Teaching and Learning Hebrew -Steering Or Drifting?

  • by: Aryeh Wohl, Professor of Literacy Education

Prof. Aryeh Wohl was the Educational Director of the Center for Educational Technology (CET-MATACH) in Israel for thirty years. He is the Senior Editor and Senior writer responsible for the Open University of Israel courses on Literacy, taught at Tel Aviv University for over twenty years, was an international consultant for the Jewish Agency specializing in language and teaching methodology, has and continues to teach at major universities in the United States, has written and/or produced more than fifty learning programs from emergent literacy through high school, presented at major international conferences, continues to publish professional articles world wide, as well as consult for Jewish schools. He is semi-retired and is presently the Chairperson of the Division of Humanities at Talpiot Teachers College.
Executive Summary
Frustrations while working with schools to improve instruction and learning of Hebrew have motivated the author to look carefully at the issues that may be causing the poor success with Hebrew language study. The author has selected eleven areas that affect Hebrew language instruction and offers his analysis of what is wrong. The areas noted include:

  • Teachers’ professional development
  • Teachers’ language proficiency
  • The Israel /Hebrew connection
  • Professional and teacher learning materials
  • Methodology used in the classroom
  • Assessment problems
  • Emergent literacy issues
  • The academic support system
  • The professional behavior of most teachers of Hebrew.

The author calls upon his readers to join forces with him to be able to improve Hebrew language study.

Part 1

I have been involved in teacher training, the preparation of learning materials, and instruction of Hebrew as a second/foreign language for the last 35 years (second if it is heard outside of class, foreign if it is only heard in the classroom). I have refrained from writing to various ‘response -dialogue’ internet programs simply because of the frustrations and most blank walls that I have encountered while trying to guide the Jewish Day School movement regarding teaching/learning of Hebrew.
In my work I have found some schools seriously dedicated to Hebrew instruction; they start at the beginning and, with their dedicated staffs – all dovrei Ivrit – succeed in getting their charges to speak, read, understand, and even function in Hebrew. Those schools also work at building a closer relationship to Jewry worldwide, with a special connection to Eretz Yisrael. But, tragically, those schools are in the minority.
Most Jewish day schools have some form of Hebrew curriculum K-8 or K-12, but the gaps that I have found between the stated goals of the curriculum, and the processes and products in the classroom are great. What is stated in the curriculum regarding Hebrew has little to do with what the children really learn and know. The schools that all profess Hebrew language teaching/learning primarily focus on form at the expense of meaning. Generally the pedagogy lacks an understanding of what second language literacy is all about. Those schools consider grammatical form and decoding to be the core of literacy and competence- in my view an incorrect concept.
Extended language arts, serious language use, language conventions, knowledge of how the language is used in spoken and written contexts to create discourse, the collaborative process between writer and reader, speaker and listener, are missing. The major goals of a literacy- based curriculum require a shift from a structural to a communicative framework.
Language learning is no longer viewed as the acquisition of an autonomous structural system but rather as skills for social interactions. Isolated sentences, vocabulary and the mastery of discrete skills are not enough. We must deal with real communication in context, give attention to language register and style variations, self-expression, and the need to engage in real language events not just vocabulary and grammar drill.
I have found some administrators who are aware of the specific needs of Hebrew language learning and have attempted to improve the current situation: one who set up a school ulpan for his teachers, another who has run intensive in-service, a third who subsidizes serious study in Israel during the summer and another who has set up a teacher team to search for the best Hebrew learning materials available. All of these efforts are commendable and should be encouraged- kane yirbu.
Unfortunately, administrators involved in such planning are few. The reasons may be that they themselves have not been trained in second language, they do not feel confident to hold a conversation in Hebrew, do not feel the necessity for serious Hebrew instruction in this ‘Art Scroll Age’, do not have the staff to do the job, do not have the backing of their boards of education and/or their boards of directors, or do not have the budget to cover such a program.
Some principals, who have mastered the art of “musical schools”- moving from school to school every two years, should not be in administration altogether. Some principals have boards of directors who are willing to learn but those administrators may be unable to teach and guide due to their own lack of knowledge.
After reading comments regarding Hebrew language instruction by interested parties and after having been asked by colleagues to voice my views, I have decided to break my silence. What follows is a short list of ‘first aid’ suggestions that go beyond what has to be done to correct pedagogical assumptions that are driving the teaching of Hebrew in many day schools.
So what’s wrong with today’s Hebrew language instruction?
The issues that need to be addressed in Hebrew language instruction are many. I would like to encapsulate them and hopefully stir reactions and thinking about what can be done to improve the situation.
My premise is that most Jewish Day Schools ‘say’ that they want their students to learn Hebrew, but, do very little to implement their words.
Here are some of the issues:
Not enough teachers have been trained, pre- and in-service, to use Hebrew as a language for communication, for instructional purposes, and as a language for prayer and study. Aside from a few one day or occasional one-week workshops, most teachers are not trained in teaching Hebrew for communications, to use it for classroom management, as well as for the study of classical and modern texts.
Most have never been taught the theory and practice of reading instruction, how to teach content reading, how to work with classical Hebrew juxtaposed to social language, teach and apply reading comprehension techniques, assessment and testing procedures, just to name a few problematic areas.
Many day schools send their staff to a one-day, once a year in- service program; some go to one-week summer sessions, but neither are sufficient. Teachers thus are poorly trained and get little or no guidance in improving their instructional skills.
Professional development is central to continuous school improvement. It should be ongoing and include all areas, involve follow-up and support for further learning, including support from sources external to the school that can provide necessary resources and new perspectives.
In order to broaden teachers’ knowledge, language skills, pedagogy and methodology, pre- and in-service training are a must.
Wise educators know that it is not the method or text that makes a good lesson or that really influences learning achievement, but it is the teacher. The research is conclusive that the teacher not the program is the important ingredient. The better the instructor’s mastery of content and methodology the better the learning results.
Most teachers who do speak Hebrew, even licensed teachers from Israel, Shelichim or Yordim– have never been trained to teach second/foreign language. Many teach subjects that they are not trained to teach. I found teachers of geography and math teaching Hebrew language. Some are natural teachers but without proper language training much of their potential instructional skills are lost.
To make matters worse, many shlichim, who are competent teachers, come to Chutz La’arets with no knowledge of the language and the customs of the host country. While there may be an advantage when teachers can only communicate in Hebrew- providing for some sort of immersion- the teacher preparation process needs investigation when students take advantage of the teachers’ deficiencies in a language.
Most teachers -especially the Rebbes and male teachers – although fluent in decoding and understanding the language, have no fluency in using it for teaching purposes in the classroom. Some even attach political/ideological innuendos to the language and refuse to use it in the classroom.
Perhaps if we remind them that modern Hebrew is the same language as ‘Lashon Hakadosh’ in the Torah, they might reconsider their objections. The language of learning in rabbinical schools was once Yiddish. It is still in some, but many more rabbinical students are now learning in English.
Using English certainly gives both the adult and young learner an easier channel to explain complicated texts, and may be used for assistance in pre- and post-content discussions, but if potential teachers do not learn how to think and communicate in Hebrew, neither will their young students. The potential teachers who may have some fluency can lose it because of little use.
Most teachers who teach the Hebrew language are also asked to teach about Israel and the history of the Jewish nation. A great many problems may accompany such responsibilities. Has the teacher ever been trained to teach Jewish History? Does he know Jewish history? Does he have any connection to world Jewry? Is there enough time to teach Jewish history in the school day? What about geography, current events, etc?
Since the rebuilding of the State of Israel many things have happened. Among them the realization that Jewish schools and interest groups worldwide must develop programs to teach about Israel. Curriculum, learning methods and materials need to be produced. Attempts are now being made to solve that issue and foundations and other interest groups are meeting to discuss such plans. The idea is wonderful but history is repeating itself. Various powers that be are planning and pulling in many directions with no coordination.
A special four-day conference was held this summer in Chicago sponsored by The Avi Chai Foundation where plans to bring Israel and Jewish History to life in the classroom were discussed. Recently the Suchnut began a project on teaching about Israel, and an Israel curriculum is being prepared by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. There are other organizations with similar ideas. All of these collective plans are wonderful but I ask, why not join forces and work together and not at cross-purposes? How much more successful, if collaboration existed!
Are Yordim– the many teachers in Hutz Laaretz good role models? How can they teach a love for Israel if they themselves have left the country? A Yoredet once asked me, how she might be able to develop interest and motivate her class to become more interested in Israel. Perhaps if she were to announce that she was returning to live in Israel, missing her country after an absence of five years her teaching would sound more convincing.
Although it is the teacher rather than the program that ensures success, appropriate teaching/learning materials are essential. Textbooks play an important role because they provide the stories, information and activities that, with the teacher’s own applications, give a class an enjoyable, viable, and hopefully, successful learning experience. Naturally in language learning, material closer to real language use is best. Newspapers, magazines, trade books, etc. can be most helpful.
In the Jewish day schools we face many learning material problems. First, the initial reading textbooks have not been changed in years. They are either over-powering or they are simple ‘quick fix’ texts that ‘teach you how to ‘read’ (decode) in four months. Most are based on phonics, with memory as the only “tool of learning”. Some use associational techniques but they are those of the writer and not truly helpful to the learner.
Some schools buy the heavy, ‘kit’ programs, spending an outrageous amount of money, and then find themselves unable to complete or deal with the mass of material given. Some schools manage by manipulating time for language over Holy Text study. That is the prerogative of each school but even in those schools where more time has been allocated to Hebrew I have heard complaints that there is not enough time to complete the learning material.
Some teachers and principals measure success by how many texts have been completed rather than on what the students really retain. In many schools more time is devoted to our Holy Texts. In those schools there is less pressure to cover ground in language, and more pressure is placed in completing the Holy Text. Justification for any time allotment is not necessary but I would like to note that the more Hebrew the student knows the easier most texts become.
Another problem related to learning materials is that teachers need to know how to work with more than one reading program- to be able to satisfy the interests, needs, and capabilities of all of their students. By spending all the training time on one method, which endorses one approach, teachers cannot adapt or change their teaching strategies. No class can be taught reading only one way as there will always be children with different learning styles, or who have reading disabilities, who learn better with another approach. No one program is good for all: One size does not fit all in education. So those buying a large reading package with teacher training, should beware of the need for diversification in training and materials.
A correct match between text and learning style of the pupil is essential. … But the push to decode is so great that children are driven to start reading formally as soon as possible, without considering the issues of compatibility. Remember, children can learn to pray without knowing how to read!
Another issue worth noting is that most reading programs have not been written by academic, second/foreign language reading experts, nor have there been academic advisors on the writing teams. Texts are usually based on antiquated theories of learning and many of the materials used in schools today were written many decades ago. These are rarely up-dated, thus lack the understandings of current research on comprehension and Hebrew second/foreign language instruction. Class work consists of drill and practice and lacks the underpinnings of creativity, curiosity, discovery, and challenge.
Provision for differentiation, learning styles, and current content interests to address all of the students’ individual needs are missing. Teacher guides are almost nonexistent leaving the teacher to fend for him/her self.
A quick look at the standard language workbook or literature text will confirm the above observations. Stories written 30-40 years ago, vocabulary lists, line after line of fill-ins, and basic comprehension questions, etc., with little or no instruction on how to comprehend. Readability, learnability and understandability are assumed. The workbooks do not teach, just drill; students are so busy filling in the blanks that they rarely, if ever, write coherent and cohesive paragraphs. We must also add that such materials do not have even a hint of differentiation for different learners. Materials are presented in one learning style, one format, no options for the variety of learners in the class.
The students thus need the finest didacticians available for successful learning. The Hebrew textbook situation needs immediate attention.
Another serious problem in the area of learning materials is the printing of our Holy Texts. Learners are at the mercy of old printers and publishers who determined the size of letter fonts, the spacing and segmentation of words, quality of paper, the way the texts have been printed and organized, etc., all affecting reading. The problems are amplified when we realize that many times there is no content sequence in Torah, no headings and sub-headings, no guiding introductions or summaries, no highlighted materials, coherence and cohesion problems, no graphs and charts, no pictures or other visuals, no glossaries or dictionaries, many abbreviations and technical terms, concepts that need serious prior knowledge, etc. These facts all generate further reading difficulties.
Although we have to study the content of the Torah, Tenach, Mishna, Gemora, etc., we must remember that these books of learning have not been written with instructional techniques in mind. The basic text presentation techniques found in most “textbooks” such as unity, coherence, redundancy, sequence and others are missing from our holy books. I am certainly not suggesting that we must re-write them but we need to become aware of the elements missing in the presentation of content and, as teachers, apply techniques that will allow for better comprehension and learning. Perhaps, as I have suggested on many occasions at educational conferences, a team should develop a ‘student learning guide’ for the Holy Texts.
In the Tenach, we have to deal with classical Hebrew- an academic language, far more difficult than common, every day communicative Hebrew. This in itself can cause many problems when trying to transition from simple, spoken communicative language to an academic one. The problems are amplified when we try to teach legal language such as in the Shulchan Aruch or even Mishna. What can one say about Talmud which has a serious set of its own comprehension difficulties such as, another language, never really taught, legal terminology, convoluted and abstract thinking, specialized content vocabulary, many digressions, the text presented as hypertext- each concept or word used as a jumping off point for old and newer associations and running off on tangential information that the Rabbis make while discussing the law, and commentaries that require enormous prior knowledge to understand what they are saying about the text. This may be a reading nightmare for many learners.

Part 2

Many schools in the US are driven by the Board of Jewish Education’ s (NY) Hebrew Language Test- that, by the way, was written almost 45 years ago. That exam was and is based on the need to know grammar not how to use language. Those schools who have decided to use the test as a measure of language skill then teach to the test. But the test content reflects language use and not usage. The test is old and its content is old and does not answer today’s Hebrew language needs.
Current assessment techniques have been changed with a greater stress on language production and use and not usage. Since many schools teach to the test, the absurdity remains today that a test written almost half a century ago drives the teaching and learning of Hebrew in the twenty- first century. Education tarries and is the last domain that changes.
All of us demand the best and newest ideas that progress brings- except in education, and even less so in Hebrew instruction. The understandings that we now have of teaching/learning language should certainly be applied to Hebrew learning and assessment. Our holy tongue is old but the approaches to teaching it must be fresh, exciting, interesting and new. The instruction is antiquated and the assessment program ancient. To my mind that is scandalous.
Another ‘painful’ yet important area that needs reform is the type of testing and assessment system that has developed at many day schools. Either worksheets turned into test papers are used or the teacher with little or no training in test making prepares an exam that stresses regurgitation of total recall. Rarely are there practical, real activities that measure learning of the language.
Furthermore, there are no guidelines for grading and placing young Hebrew language learners. The American Association of Foreign Language Teachers (ACTFL) has tried to develop a hierarchy of standards and levels for English competence but that has been set up for adults. Researchers at Brandeis University have attempted to do the same thing for Hebrew. The amount of time expended in training teachers and testing the students is enormous and the results, aside from telling us that most young students tested are at a low level of competence, are much lower than our learning expectations, especially for the study of Biblical texts. Those scholars have reached a degree of success with adults but have not as yet developed sufficient teacher friendly information for children in the early grades. If the testing techniques used could be shortened and made more efficient we might have a good tool to measure students’ Hebrew language proficiency.
While speaking to some teachers who have gone through the Brandeis training program, they told me that they found the work tedious, long, and too cumbersome for practical application in all classes. Perhaps in time the team will develop a tool for easy administration and application. I wish them much success.
The nursery- kindergarten is the best place to begin teaching Hebrew. I do not mean those ‘mixed coded’ messages like “Put the sefer on the ritzpah.”, or “Please shut the delet“. This type of Hebrew is heard in most kindergarten classes and is reinforced by the “Hebrew Country Cowboy” singers, who have produced many tapes and discs using that form of ‘Engbrew’ to entertain the children. That is wrong language pedagogy, and should be corrected. I have visited more kindergarten classes where the kids were not being taught English or Hebrew. “Engbrew” might be one of the major reasons kids start out poorly in Hebrew language acquisition and continue that way through school.
Children at that early age who are ready should be given an immersion or semi-immersion program in Hebrew as part of their learning program. I do not mean teaching them formally how to decode-read, but how to begin speaking the language. In most Hebrew language kindergarten programs the children are introduced to a vocabulary list, words without language context seldom followed with enough review, and repetition. Children are rarely given the chance to respond in Hebrew, are not given the tools to respond, not taught phrases and structures, and get a mixed bag of “Engbrew”. They think that they are learning English, the parents and teachers think they are learning Hebrew. The truth is that they are learning neither.
In many kindergarten classes little or no connection between English and Hebrew emergent literacy skills is planned. The importance of emergent literacy and the introduction of all of the newer concepts of language instruction in general and Hebrew language in particular are not considered. Thus, nursery and kindergarten children miss out on two years of possible language learning Parents are fooled by their children who bring home Parashat Hashavuah material above the cognitive understanding of young children, colored worksheets, arts and crafts, and copied Hebrew word lists that are placed on the refrigerator. But where is the Hebrew language?
Most Jewish and academic communities are doing little to improve Hebrew instruction, to develop standards, to guide administrators in curriculum planning and implementation, to assist in preparing innovative learning materials, to train teachers, pre-and in-service, to assist day school special education needs, to develop a center for instructional technology for school services, to plan research, etc. Where are the special education teachers for Hebrew language people being trained?
Most state and national language interest groups, and even the Jewish Agency (Suchnut) in Israel, call for the improved instruction of the Hebrew language. These organizations ‘talk the talk’ and fill reams of paper calling for better instruction. Some of these groups even subsidize trips to Israel to help teachers improve their language skills. Those programs have been running for the past 30 years yet there has not been a definitive improvement in Hebrew instruction nor have we seen students leaving the day schools with a better grasp of the language.
The Suchnut runs extensive filter and training programs for prospective shlichim during the year. They are very strict in selection and training, yet many shilichim arrive in their prospective country of service with little or no local language proficiency and with almost no understanding of the culture of the people they are to serve. Some shlichim are selected by local administrators who come to Israel looking for new teachers. That selection process is as good as the principal’s vision and skill for choosing suitable staff. Suffice to say that during my career I have met good principals with good as well as poor teacher selection.
The Suchnut also holds subsidized summer language programs for teachers where teachers (some every summer) come to study and improve their knowledge base and get a chance to see the country. Rarely do they get second/foreign language instruction with little or no work in teaching the language arts- reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing. (I know I will get many letters that will deny such facts and that there have been a few groups that do run workshops- like Bar Ilan, Melton, or Pardes, etc. but little in second/foreign language.)
Many summer participants show up to class for a while and then meet family and friends, and return home, to continue with the old methods (I have searched in vain for a follow-up program after the many in-service courses given and have found such few and far between). Some teachers in fact, plan their summer vacation around ‘the in-service trip’ and visit Israel every year on the cheshbon of….
Another role that the national organizations can play is to get parents, teachers, administrators and the ‘bill payers’ to understand that a school with no objective assessment program to evaluate success and failures, an almost non-existent in-service, in-service with no follow-up in the classroom, cannot improve its instruction language and other wise. The lack of true leadership on a national and international level, little if any work at the university level, poor funding, are also reasons for the lack of growth and advancement in Hebrew instruction and learning.
Perhaps one reason for this state of affairs is that there is no one watching the store. Education like all other services requires supervision, direction that can support, guide, focus and evaluate what is happening. Until this very day there has been little done to organize the schools under the direction of a supervising agency, one with clout. The English departments in school have to answer to both city and state requirements and, in order to get school recognition and accreditation for academic standards they try to follow the guidelines set by national organizations like the Middle States Association.
No matter how well a school succeeds, it needs constant supervision to investigate and control what is happening. Naturally we have the local administrator who has his job to do and the local boards of education who should also be aware of the school’s successes and failures, but when a school runs with no one to answer to we get educational anarchy. That is one of the reasons we have such difficulties with the Hebrew curriculum. No one to answer to, no pressure, so why bother to improve?
Although there are serious problems with an umbrella organization, political differences, association with schools not in sync with ‘our’ ideas of Torah learning, we cannot be identified with such a group, etc. there are still many more benefits. The organization I propose would first coordinate teacher training, in-service, help with publishing materials, supply resources for schools and staff, do group buying for financial savings, provide for resources and coordinate special needs programs, service parent groups, prepare various assessment tools, assist in individual curriculum planning, send advisers to schools when needed and, most important of all, send supervisors to check for quality instruction.
If our educational system continues to drift in the sea of indifference, Jewish education and our Hebrew language program will eventually sink. Judaism has suffered enough with our internal splinter groups and destructive refusals to work together. I am not calling for a total agreement regarding custom and ceremony, although that might be one thing that may save us, but for a meeting of the minds regarding instructional excellence, irrespective of what curriculum we teach, a way to guarantee that what we teach, what ever it be, be supervised by an autonomous organization, to be done well.
Most professionals continue to learn about the subject. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, musicians, computer experts, etc. all read their journals and professional magazines to keep up to date. Research shows that most teachers rarely see or read the professional journals, even the English ones. Few Hebrew instructors, if any, read those dealing with second/foreign language instruction, even in English. There is a dearth of such journals in Hebrew. (Here is another place where academic institutions can help.) Not being aware of newer methods of instruction, issues in second/foreign language learning, etc. keeps Hebrew instruction on a low professional level.
I know that some of the ‘star’ schools will say that what I have written is not really true. They will claim that they produce good students who speak Hebrew well. First I wish to note that some schools do a fairly good job with their better students but are so enamored with their ‘great name’ and ‘halo’ of success in the past that they rarely look at themselves to seek improvement. (Many still live off their inflated ‘name of old’ and do not produce the quality Hebrew student of past generations. For the average student there is little to boast of regarding Hebrew language.)
My colleagues and friends, I have only focused on one subject area of educational endeavor- Hebrew language instruction- that requires quick, careful remediation. Tragically, as we all know, there are many others but I leave that to another time. I have written this not to find fault, not to irritate, but to cause introspection among all of us. We must, at the end of the day, be honest with ourselves. Educators of all colors call for better Hebrew language instruction yet little or nothing is really being done. I believe it is not the fault of any one person or interest group but the collective educational neglect we all have continued to accept. We must all wake up, meet and begin to think of ways to improve Hebrew language instruction/learning, by publishing new materials, by training teachers, parents, and boards of education about our real needs. Most importantly, we must stop the ‘Ostrich Approach’ -claiming to be teaching Hebrew language while only dabbling with Hebrew grammar, teaching decoding without teaching comprehension, filling worksheets but not giving the students the skills of written and oral expression. Let us face the truth, so we can begin working toward change.
I offer my experience and services to any one interested and look forward to comments that improve, not just justify, current Hebrew language instruction. We need reasons for success not excuses.
In finally putting ‘to paper’ some of these issues I am now planning, please G-d, to write another article that will contain ideas for the remediation of some of the problems mentioned above.