Reimagining Modern Hebrew Instruction

Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

It’s no secret that though our students are exposed to years of modern Hebrew instruction, many emerge with relatively little comprehension of oral or written Ivrit to show for it. Too many can neither understand nor join an impromptu Israeli conversation, much less read, comprehend or write basic Hebrew. Many are doubtful about their prospects for gaining proficiency and are reluctant to use their lagging language skills in an authentic context.

Of course, the study of Hebrew is just like the study of Spanish, Mandarin or any other language in this regard. A steady diet of vocabulary lists, grammar and rigorous testing rarely produces enthusiastic or proficient language listeners, readers, writers or speakers. Nor has dry cultural or religion-based content study in the modern Ivrit class contributed much to conversational competence. And yet we continue to rely upon these stock curricular ingredients, now with new-and-improved online games.

Our unfulfilled mission frustrates Ivrit teachers as much as it hurts our students. We signed up to spread our passion for modern Hebrew, yet we never get to pluck the fruit of our toil. On the contrary, we often unwittingly contribute to negative attitudes around Ivrit and an overwhelming malaise: “It has been and always will be this way. Modern Hebrew just can’t be taught successfully.”

Aligning with the Research

What would it take to change this disheartening narrative and break the cycle of ineffective Hebrew offerings? How can we reimagine Ivrit instruction?

The field of language teaching has evolved since the days of vocabulary lists and grammar drills. We are now poised to overhaul and revitalize the Hebrew quest by vastly improving teacher training and efficacy. A better-supported Ivrit faculty, grounded in knowledge of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), is the key to turning around our outmoded sequence and delivering the once elusive prize: transformed Hebrew attitudes and outcomes.

While many Ivrit teachers may be unfamiliar with SLA, the good news is, it’s fairly intuitive. This patent precept anchors the work: We acquire language by understanding messages. Furthermore, the more compelling the messages, the more student attention to and engagement with them. With this framework in mind, an ever-expanding repository of research-aligned and classroom-tested instructional strategies is already successfully employed in language classrooms—including some Hebrew—around the world.

The first phase of effective Hebrew professional re-development involves educating both institutional decision-makers and Ivrit instructors in SLA essentials. Only by internalizing this bread-and-butter of the profession can instructors identify which legacy elements and practices to scrap and how to build anew.

Getting a Feel for It

Once faculty and their supervisors understand the basic principles of SLA, teachers will next focus on honing their classroom communication skills. Delivering compelling and understandable oral messages is their number one task. One of the most practical ways to train faculty is by having master comprehension-based instructors model extended language lessons, but in a target language the teachers do not already speak. Experiencing initial uncertainty during a barrage of unfamiliar sounds and language chunks not only builds empathy for their students’ task, but trainees get an inspiring first-hand appreciation for the effectiveness of comprehensible-input-based strategies. This demonstration usually leaves enthusiastic teachers hungry to tinker in their own classrooms.

Abandoning Unaligned Materials

To this end, enlightened Ivrit teachers relinquish the prescriptive grammar and vocab-heavy textbook. Instead, they use narrow and repetitive extemporaneous language, in much the same way parents use “motherese” with their young children: concrete “here and now” messaging; a slowed pace; shortened/simplified sentences; and extralinguistic supports such as gestures, facial expressions, voice intonation, visuals, drama and movement. In short, the teacher-as-language-parent uses whatever means available to make Hebrew understood in real time. Such classes are conducted almost exclusively in Ivrit as our students, like babies, need to hear and simultaneously understand lots of Hebrew in order to begin acquiring it.

Kids as Curriculum

But how do we get our kids to tune in and sustain their attention while this extended oral language is coming in? Here is a real shift in how we conceive curriculum. Knowing that kids are most interested in talking about themselves—their experiences, ideas and opinions—we talk to and about them, extending the conversation to include everyone. Our kids are, especially in the beginning, the Ivrit curriculum!

At first, teachers may build a bridge of interest by asking countless Hebrew questions—surveying, comparing and contrasting, voting, tallying and graphing results. Do you have a pet? What’s your favorite kind of candy? Cubs or Sox? Who’s your least favorite book character? Each inclusive poll invites students to share their personal response aloud, which the teacher massages back into extended conversation as she reports back to class. “Class, Esther says she loves Hermione Granger! Ya’akov says he likes Harry Potter, but Shira loves Hermione. Whom do you love, Ze’ev?” A single compelling query can yield cordial conversation, mostly provided by the teacher-as-language-model. This input is rife with narrow repetition, personal information and pleasant, community-building banter. Furthermore, such canvassing likely employs some of the highest frequency words, giving a real workout to practical sentence building-blocks, such as likes, has, says and wants.

This levity and stress-free ambience support our SLA-informed goals of focusing primarily on meaning, not on language accuracy or mechanics.

Reading Cart After Listening Horse

But perhaps the most conspicuous shift away from traditional Hebrew instruction is delayed reading at the novice-to-intermediate levels. Gone are the days of densely stacked vocabulary words, glossed at the bottom of the page. Instead, our students wait to commence the literacy phase until they’ve interacted with and demonstrated comprehension of front-loaded oral language. Only then are students invited to read that which they have contributed to, and understood in class. With the teacher as reading guide, we ensure a successful and affirming reading experience that feels automatic and effortless. The specially prepared learner text or co-created story is often elicited from the group and written up by the teacher, who, having worked closely with her students, can accurately pitch readings to the class’s proficiency level.

So, in our reimagined Ivrit classes, our kids turn off their devices and clear their desks; listen to, understand and interact with the compelling Hebrew input surrounding them, supported by visual anchors, such as pictures, props and student dramatization; and then read what they’ve been hearing, once we’re sure they confidently recognize both sound and meaning. A broad selection of aligned literacy extensions can provide even more novel repetition of this narrow language, affording students time to acquire, without hastily proceeding to the next unit of study.

Creating a Chill Environment

With the newly established priorities of student interest and ease of understanding in place, retooled Ivrit teachers debunk conventional wisdom that a sense of discernable struggle or rigor is conducive to acquiring Hebrew. On the contrary, we want our kids to understand Ivrit unconsciously and without frustration, and to that end we frequently check to insure they “get it.” This constant monitoring helps us adjust both our rate of delivery and register of speech, ensuring that no passengers fall from our Understanding Train. Learning a new language is a distinct process, different from, say, algebra or history. We want to safeguard the Ivrit class as an accessible, pleasant and seemingly easy environment, as the brain works hard to process lots of incoming Hebrew data.

Unfortunately, though schools may attempt to improve the quality of their offerings by piloting new Ivrit curricula and attending materials-training sessions, this rehashed content often perpetuates the same pedagogically indefensible missteps of the past. Devoid of SLA undergirding, it tends to favor forced student output, writing and speaking, rather than prioritize listening and reading, the language inputs that drive acquisition. Stakeholders must, therefore, be grounded in SLA in order to recalibrate and embrace reasonable expectations for language production, which is the result of copious comprehended input.

Once this shift in classroom focus and revised proficiency timeline is adopted, we will no longer assess beginner-to-intermediate student progress on how well or how much the kids can say or write, but rather on how well they understand increasingly sophisticated chunks of oral and written language at the discourse level. The community will simultaneously notice increased engagement, improved attitudes and a more pleasant classroom atmosphere with better teacher-student relationships. Eventually, natural unforced Hebrew output will emerge, in the service of friendly communication.

Supporting the Chalutzim

A paradigm shift of this magnitude can be daunting, and routine challenges are to be expected. A spirit of collaborative troubleshooting, in which Hebrew teachers have a voice in say, scheduling, teaching assignments, classroom configuration and technology setup can go far in assuaging underlying tensions even before new teaching strategies are brought to students.

Once teachers are ready to embrace their reimagined roles, the sudden spotlight on a discipline that heretofore flew under the radar can be jarring. Planning for peer-collaboration time, support and observation plus regular team meetings with the supervisor and/or evaluating administrator can help bolster a growth mindset (Carol Dweck), problem-solve and identify areas for additional professional training. The first steps of an unfamiliar journey can feel vulnerable, so pioneer teachers should be encouraged and acknowledged.

With this course change, Hebrew teachers are trying on new interpersonal behaviors, content, assessment and classroom management, and learning as they go. Regular and ongoing supervisory observation, feedback, coaching and mentoring is crucial, though teachers can also initiate cycles of powerful self-reflection by videorecording themselves teaching, and watching themselves later, with a qualitative rubric in hand. The key is for them to notice not only what they are doing as the leader in the room but how the students are responding and interacting with the Ivrit surrounding them.

Communities of comprehension-based practice and texts are also widely available to help support our Hebrew teacher-innovators. Workshops and conferences targeting comprehension-based strategies for instruction abound, and the blogosphere teems with teacher articles, curricular resources and demonstration videos, including the first community blog specific to teaching comprehension-based Hebrew: (article author’s blog).

Because Hebrew is mostly taught in private settings, this grassroots Comprehensible Input movement is relatively new for Hebrew teachers, who, until now, have not trained alongside public school language teachers. Participation in this wider professional setting is a healthy venture that builds networks of support and inquiry and can also provide laboratories for additional peer observation and reflection.

A Positive and Proactive School Culture is the Bedrock

Finally, but no less significant, is the school’s institutional culture. Not only do we need to ask hard questions about the community’s apathy or negative attitude towards Hebrew instruction (and how to repair it through research-aligned teaching and learning). Educational and administrative leaders must also be sufficiently grounded in the new language instruction rationale to discuss and defend it within the wider community.

By exemplifying engaged learning and unwavering commitment to improvement, leaders hold their principals, teaching supervisors, department chairs and faculty accountable to aligned practices. Realizing this vision of excellence often requires attendance at a professional conference or workshop alongside Hebrew faculty; hosting informational opportunities for parents to ask questions and have their concerns heard and answered; regular visits to classrooms and department meetings; frequent informal observations with qualitative feedback, perhaps initially modeled by an outside trainer; and defined and attainable goals for teacher progress along a continuum of improvement.

Additionally, stakeholders must also reflect on the tone and tenor of relationships in school. By acknowledging that we are all shaped by the teacher, administrator, student and parent dynamics, school administrators at every level can do much to ensure that classrooms, hallways, meetings and assemblies reflect both the school’s academic mission and highest aspirations for community conduct.

Rooted in a healthy and positive school culture, with determination and a renewed sense of purpose, we are set to transform our Hebrew dreams into reality. As Eliezer Ben Yehuda predicted, “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study… to the school… [I]t will come into the home and... become a living language.”

A part of this article was originally printed in The Chicago Jewish Home.

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