HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Back to the Future: Achieving Hebrew Fluency in the Contemporary Day School

by Devora Steinmetz Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Let me start by stating two propositions that seem to me beyond debate: 1) that the vast majority of children have strong capacity to learn languages; 2) that the vast majority of children who spend years in American day schools studying Hebrew graduate without having attained a credible degree of Hebrew fluency.

Many educators and parents appear to take for granted that it is simply impossible for children to become fluent in Hebrew within the day school setting.

Rather than discussing the factors contributing to the poor state of Hebrew language acquisition in most contemporary day schools, I want to begin by staking a clear position: Day schools that spend a significant amount of time on Hebrew and Jewish studies are failing in a significant part of their core mission if they are not educating children to a strong degree of fluency in both modern Hebrew and the Hebrew of classical texts. Further, if we were addressing any other area of study—whether another language, such as French or Spanish, or a different skill areas such as playing a musical instrument or playing tennis—parents would be up in arms if their children spent hours a week, year after year, and made the kind of scant progress that many children make in Hebrew over the course of years of day school education.

In my fourth year high school French class, which met for four or five periods a week, we were reading Molière and Camus, material far more difficult than any teacher would have dreamt of giving us in Hebrew, though my high school classmates had been studying Hebrew six to eight years longer than they had been studying French! While it could be claimed that learning French is easier for English speakers than learning Hebrew, given the significant difference in the number of years and the number of hours per week allotted to these two subjects over the course of children’s schooling and the fact that children begin to learn Hebrew at a young age, when their language acquisition skills are most acute, the massive discrepancy in student achievement in these two languages simply cannot be accounted for by the relative difficulty of the two languages.

When it comes to Hebrew language learning, a variety of excuses are offered to explain why children are not becoming fluent. Many educators and parents appear to take for granted that this is the way things must be, that, for whatever reason, it is simply impossible for children to become fluent in Hebrew within the day school setting. It makes me feel old to say this, but I remember a time when the opposite assumption was the norm, when educators assumed that children could easily become competent in Hebrew, and when the vast majority of children did. That was the case in the elementary day school that I attended as a child, and it was the conviction that my own and my classmates’ experience as students in the early years of elementary school in the mid- to late-1960s was a perfectly reasonable indicator of what is possible that guided the development of the Hebrew language program at the school that I founded, Beit Rabban.

I want to offer a brief description of the Hebrew language program that was developed and implemented at Beit Rabban during its early years. I offer this sketch, first, as an example of what is possible, as a challenge to the notion that young children cannot become fluent in Hebrew or that there is a necessary trade-off between Hebrew language learning and depth of Jewish studies content learning. Second, I offer it as containing critical elements that can be adapted to different settings, settings that might have different constraints than Beit Rabban on use of instructional time, deployment of teaching staff, or other things that might make wholesale adoption of this kind of program impractical or impossible.

The point was not only to increase the time spent on Hebrew and make full use of the range of opportunities for natural language learning but to create a culture in which Hebrew speaking was something that you just do.

My description will focus on the first two years of Hebrew language instruction at Beit Rabban, in kindergarten and first grade, the youngest grades in the school at the time. Beit Rabban had mixed age groups; kindergartners and first graders were, for the most part, in a single class, with most discipline-based learning conducted in small groups based on skill level, experience, or ability. K/1 Hebrew study had as its goal the development of basic fluency in day-to-day Hebrew, including reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking. This served, among other things, as the foundation for formal study of classical texts (first Chumash and then Mishnah and other rabbinic texts) which began, for most students, in the second grade (some students, based on Hebrew level and other critical parameters, began formal text study after only one year in the school, in first grade).

As children embarked on formal text study, the sophistication of their Hebrew comprehension and production skyrocketed, since children were now challenged not only to make sense of biblical grammar and syntax, but also to discuss complex interpretive questions, generally ones that they raised themselves, entirely in Hebrew. While, as mentioned, I will focus here on the Hebrew learning that preceded the children’s embarking on formal text study, I do want to assert that, with the proper foundation and continued support (and, critically, with teachers who do not find that their own ability to discuss these issues is severely limited by their own Hebrew level), children can learn to discuss complex ideas in Hebrew—that it does not have to be the case that, at some point in the educational trajectory, Hebrew must be sacrificed in favor of conceptual sophistication of content learning.

Our approach to Hebrew learning in the K/1 class was a partial immersion approach based on a natural language model of second-language acquisition. Let me define these terms. “Immersion” refers to teaching a second language in a setting in which only that language is used, both by the teachers and by the students. “Partial immersion” does not mean that the immersion quality of the program is only partial (i.e., that the children’s native language is used along with the second language), but rather that the immersion program takes place during only part of the day.

“Natural language” refers to language instruction that is based on the assumption that children can acquire a second language in much the same way that they acquire their first language: through having to make sense of things said in that language in the context, at first, of concrete activities and to begin to speak the language to ask for things, to play, and to engage with others in meaningful activities. Of course, since school is an artificial setting and a non-comprehensive experience, and since children learning a second language in school are more sophisticated in their needs and interests than infants learning their first language, natural language activities have to be designed with care to engage children in a way that encourages them to focus on comprehending what is being said and expressing themselves in the target language, and that progressively challenges them to incorporate more complex grammar and syntax, as well as vocabulary, into their speech and writing. (A wonderful resource that we used in the design of our own program, and the source of some of the ideas mentioned below, is Languages and Children: Making the Match by Curtain, H. A. & Pesola, C. A.).

Children in the K/1 class had one-hour Hebrew immersion classes twice a day (once on Fridays), once in the morning and once in the afternoon. During those sessions, a sign at the front of the room was flipped over to reveal the words “Anachnu medabrim Ivrit.” This was an indication of the seriousness with which we took the notion of immersion—the children could not expect the teacher to say a word in English during that hour, and they were expected to use only Hebrew during that time as well, even if sometimes it meant that they needed to ask how to say something in Hebrew. The teacher, for her part, needed to do everything in her power to make herself understood, using exaggerated tones of voice, props, dramatization, etc., all the while making sure that the children were needing to process the language that she was using and not relying too much on the other ways in which she indicated what she was trying to say. Each session would include multiple activities, for example reading and/or dramatizing a repetitive storybook (such as Eliezer veHagezer or a Hebrew translation of Are You My Mother?), introduction to new vocabulary through methods such as Total Physical Response (described in Curtain and Pesola), playing a game using new vocabulary or practicing language structures (for example, Guess Who, which requires the use of forms such as ha’im and yeish lo/ein lo), cooking or baking (structured in such as way that children were constantly processing or using language to describe what they were doing, what they were noticing, etc.), doing physical activities such as exercises or Shim‘on Omer (Simon Says), and many others.

Of critical importance was that a culture of speaking Hebrew was cultivated in the classroom and school by the multiple ways in which Hebrew permeated the day outside of immersion periods.

Of critical importance, in addition, was that a culture of speaking Hebrew was cultivated in the classroom and school by the multiple ways in which Hebrew permeated the day outside of immersion periods. Use of Hebrew outside of immersion periods also seriously increased the amount of Hebrew to which children were exposed and made effective use of natural opportunities to learn Hebrew, adding significant instructional time that did not require additional teacher planning. For example, teachers were encouraged to use Hebrew as much as possible as the default language in the myriad small interactions that occur each day in early childhood classrooms: greeting the children in the morning, getting coats on to go to the park, cleaning up after activities, noticing a child’s new haircut or new shoes, talking about what the children are building in the block corner.

Similarly, children were given the tools very early on to ask in Hebrew for things that they needed: sentences asking a teacher to help tie a shoelace or saying that one is cold or hot, for example, were introduced to the children and posted on the wall, and thereafter children were expected to, and eagerly did, use these sentences any time they wanted to communicate these day-to-day things to the teachers, increasing children’s sense of competence in Hebrew and their self-efficacy as emerging Hebrew speakers. Teachers and administrators used Hebrew among themselves in the presence of the children, and children knew that, if they came into the office to duplicate something or for any other reason, they would need to ask for what they wanted in Hebrew.

In addition, certain classroom rituals, such as noting which children were present and which were absent, always took place in Hebrew, and classrooms were full of both Hebrew labels and Hebrew charts and graphs: for calendar and weather, rotating jobs, graphing how many teeth each child had lost, and many others. These charts would often be reviewed at morning meeting, which would also include singing Hebrew (as well as English) songs, always with a child pointing to the words written on a chart tablet, and singing variations of the Alef Bet song, with different vowels added on different days. Hebrew words appeared regularly on the day’s schedule, not only for Hebrew sessions but for math, park time, lunch, community service, or any other lesson or activity. Often, games that the children had learned to play in Hebrew remained out during Explorations (a more complex version of what is commonly known as Choice Time), and children could choose to play the game, but they would need to play it in Hebrew.

The point of all of these, and many other, uses of Hebrew outside of the immersion context was not only to increase the time spent on Hebrew and make full use of the range of opportunities for natural language learning (including many opportunities to read and write Hebrew in a natural setting) but, as noted, to create a culture in which Hebrew speaking was something that you just do. Indications that we were succeeding in creating the disposition of using Hebrew abounded. I think of walking into Explorations and being approached by two children who told me, in Hebrew, that they were taking a class vote in conjunction with the election bids of Netanyanu and Peres, and they proceeded to report on how many children had voted for each. Then, they told me the number of children who had . . . – and they realized that they didn’t know the Hebrew word for “abstained,” so they went over to get a dictionary and they looked it up. I remember a five-year-old who walked over to a teacher during English reading-writing workshop and, showing her stapled booklet of writing paper, said “Yesh li rak nyar echad, ve’acharei hanyar hazeh siyamti.” While each of these uses of Hebrew is flawed, the point to notice is that this doesn’t stop the children from choosing to speak Hebrew or from being able to communicate what they want to say. It is important to note that the same was true for the teachers. We very rarely had native Hebrew speakers teaching in the school; for most teachers, as for myself, using Hebrew in the flexible ways described here often presented challenges. The key was for teachers to have sufficiently good Hebrew to be able to use it flexibly and ubiquitously, and for teachers to demonstrate to the children how to make yourself understood even when you don’t know precisely how to say something as well as how to find out how to say what you don’t yet know how to say.

Since it is often the case in day schools that there is a chunk of time during the day in the early grades that is devoted to both Hebrew language learning and Jewish studies content, and it is often taken as a given that these two goals are in tension with one another, I want to explain what I think is the rather unique approach that Beit Rabban took in relation to this conundrum. At Beit Rabban, each of the classes in the younger grades had two co-teachers, both of whom taught all subjects. Among other things, this enabled us not to have to accept what is commonly thought of as a necessary trade-off between time spent learning Hebrew and the sophistication of Jewish studies content learning. In the K/1, the activities that filled Hebrew immersion periods often had nothing to do with Jewish studies content. Conversely, Jewish studies content, whether concerning holidays, parashat hashavua, discussion of the meaning of tefillot, etc., was generally taught in English, during other times of the day. This enabled us, on the one hand, to select activities for Hebrew lessons that were best suited for early language learning, for the most part concrete activities such as the ones mentioned above. And, on the other hand, this allowed us to present and discuss Jewish studies content on a sophisticated level, without being constrained by the children’s emerging facility with Hebrew.

While a traditional visitor to a K/1 classroom might be initially surprised to see a Hebrew lesson devoid of what they might think of as Jewish content or to see a parashah discussion conducted entirely in English, this break from traditional Ivrit be‘Ivrit methods is the very thing that allowed us to cultivate both Hebrew fluency and a sophisticated approach to studying Jewish texts and ideas. These skills and dispositions, nurtured through the hard and rewarding work of five- and six-year olds and their incredibly dedicated teachers, served as the foundation for the ensuing years of learning, in which children became immersed in Torah study, and in which Hebrew became the language not only of daily life but of joining the conversation about Torah across place and time. Once the foundation of basic fluency was laid, children’s Hebrew language development went hand-in-hand with the increasing sophistication of the texts and ideas that the children were challenged to encounter and discuss in Hebrew.

Every community and every school is different, and each has different constraints and different capacities. My brief description of Beit Rabban’s approach to developing early fluency in Hebrew is not meant to be prescriptive. It is meant to offer a challenge, as well as to offer some ideas that can be adapted to different settings. I believe that children are well-equipped to learn a second language, and I believe that we are for the most part failing to bring our students to a robust level of Hebrew language fluency. The first step in addressing this situation is to acknowledge our failure and to recognize that, given what we know about children and language learning, and given our expectations of our schools and of our children in every other domain of their education, the situation can and must be changed. At Beit Rabban, we started with the basic assumption that young children can learn Hebrew well, and we set about making sure that they did by developing and implementing the program that I’ve described briefly here. I believe that elements of the program, and the approach to language learning that underlies it, can be implemented in many kinds of schools. But, most importantly, I hope that the outcomes that we saw at Beit Rabban, like the outcomes that I and others of my generation experienced in elementary schools like my own, will challenge others to implement in their own settings an approach to Hebrew language instruction that cultivates real fluency in both modern Hebrew and the Hebrew of our classical texts. ♦

The founder of Beit Rabban, Dr. Devora Steinmetz currently serves as senior faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar and as an educational consultant for the Mandel Foundation. She can be reached at desteinmetz@gmail.com.

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Hebrew Education

What are the goals of Hebrew in day schools? Do we teach it primarily to access religious texts or to speak in Tel Aviv? What are we achieving today, and what can we realistically strive to achieve? Contributors believe in the capacity of day schools to teach Hebrew and present methods and tools for achieving high goals in Hebrew.

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