacher is involved in the Presentation phase, and little spontaneity or cognitive decision making is available during the Practice or Performance phases. Although there are many common elements in most language learning strategies, among them: Control: (Teacher or student directed?) Goals: (For communication, reading, prayer, Holy Texts?) Level of autonomy: (Who controls the learning process- students of teachers?) Self efficacy: (Can the student do the job? (Oxford 2001) as long as one or more of the above noted three pillars is missing, the results are doubtful.
As a major teaching paradigm, the evidence in the research shows that PPP success in language acquisition leaves much to be desired. Research results of automated rules-to-memory are poor. Most learners can’t speak the language with fluency, can’t read the language well, in fact do not read the language for enjoyment or enrichment, only mumble some of the tefillot- with little, or almost no comprehension. They can’t compose an intelligent paragraph, having only filled out half sentences on worksheets and never having written a complete thought: they are left with poor retention and little useable language. (Skehan, 2004, Carroll, 1975, Stern, 1983). “Most language learning is associated with relative failure” (Skehan, 2004). Learners do not necessarily learn what is being taught, and in the set order that it is taught either; automacy, the automatic transfer of knowledge from teacher to student and the resultant grasping of the material and final ‘automatic’ use, is no longer credible in linguistics and educational psychology (Brumfit and Johnson, 1979, Ellis, 1985). The research is very clear in that there is no direct relationship between what the student learned and what he remembers. There is also no automatic developmental mastery in language learning. Students do not always learn exactly what has been taught when it has been taught. The teacher knows what has to be taught and did teach but, can never be sure that what was taught was learned. It is unrealistic and almost impossible to expect learners to produce exactly what the teacher has taught, when it was taught; indeed, it is absurd to expect that language is learned by automatically swallowing new vocabulary or chunks of language structures and immediately internalizing them; that those new words and/or structures can be ready for instant use as demanded during communicative interactions. Wills and Wills (2001) note that “… there is clear evidence that intake does not equal input. The natural development processes constrain effective learning and what is consciously learnt is not necessarily incorporated into spontaneous language production.”
There is thus, a great need to refocus and change our perceptions of learning, language acquisition, teaching, and teacher training. Most important is that we must provide for a variety of eclectic methods with a wide range of activities to help in language learning.
The truth is that we do not need to read all of the research. Just looking into our own classes where student attainment and usage is weak and generally below standard we can see the disappointing results of PPP. We try to excuse student failures by assuming that many learners have language acquisition issues, so that they cannot be expected to acquire Hebrew. We place children in slow groups or English-only classes for Jewish subjects, where, we know in advance that they will never learn Hebrew. Instead of changing our methods of instruction and adopting new paradigms, we categorize our children and place them into slots. Yes, they do have language issues – but the issues relate to the way they are being taught. We are responsible, not the kids! So what are we going to do about it?
Before attempting to answer this question I would like to sum up by reiterating my major arguments. Learning only grammar does not give the student sufficient language skills and abilities, flexibility and confidence in using that language. More so, teaching everyone the same thing, the same way, never insures success for all. When learners start at zero knowledge they do not move up to mastery in one step and at the same time. The learner is driven by his own internal learning processor and may not be in sync with the teacherÂ’s teaching approach or time expectations. These processes are all natural and are not available for teacher control. The experiences the students have will not only assist their own individual natural process to learn, but also how they will make use of the new knowledge, when exposed to the language. When targeting specific structures one never knows in what order they will be remembered, recalled, and used. Second language acquisition cannot be scheduled in a sequential time-line, since each pupil learns, retains, and uses only those elements ‘important’ to him.
The problem is not only the old stress on grammar but also the one direction teacher-centered set up which freezes communication out. Thus, we have to look for a change in our instructional philosophy and teaching methodology. We must reorganize the class’s organization, adjust and balance teacher and student control, and restructure the way in which we integrate the various elements of the language in the teaching process. It is not enough to teach only grammar just as it is insufficient to teach only “communication” skills of language function. What we need is a wise recipe for integrating all language information in the best way possible.
The suggestions I will make shortly will not require teachers to write new curriculum, but to learn how to manipulate what already exists in our surroundings and use that to teach. To assist in understanding this new approach let us look at the daily learning experiences of a young infant. The mother does not sit up each night and plan what to teach the next day. What happens in the normal course of a day becomes the ‘learning experience’ for her child. The language used, as part of that experience, connects mother and baby automatically and becomes part of that learning. It is the experience that is the new challenge for the child, the task that is important, and the language allows him/her to move through it. When the child does not understand, mommy, as the best teacher, finds alternatives, changes her voice, slows down, uses body language such as pantomime, points to things, repeats, or changes her speech pattern, etc. This is learner-centered learning at its best. Soon the child understands and copies, learns the skill, completes the task and most interestingly, learns the language “around the task”.
This learner-centered approach is also successful because the mother and child ‘talk about’ the things which have meaning and that are useful. The talk is functional, part of the environment, nothing artificial. The driving force is making meaning, not learning bits and pieces of language. Most importantly, the subject matter of the discourse is related and relevant to both interlocutors.
I suggest that Hebrew language teachers stop using artificially controlled and contrived texts, many devoid of relevant and interesting material and begin to work with the target language as mothers do in meaningful contexts. Teachers should open their classes to situations and tasks that are pertinent and significant to all such as Jewish, daily life experiences. Thus, the language becomes useful, used, and learned. There is no need to use stilted, old language texts as key underpinnings. (One may use some of the content of the texts for additional and/or enrichment reading, if the learners are interested, if the stories are written well, and tempt their curiosity.)
We offer a new paradigm based on the literature and research in S/LF instruction, educational psychology and current brain-based research. A short list of those concepts will help the reader better understand the paradigm we will present.
The literature offers important guidelines that educators can use as they plan, instruct, and assess language study. Here are some of the more important concepts which I have adapted to Hebrew instruction.
Instruction of all languages must take into account all of the elements of emergent literacy, cognitive and emotional development, brain development and function, implications of multiple intelligence, language learning and reading comprehension research.
Presentation in class must be geared to the learner’s needs, interests, capabilities, background, development level and learning style.
Learners are not passive containers that receive rules and information out of context.
The learning experiences must occur in meaningful, interesting, relevant, useful, concrete, communicative contexts.
Classes must stress interesting experiences, thinking, action, communication, pragmatics, discussion, inquiry, cooperative learning and activity rather than just frontal teaching.
The environment teaches, and so learners have to be surrounded by Hebrew, by ‘realistic’ language which can be found in real signs, pictures, in meaningful notifications, and relevant information. This is in direct contrast with decorations that usually feature on classroom walls which emphasize grammatical forms, lists of words, outdated and other unrelated materials which are meaningless and boring. What is not posted in the outside world should not see be posted in the class, as it does not represent real language use. Language charts do have a place as aids, in class during instruction but not as decorations or pseudo-environmental, informal learning since language “bits” without context are meaningless.
Concept-based themes and topics of interest to the learners are the basis for the tasks. The object of the work is to use language in order to complete the tasks.
Plan the curriculum using communicative functions and skills as guidelines.
When teaching/learning language all of the language arts- reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing- must be taught.
Comprehension must be stressed throughout.
Grammar is an important tool but only for polishing accuracy. It is presented when necessary for improved usage not analysis. The objectives of language learning are for communication not correct grammar.
Learning from our Holy Texts, with their variety of language registers, not only requires knowledge of those language registers but also comprehension skills and strategies and learning how to learn techniques.
Teaching Jewish ‘midot’, ‘mitzvot’, ‘minhagim’, history, and current life in the Diaspora and in Israel are an integral part of any Hebrew language program. Our culture is a part of our language just as our language is a part of our culture.
The language of the class is Hebrew, all class functions are done in Hebrew, there is minimal use of the mother tongue.
Formative assessment of teaching/learning is frequent, ongoing, and is used to drive instruction and learning.
Enjoying teaching and learning Hebrew is not a haphazard phenomenon. It requires good planning, proper guidance and a lot of hard work.
Teachers in all classes and all grades have to be aware of these concepts, study them individually, and learn how to integrate them into their lessons and classroom instructional events. The instruction of language, like all learning, requires the careful adaptation of the above principles. Without applying these principles, Hebrew classes become rigid, and boring, and worse of all, nothing remains after the language tests are completed.
It is not in the scope of this paper to discuss detailed applications instead I recommend reading an excellent text, Languages and Children by Curtain and Dahlberg. (2004) Allyn and Bacon. There the reader will find countless ideas for techniques and applications, all of which fit into the concept of the new paradigm.
One of the key concepts noted above is that curriculum planning requires using communicative functions and skills as guidelines. This in itself is somewhat revolutionary since generally accepted curriculums consist of a delineation of verb conjugations, parts of speech (word classes), vocabulary lists and other technical bits and pieces of language. In contrast, when using the new paradigm, the reasons for using the language are for ‘meaning making’ which should represent the framework for the Hebrew curriculum. There are specific functions of language the learner needs. These functions become our ‘hooks ‘ in the curriculum. They include:
Social Functions -i.e.: greetings, thanking, etc., Exchanging Information -i.e.: asking, describing, inquiring, expressing wishes, knowledge, etc., Getting Things Done- i.e.: suggestion, requesting, inviting, reacting, etc., Expressing Attitudes- i.e.: approval, interest, regret, apology etc., Organizing and Maintaining Communications i.e.: attracting attention, asking for clarifications, expecting confirmations, and others. These are the purposes for the language interaction.
Let us now relate to the themes or topics in which the above interactions take place. Here content, curriculum building may include: people, places, things, actions, qualities, time, space, quantity- amount or degree, characteristics like shapes, sizes, color, sounds, taste, age, evaluations, relationships between units and meaning such as comparisons, negation, etc. All of these things are found in the Jewish core or themes which I discuss below.
Hebrew language use framed in a Core or Theme Approach
Curtain and Dahlberg (2004) offer convincing reasons for using the Thematic Approach. They argue that it gives learners meaningful content which makes learning more understandable. The content is also supported by the students’ own background knowledge because it is connected to their interests. One of the most important elements of theme work is that it invites opportunities for real language in use. Class time is used to focus on the completion of the tasks while using the language. Students use the language, making meaning in order to complete the task. Language is not used just for repetition sake but for reaching a goal. What is emphasized is the information learned, not the grammar. It is not memory and rote driven but understanding with real language in real context. Curtain and Dahlberg believe, and I concur, that learners can get what Wiggins and Mctighe (1998) call the “Big Idea” rather than isolated exercises. The Thematic Approach thus offers enduring learning- content and language. It also has another advantage in that themes can be taught over a longer period of time which may hold greater interest for the students.
Theme selection should be done based on student and teacher interest, its importance to the goals of the curriculum, application of the language culture in the program, its links to the real world, and its potential for useful language and meaning making. Curtain and Dahlberg suggest that “…thematic learning goes beyond the knowledge and skills in language use and brings the learner to the point of actually using these skills to gain access to important ideas that are worth understanding”.
Here is a list of some of the ideas for potential theme and task-based activities that can be used to teach/learn Hebrew language.
Festivals and Holidays
Rosh Hashannah
Yom Kippur
Tu B’shvat
Tisha B’Av
The minor fast days
Kosher home
Kosher buying
Conflicts between parents and children
Dealing with Tzedakah projects
Helping the environment
A variety of Chesed projects
Jewish History
Jewish Heroes
Social Activities
Youth Groups
Birthdays and other occasions
Getting to know each other
Cultural Activities
Interior design
Jewish Music
Jewish Art
Different cultures
The number of topics is endless and is dependant on the teacher’s and students’ creativity. Building language interactions with themes allows for a rich cultural menu, content elements related to daily life, units that focus on functional language use, broad-based activities that cater to multiple intelligence that accommodate student learning styles and thinking abilities, different class settings, as well as providing for relevant tasks.
Furthermore, activities can run the gamut in multiple intelligence behaviors and be planned and executed with all forms of classroom formats and groupings.
BUILDING A NEW PARADIGM: The Communicative Method and a look at Fluency and Accuracy
Methodologies based on Behaviorist principles were founded on memory and rote learning with stress placed on pre-planned, accurate language expressions. These forms were pre-planned by the teacher or text, far removed from the interests of the learner. They supposedly offered the student an opportunity to memorize ‘speech bytes’ to help him develop his cognitive ability and language creativity, to assist him in expressing his thoughts while conveying a message. The fact was that by remembering the ‘pre-cut’ phrase in no way allowed the student to interact with the language, build his own sentences, or even develop flexible, fluent language. The stress on strict accuracy (using the language of another to say what one supposedly wants to say) did not give the long term fluency or accuracy hoped for. Most language mimics were not becoming language users.
With the advent of the communicative approach, the responsibility for formulating the message and later correcting and enhancing it remains with the learner and is facilitated by the teacher in the classroom. It is the learner who initiates the language, guided by his meaning-making goals, and he is thus self-motivated to seek language improvement. With the change toward cognitive-based, learner driven language, fluency took precedence over teacher controlled accurate dialogue; communication was achieving something important to the learner. Now the student’s message was intelligible and the speaker was able to put forward his meaning first in a simple fashion, then at a more complex level. Accuracy was important but only as far as supporting intelligibility in language interactions between two or more interlocutors.
To appreciate the new paradigm it would be germane here to distinguish between three different yet connected language learning goals: Fluency, accuracy and complexity. When one eventually grasps a language one is expected to have reached good level of: 1) fluency – the ability to produce language in real time without those painful -“hemmings and hawings”, 2) accuracy – produce that language with as few errors as possible,; and 3) complexity – the skill to expand and extend the language toward use. All three have a symbiotic relationship in language production yet they seem to be pulling in different directions. The three seem to be conflicting in the sense that when one is building fluency- accuracy can slow down production, and interrupt message making. An over reliance on accuracy, such as the search for a correct grammatical form, might hold speakers back from completing messages and destroy thought flow in real time speech. One must question the inordinate amount of stress placed on accuracy today in Hebrew language instruction, when accuracy does not matter if our learners rarely use the language. Whatever accuracy they have learned is useless since their awkwardness in fluency holds back language use. On the other hand, do students have enough accuracy to render a message intelligible? We know that listeners have greater tolerance for grammatical errors than for choppy statement production that takes too long to produce. At the same time, working only on accuracy will give learners a very small repertoire of production items and thus, limit their language usage. A proficient speaker has to be able to fine-tune levels of fluency, accuracy and complexity as young children eventually do with their mother tongue. Since the currently advocated underpinnings of language instruction are based on communicative goals, it follows that the main stress here will be on fluency.
Let us now analyze the application of fluency, accuracy and complexity to the various language arts and look for ways in which teachers can help students develop their communicative skills in the classroom.
Fluency in productive skills
Successful communication in spoken language requires a real time flow of language so that the speaker can put across his message in the time frame that is comfortable to him and to his listener. If he stalls, breaks the flow, stops and re-words, falters etc., he makes the conversation difficult for the listener. Most speakers and listeners are willing to forgo grammatical exactness if they are able to express and understand the message sent. Speakers who find the listener focusing on their message continue to send it regardless of errors made. Naturally we want accurate language but when one is constantly stopped with corrections or when one feels that he cannot get the message out in a smooth, free-flowing manner, the sender stops sending messages and is afraid to speak.
Fluency in receptive skills
Reading fluency requires almost perfect decoding and comprehension, with proper parsing of phrases- thought units, including a comfortable reading rate and rhythm of reading. The reader controls his own reading; slow reading, word by word reading, hesitations, repetitions, bursts of movement, and choppy reading all prevent good comprehension, cause anxiety, and painful reading which hurt and hamper motivation to continue to read.
Writing fluency is also necessary for competence and proficiency in language learning. Students have to learn how to first form the letters and words, producing them in a clear and fluent manner. Then they need to learn how to plan, think, and produce flowing ideas that make sense. Writing that is interrupted by grammatical sign posts constrains the creative voice from speaking. A writer must spend 95% of the time worrying about his ideas, their development and direction. It is only after the ideas are completed that the writer can deal with the correction of spelling and other grammatical issues (accuracy). If the grammar is correct but the ideas are flat, lifeless or unintelligible, of what use is the grammar or punctuation? Here fluency calls for production with grammar and other fine points of proofreading coming later.
The trouble is that many teachers do not focus on free expression insisting that students only use words they know how to spell. This freezes thought and limits written production. First one should create the ‘sloppy copy’ with rich ideas, and then, worry about the corrections.
The young reader, first starting out, reads aloud and spends 70% to 80% of his time decoding and 20% to 30% with comprehension but, after building decoding and comprehension skills he can perform with greater fluency and read with 70% to 80% comprehension and only concentrate 20% to 30% on decoding. We note this especially in Hebrew where, without the vowel system, it is almost impossible to decode words out of context because of the large amount of homographs in the language. (Homographs are words spelled the same way but pronounced differently depending on the context.) In Hebrew, examples are: boker, bieker and baker. In English: to read, he has read. Tear something, tears on the face. It is only the combination of decoding and comprehension that enables readers to gain fluency and understanding.
Other areas that cause readers poor reading fluency include their lack of vocabulary, the application of comprehension in context, limited background and prior knowledge of the subject read, misuse of context clues, failure to read for meaning due to a lack of comprehension strategies, and inefficient processing of information by treating portions of the text as isolated units that are not integrated into mental representations. Many novice and poor readers also lack skills in adjusting their reading to the different texts or purposes that there are in reading. They also fail to monitor their reading and fail to use remediating strategies when faced with the reading task. Naturally underdeveloped cognitive skills also complicate reading, and since reading requires more than decoding words, students must be taught how to think, comprehend facts, hold them in their memory, integrate them with other information and compose schemas with them (Gunning 2002).
Fluency in Tefilla is another issue. There are at least 20 elements in Tefilla that are different from regular reading. Among them: Cognitive levels of content, a variety of language registers, lack of prior knowledge, reading a pre-written message, coherence and cohesion issues, meta-comprehension and kavanna, the ability to pray without reading (decoding), prayer requires sub-vocalizations while good reading behavior does not, etc. (for a detailed analysis see Wohl, A. (2003)- Teaching and Learning Literacy, Open University of Israel. Vol. 3).
In spite of major stress on fluency to enable language communication we can not forget form. After the students have worked through the task, created their meaning system, and acquired some level of fluency, teachers can review the information and begin to build and form accuracy. Now teachers can refurbish the meaning system, and grammar is introduced as a tool for clarity, polishing the language and building accuracy- after communication has occurred. Teachers assist in getting good form when students reach the last stages of writing. At this time, students want to use accurate language and it is precisely that motivation for successful presentation that the students readily work for better accuracy. Only the language used by the learners in that task is dealt with, we do not impose a set of forms not connected to the messages produced.
I must note that more focus on accuracy affects fluency negatively and more fluency focus can distract attention from accuracy and cause a reduction of complex language processing. Activities that only stress building rich word and phrase combinations may hurt both fluency and accuracy.
Fluency and accuracy are only part of the picture in language curriculum. The third element in language acquisition complexity refers to the expanding and enriching of the language which appears on the learning scene as the student works on presentations and public performances of the tasks completed. Here the student is interested in putting his best foot forward and attempts, with the teacher’s help, to enhance the message. The desire to improve communicative language comes from within the learner, from many satisfying, positive interactions with the language and from enjoyed book readings, etc. Pragmatics- the appropriate language for a particular context and how it is expressed; sociolinguistic variables- age, gender, social class, ethnic membership, and language variables- style, register, politeness, etc. all play an important role in teaching higher levels of complexity. Complexity succeeds only when the learner is no longer constrained with imposed expressions, becomes aware of his language and is intellectually and emotionally interested and motivated to raise his level of language. With each successful interaction the learner boosts his desire to extend his language knowledge and thus, complexity grows.
A NEW PARADIGM: Task-based Communicative Method
Although there are a number of applications to communicative methods, I will now focus on one particular model which appears to be relevant to the teaching of Hebrew. As mentioned earlier, communicative methods challenged rote learning and formulaic language learning. They were also a reaction against the belief that learning the grammar of a language will result in the ability to use the language. Communicative experiences can be creative in different ways in the S/FL classroom but the common underpinning of all communicative approaches is that they are based on function (what the language is used for) rather than form (correct grammar structures). Lessons are organized around communicative objectives framed within different contexts and aimed at learners performing tasks which will encourage them to use the language and function interactively.
Willis and Willis (1996) present a learning cycle revolving around a central (theme) activity. They suggest using three phases in the cycle. The first is the Input Phase where the teacher gives input by modeling possible language for that activity or plays a recording that has been prepared- a conversation of that activity on tape for the class to hear, a video or film, or even a packaged scene. This allows for the priming and practice of mental operations that will be necessary in order to succeed in the task at hand. This cognitive and linguistic readiness stage makes the planned task easier for the children, who become used to the sounds, use of phrases, and music of the language used. They also have a clearer understanding of what the task will require cognitively. This then becomes prior knowledge to use while constructing the task activity. Cognition and language have been scaffolded.
Then, working in small groups the Rehearsal Phrase takes place. Each group goes through the same activity using as much language as is possible, usually using that language that can easily be accessed. Here there is little concern with accuracy as the learners are encouraged to use language they know or have just heard, including simultaneously parallel language (non-verbal language used at the same time to increase comprehension) such as body language pantomime, gestures, pictures, etc.. Willis (1993) reminds us that we should not pressure the learners to “…conform to specific structures… since that will cut back on using…cutting edge and riskier language structures.” Teachers move around the room and assist with the conversations. Feedback is given but errors are not dealt with. Carter and Nunan (2001) make an interesting additional point when they suggest mixing the phases, sometimes starting with fluency and then moving to accuracy, and alternating by starting with accuracy.
The greatest pressure imposed on the students, will be on completing the task and being able to get their message across, meaningfully, coherently and as fluently as possible. At this stage neither accuracy nor complexity is a factor. Teachers must remember that they can raise or lower the level of the language task by adding more visual or other aids to assist in task completion. By adding or removing some of the information, the teacher can also manipulate students to be more careful, listen more actively, ask sharper questions, etc. to get them to extend the communication, to solve the problem, or do the task. The language is spontaneous, exploratory, with a focus on getting meaning across; fluency is king and little language correction is employed. Students are already working on achieving their communication needs.
The last phase, The Performance Phase is where the students perform the task in front of the class in the target language with an attempted focus on a balanced task presentation. This ‘public’ performance calls for real-time fluency, improved accuracy and even some complexity. The students now can plan, practice, give attention to linguistic elements, and execute communication with better control of the language. Here the learners reflect on their task, the language used in performing it and the requirements needed to explain and do the task in front of an audience. They initiate self-direction, analyze their language structures for comprehension and clarity; language internalization begins when they select the ‘right’ words and phrases towards the presentation. During this phase students become increasingly aware of their communication needs, and try to use the best of their language in order to achieve a comprehensible output. They begin reflecting about what they can or can not do, and what they need to learn. They search their memories for more linguistic features they might be able to retrieve, ask questions, listen and learn from others in their group. They become concerned about communicating in the best way possible. This language analysis and critical thinking are important elements of learning and contribute to internalizing language. The fact that learners have the time to review, repeat, and recycle the way in which they use the language adds to the polish toward automacy in all three task stages. In contrast with PPP classes where most of the language is teacher presented, and student parroted, in task-based learning, teacher and student are driven by the communicative needs required toward completing the task at hand.
The old system of direct PPP learning, wherein each structure was presented by the teacher did not give us the success of language learning we thought possible. Neither did it cater to the various learning styles and developmental phases of individual learners.
However, using task-based methodology still presents us with a few questions. How can we be sure that the learner will get all of the language structures he needs to communicate with, and how can we take into account the needs of different learners in task-based learning?
Task-based methodology, which often focuses on problem solving, increases learner interest and motivation to complete the task, and function and form are balanced with function taking precedence. The task provides direction, although we cannot control what eventually remains with the learner. It also offers a graduated performance pattern with the three phases of interaction, and adds attentional pressure to successfully complete the task and perform well. As a result, those linguistic forms and structures cogent to the successful completion of the task are modeled and practiced in the activity; function and form are balanced with function taking precedent. The language ‘surrounding’ the task, as Willis (1996) notes,”…is more likely to be incorporated into actual language use.” It seems that the learner’s involvement and self-direction (not the teachers imposed, pre-canned ‘speech bytes’) assist him in the integration of the language information. When pleasure, satisfaction, and interest are all part of the learning process we have a better chance of success and language internalization, and learners are driven to try harder for successful communication, rather than for the grade.
In the public performance to the class, the students are rehearsed and the presentation is recorded. Now the focus is on clarity, fluency, accuracy and perhaps some complexity. Here the students welcome teacher and peer correction. As the year progresses we can hope for language growth and enrichment as well as a broader linguistic repertoire (Schmidt, 1994). Despite fears that learners might internalize each other’s errors, there is overwhelming evidence that task-based learning is conducive to better L2 use. Our teaching and learning goals can be planned but not in closed, rigid terms. This naturally, will make most traditional teachers very unhappy for many reasons. It means the serious reduction of dull worksheets, uninspiring texts, pre-cooked rote mumblings and placing learners first.
Another serious change will have to take place in the use of assessment for diagnosis and Hebrew language curriculum planning. Hebrew language tests until today are simply memory challenges where students have to regurgitate set language forms or identify all they know about grammar. Rarely are tests used to assess communication or meaning-making. Many students are able to pass the tests but are unable to utter a communicative sentence in real time. They can pass the Hebrew test but can not use their canned knowledge to communicate. There is no doubt in my mind that Hebrew language testing in the traditional sense will also have to be modified (perhaps my next task).
The second question we asked and addressed was the issue of individual differences, where learners work with different thinking and learning style patterns. Here we call upon the skills of good instruction, the teacher will now have to not only worry about what tasks are to be done, what language structures can be introduced, but also offer flexible activities that can meet the needs, interests and capabilities of each student. When students find activities that meet their levels of ability and interest learning is easier and more successful. Teachers have to present a rainbow of approaches to allow for using student strengths and weaknesses. But why bother to defend differentiation when we all know that it is the only real way all students can learn. Isn’t it the responsibility of all teachers- to be sensitive to each learner, design and present activities fitting for all, to offer choices, give advice, scaffold weaker students, and allow all students to move forward? If these are not a teacher’s first concern whether in a PPP or task-based class, to my mind, that person should not be teaching at all!
“TACHLESS”: Examples of task-based activities
Above we discussed the pedagogical advantages of a communicative language teaching approach which can be successfully implemented in task-based activities. Since our goals are to develop communicative competence rather than encourage the learner to know ‘about’ the target language, let us now review some activities that are likely to generate the kind of learning we are striving for. Here are certain rules of thumb: the closer to real world tasks the better; the more interest shown by the class, the better. When dealing with groups of early childhood learners who may not be as ready to suggest real world tasks, it has been suggested by Prabhu (1987)- and later by Willis (1996) that the teacher, in discussions with the class, develop a list of topics based on the children’s interests. There are also a number of operations that may be suggested as language activity tasks. Among them are: Listing, ordering, sorting, comparing, problem solving, sharing personal experiences, and creative tasks. For the early childhood and day school population I suggest using the standard Jewish Studies curriculum for customs and holidays where all of the above operations can fit in simply and interestingly. When we integrate the children’s personal experiences with our Jewish studies curriculum and work on concrete task-based activities Hebrew language training becomes more relevant. Here we can also spend more time learning because we have at our disposal both holiday and customs class time as well as language class time.
Most important to note is that the curriculum in a task-based classroom focuses on activity goals that can be done through language rather than focusing on linguistic items. Thus, language is part of the activity because meaning is primary; it allows the activity to move forward and develop and finally for the learners to reach their goal. The language used facilitates the task and makes the meaning of the activity that assist in the learning. The spotlight is on the activity and the language is an integral part of that activity.
Task-based activities have some special characteristics that assist and amplify student motivation (“it turns the learner on”) and ‘smoothes’ the learning. Cognitively, task-based activities offer a familiarity with the content of the activity, are supported by prior knowledge, are usually concrete with real-world referents, and can be presented by the teacher with a minimum of reasoning operations. The tasks also have a structure which makes it easier to follow and think through. They are also ideal and easier for the teachers who can determine the pupils’ activities based on the cognitive level of their students thus providing for differentiation while teaching second language.
When planning a task we consider three phases.
1) First the task and its purpose is planned by teacher and students. Teachers introduce the background come prepared with pictures, books, models, videos, music, etc. to introduce the content and explain the task. Here the general cognitive aspects of the task are explained and discussed. As the students understand what has to be done the cognitive load is eased and the linguistic load can grow. Teachers model and show how to do it while first explaining in mother tongue, and then in Hebrew, using simple sentences and repetition along the way. Prior knowledge is activated and the beginnings of new vocabulary are heard in context. Teachers can teach explicitly some phrases while modeling the language.
2) The second phase calls for the students to be divided into groups and begin the task activity. They may use any form of communication- linguistic and paralinguistic- using Hebrew, pantomime, pictures, etc. Some of the phrases used by the teacher are repeated; teachers walk around the room and assist students in the tasks with linguistic input.
3) The third phase, reporting –presenting allows students to present in their ‘best’ Hebrew, their work to the class. Here the other groups have an interest in what each group reports because each presentation will add to the total picture of the task. Each group may work on the same theme but deal with only one part of it so that the report becomes important and relevant to all of the class.
For easier implementation, I am including an adaptation of Jane Willis’ (1996) framework for task based language learning which I have broken down into three task phases.
Discuss theme and topic, objectives of the task or problem that needs solving
Play a game using the vocabulary around the task
Highlight key phrases and words-spend time on meanings not structure
Give students time to plan their task activity. (In the beginning mother tongue may be used by the students) once they have understood the task and a review of vocabulary has been made only target language may be used.)
Present a parallel task (teacher ,video or audio-tape)
Read about task in text
Set up small groups giving each group a task- best if students select the task to be done. Tasks may be all the same for the entire class or may be segments of a larger task- something like ‘jig-saw’.
Group begins the task using target language for communication- gets the ideas across and begins solving or practicing parts the task.
Teachers move through the room to encourage, assist and support.
Students begin to formulate their statements –work. Correction is not important here.
Stress spontaneous talk and build confidence within the privacy of the small group.
As the students go through the phases of the task they are building confidence and motivation to continue.
When ready, students plan how to report their work to the larger group. How and what they did with the task; they only communicate in the target language.
They plan their script and rehearse it.
Teachers now are called upon for help in polishing the script. No corrections are suggested by the teacher. Dictionaries and other texts may be used. Language begins to be polished, and accuracy is being built. Whole working in the group learners or the teacher may suggest some language improvement and even consider some language complexity, group members may also begin to analyze the language used too.
If the report is in writing pre-writing is done with peer-assistance. Teachers may motivate some students to ask questions regarding the language.
Teachers may ask one, two or all groups to report. There must always be a purpose for listening to each group. This works well if the tasks have been divided up in a way that each group’s information is necessary for the class to complete something like making a party, understanding holiday customs, etc.(Jig-saw). Note that repeating the same information with each group is deadly.
Students should comment on information heard, ask questions and extend the conversation to the whole class.
Teacher can act as chairperson and review or repeat key elements in target language. He may even rephrase some things to add complexity.
If possible a recording of a similar task done in target language for comparisons may be made of the way the task was done and of some of the language used.
Extending the language focus:
Teachers may set some tasks based on the text read or heard in the presentations.
Find different words that mean the same thing or the opposite.
Choral presentations of phrases, sentences, etc.
Find similar sentences or more complicated ones.
Suggest adverbs, more colorful adjectives, practice important phrases, memory games, sentences completions, etc,
Do the same activity with different partners, prepare an ad campaign with the information students now have.
Prepare a radio show, newspaper article, or short video, write poetry on the subject or write a set of questions for an interview, work in pairs to plan a game, visual display etc.
With good exposure and comprehensible input, opportunities for real use of Hebrew, the motivation to do the task and listen and learn while doing the task, and finally, focus on language forms, students have a greater chance to acquire Hebrew language use, and remember it.
Task learning can generate exciting, meaningful and enjoyable class interactions that will facilitate Hebrew language learning. Task learning has great potential in solving the ‘right to left’ second/foreign language conundrum. It offers many of the foundational elements of good learning: Curiosity, inventiveness, flexibility, creativity, play, vibrancy, wisdom, imagination, and joy. But it is not only the use of interesting activities that make for good Hebrew language teaching/learning. When teachers, modifying discourse, give time for student responses, change phrases and break down complex sentences, and allow for student time to think before answering, they alleviate class tensions and anxiety. When teachers plan for fair student turns and improve classroom interactions they also build an environment conducive to learning.
In our attempt to solve the intricate and difficult problems of successfully teaching/learning Hebrew as a SF/L we first reviewed the historical development and current thinking and research on SF/L teaching methodology. We summarized various language teaching methods and tried to show the new thinking regarding the instruction of SF/L. We then suggested applying some elements of mother tongue acquisition to Hebrew SF/L classes and bridge the learning gap by introducing elements of communicative, meaning –making via task-based class activities. We also suggested that teachers integrate meaningful content, using the core or theme approach, to draw upon the student interests, Jewish life, and Israel for relevancy and ‘tachlis’.
In our sincere desire to improve Hebrew language teaching/learning we suggest that the reader consider what has been proposed and think about some of the ideas mentioned in this article that can be successfully implemented. We ask that an attempt be made to solve the existing Hebrew language teaching/ learning conundrum in their school.
Any and all feedback would be welcomed.
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