What Happened to 'Hebrew' in Hebrew School?

by: Diana Yacobi and Lily Yacobi

This article originally appeared in Jewish Educational Leadership.

Mastering Hebrew reading is one of the primary tasks of Jewish education. Not only is competency in Hebrew reading an important skill, it is a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity. The ability to read Hebrew is also one of the key outcomes expected by students who spend seven or eight years attending a synagogue or community school program. Later in life however, when faced with a siddur or Haggadah, the nervousness about reading quickly surfaces. The question looms large – What happened to “Hebrew” at “Hebrew School?

Hebrew Reading: The Challenges

While many primers exist that aim to teach children how to read Hebrew, usually in the third grade, students continue to have difficulty with vowels, similar looking letters and reading efficiency. Children remain focused on phonetics and lack an awareness of syllables, roots and recurring suffixes and prefixes. The few classroom hours per week, the need to teach Judaica in addition to Hebrew, the variable commitment to doing homework, and the discretionary nature of after-school education add to the difficulties of teaching Hebrew reading. At the same time, teachers lack training in reading acquisition and depend on the process presented in the primer they are given.

Hebrew in a Synagogue School: Setting the goals
Although it is usually assumed that Hebrew will be included in the course of study, in light of the challenges cited above we need to ask, “What do we want to accomplish?” There are a multiplicity of possible answers – mechanical reading, davening and knowledge of tefillot, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, text study, close comprehension based on a study of vocabulary and grammar, broad understanding of simple texts based on a whole language approach, conversational Hebrew, or building a Hebrew lexicon for Jewish life and literacy. Choices must be made to shape curriculum and design teacher training. Publishers offer a steady stream of reading primers, although often lacking a coherent educational theoretical foundation.

Case Study: Building a System for Reading Acquisition at a Synagogue School
Improving both curriculum and teaching skills for Hebrew reading has been an ongoing focus of curriculum development at Temple Emanu-El’s synagogue school.

Aspects of this process include:


  • Developing curriculum – field testing the booklet based curriculum I Can Read Hebrew, designed to deal with the challenges of time pressures, limited practice at home and lack of teacher training
  • Structuring the reading program – establishing stages of reading development for kindergarten through seventh grade
  • Developing teaching expertise – training teachers and acknowledging master teachers (in development)


1. Curriculum Development

Creating a New Curriculum – Phase One: I Can Read Hebrew
I Can Read Hebrew
sought to simplify the presentation and focus on one letter or vowel at a time. Additionally, the goal was to design a curriculum that could be introduced earlier, in first or second grade. The curriculum consists of twenty-two booklets, with the objectives of maximizing reinforcement and retention during class time and helping the teacher focus on phonetics, syllables, and patterns. Students begin formal reading in Bet or second grade, with tefillah becoming part of their Hebrew reading experience in third grade. In essence, this curriculum offers a system that teaches the foundations of Hebrew reading that effectively prepares students for existing primers or post-primer materials. The design elements include:


  • big print (large font in black on white pages)
  • limited numbers of words and lines of reading per page
  • full pages of reading repetition to practice a letter, vowel, letter patterns (suffixes or prefixes) or teach recognition of a root word
  • practice of script writing as the preferred way to write Hebrew
  • pictures to teach vocabulary and reinforce letter sound
  • introduction to syllables using ‘count the beats’ exercises
  • teaching the role of the sheva
  • individual booklets, to give the student a concrete sense of progress and achievement


In total, this curriculum has been used in the classroom for five years in two synagogue schools, and in the private setting for one-on-one lessons. Learners of all ages, including students with reading difficulties have learned how to read using the booklet-based curriculum. Teachers have found it effective in teaching reading and script writing.

Creating a New Curriculum – Phase Two: Sarah, David and YOU Read Hebrew
I Can Read Hebrew has been reconceived as Sarah, David and YOU Read Hebrew. The twenty-two booklets became individual lessons organized into five workbooks, and with its new look is integrated into a broad-based program called Sarah and David Interactive. The formal aspects of reading acquisition have been supplemented by The Aleph Bet Story, which uses a story line, cartoon characters, whimsy, colorful pictures, and a friendly conversational tone to create a novel approach to teaching the Hebrew letters. The characters Sarah and David, age thirteen, and Ben and Rachel, age seven, make their first appearance in the story book and continue to cheer the student on in the formal reading curriculum which follows. In Sarah, David, Ben and Rachel the students see themselves and their very busy lives, a whirlwind of play, school and Jewish activities. Still in development, the components of the curriculum include:


  • The Aleph Bet Story – The letters come to life through the characters and the whimsical story they weave around each letter. The images, associations and alliteration in English help the learner remember the letter. The story and letters are also taught on a CD.
  • The Sarah and David Picture Book: A Pre-Reading Primer – Many of the picture words used in the curriculum are first introduced in the Picture Book, organized by topic. Some of the topics include Shabbat, Ba Kitah, Mah Ochlim? which introduce the students to a limited vocabulary and simple phrases in Hebrew. As a tool, it serves as a pre-reading introduction to Hebrew language or as a complement to the reading curriculum. An index organizes the words by letter, which is how the picture words are arranged in the reading curriculum.
  • Sarah, David and YOU Read Hebrew – The curriculum consists of five workbooks that teach reading and writing one letter and vowel at a time. Images and language from the story book are woven into the curriculum.Sarah, David and YOU Teacher Resource Manual – Provides teaching guidelines and supplementary materials for practice and reinforcement.


2. Structuring the Reading Program

The overall structuring of the reading program is as follows:
Gan – Aleph: A whole language approach to Hebrew using songs, prayers and the The Picture Book Primer.
Bet: A focus on phonetics and reading skills using the Sarah, David and YOU reading curriculum.
Gimel – Vav: Review of the curriculum in the fall of gimel. By late fall of gimel and through the vav year, the goal is reinforcing reading skills and introducing new texts including simple stories, Torah text, prayers, poems and songs.

Beyond the curriculum, teachers are encouraged to weave phrases of conversational Hebrew into the life of the classroom and to display Hebrew in their rooms.

3. Teaching Expertise

We all recognize that outstanding, well-trained teachers are essential for students to develop Hebrew language skills. It is crucial that all Hebrew school educational directors should have background in reading and language acquisition. Training courses in reading acquisition should be developed by academic institutions and provided on a yearly basis by central agencies, which serve as the central address for teacher training for synagogue schools. Recognition, credits and a salary increment should be awarded for training in this essential area. All teachers working in the supplementary setting should be required by their local agency, board of education and principal or educational director to take such a course during their first year of teaching, subsidized by central agencies and synagogues. Beyond that, grade level meetings, ongoing professional development and mentoring by experienced teachers at each school should support the enterprise of teaching Hebrew reading. Master teachers of Hebrew reading, currently an untapped resource in the system, should be identified by their schools to serve as trainers and mentors for novice teachers, locally and even nationally.

I have had the honor of working with a number of master teachers in Hebrew reading. The children who studied with them benefited from their skill, knowledge and expertise; they left the classroom with self-confidence in their ability to read Hebrew. Our mission should be to ensure a quality experience for every child, throughout his or her entire Jewish education.

Diana Yacobi, M.A. Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.  She has been a synagogue school director for the last ten years and has had lifelong involvement with synagogue school education.  She has published a number of articles on supplementary Jewish education and been a keynote presenter at CAJE. 
Lily Yacobi has a business degree from New York University and combined her business background and success as a tutor for Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Hebrew reading into Sarah and David Interactive, LLC, an educational media company.

The Lookstein Center