Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beyond Hebrew Languish

Last week at CAJE I presented a session with the above title, a follow-up to the "Hebrew Languish and How to Overcome It" session that I presented last year (summary here).

"Hebrew Languish" refers to a letter I received from a prospective teacher: "I have many years of experience in Hebrew Languish which I would like to share with your school." Unfortunately, most of our schools have plenty of Hebrew languish already.

Where last year's session dealt with Hebrew language in the primary grades, this year's dealt with a transition to the upper grades, and in particular to the kind of language-based program that our school has. To be clear, we use Shalom Ivrit (Behrman House) in grades 4, 5, and 6; each grade has 1 hour 40 minutes per week (1 hour on Sunday and 40 minutes on Wednesday) with a specialist teacher. We also teach prayer, but it's secondary, using the prayer companions to Shalom Ivrit. Including the prayer component, we have about 2 hours 10 minutes of Hebrew per week.

Most of the participants in this year's session said that their schools have prayer-based programs, and some wouldn't have enough time to adopt a language-based program. The key elements of teaching Hebrew language apply, however, in any setting.

First among these is to emphasize acquiring language in the primary grades rather than learning it. Older students and adults learn a language by studying rules of grammar, verb conjugations, vocabulary lists, and so forth, and then putting the pieces haltingly together. Young children can acquire a language by "picking it up," that is, by hearing the spoken language in simple forms and gradually learning what things mean.

Thus, in kindergarten or first grade, we do best to teach children oral vocabulary and not to emphasize learning the alef-bet very much at all. Ideally, children would have a vocabulary of about 100 common words before we begin teaching them to read. (You knew far more than 100 words in your native language before anyone taught you to read it.)

The principles of language acquisition apply equally strongly to teaching language in the upper elementary grades. With Shalom Ivrit, it is fruitless for students to attempt to do any translating in book 1 (grade 4 for us), but the most obvious way to teach it is to have students translate the stories. Unfortunately, students can't translate effectively until they can paraphrase in their native language, which for most students isn't before grade 6. So it is better to work at figuring out the approximate meaning of entire sentences and not worry too much about the individual words at first.

In a program that emphasizes prayer, it is valuable to do as much work with language as possible. Joel Grishaver, in a session that he presented with Ellen Dreskin, was emphatic about it: we should always teach the common prefixes and suffixes, and the shorashim (roots) of words that occur frequently in prayers. Without this kernel of meaning, each prayer is a vast uncharted sea of Hebrew; if a student can recognize even a few words, they serve as signposts.

All of the common textbooks for prayer-based Hebrew (Hineni, Z'man Litfilah, and others) contain significant language modules, generally related to the vocabulary or syntax of each prayer. Many teachers seem to skip these sections in favor of drill on the prayer texts, but it's a false economy of time. Teaching students even the rudiments of language will improve their mastery of prayer texts.

This is equally true in the primer year (grade 3 for us). I have said often enough that if your only goal for Hebrew in that grade is to teach decoding, Z'man Likro would be the most effective of currently available textbooks, but my friend Dina Maiben points out that Z'man Likro contains a language unit in each chapter. Dina says that too many teachers blast right through it as if it were another page of reading drill, and students are shortchanged by that approach.

My handout from this year's session is here.