How Hard Can it Be?

December 18, 2019

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

A long-standing assumption at the heart of synagogue Hebrew education is that if our children learned to read English, it should not be that hard for them to learn to read Hebrew fluently. Yet, even with four years or more of “Hebrew school,” young learners struggle with prayers and blessings. The culprit is often identified as lessened days/hours of learning time or competing family priorities. But, consistent and well-replicated reading research offers us another possibility – countless studies conclude that reading fluency is “… a by-product of having instant access to most or all of the words on the page.”

What does this mean for synagogue education? Unfortunately, it suggests that we set the majority of our Hebrew learners up for failure when “fluent and accurate reading of prayers” is a stated goal. New-to-Hebrew students usually have little idea of the pronunciation (never mind the meaning) of the complex Hebrew words in most Jewish prayers and thus cannot self-correct when decoding. The reading research noted above suggests that unknown words cannot become a fluently-read sight word because the learner does not have the foundation to achieve instant recognition. Not surprisingly, a person who only can decode Hebrew – especially at the halting pace of many new learners – cannot read prayers at synagogue-speed.

Based on what researchers tell us about the factors that enable fluent reading, it is time for synagogue educators to reconsider their learning goals and teaching techniques – we cannot expect our learners to achieve Hebrew reading fluency as they have with English. While the native language reading research does not speak directly to our settings, it suggests that:

  • We should not be afraid of offering avenues for our children to store Hebrew prayers and blessings in memory via consistent use in frequent, authentic contexts (prayer services, home rituals, song sessions).
  • We should shift our focus from years of drilling Hebrew decoding to laying a strong foundation in the sounds of Hebrew language in low-stress but powerful learning approaches like Hebrew Through Movement, Jewish Life Vocabulary, and age-appropriate t’fillah.
  • We should have the patience to wait to introduce Hebrew decoding at an older age, for once children build their exposure to words used in prayers and blessings, the learning is quicker, more efficient and sticks.
  • We should help teachers gain the skills to scaffold sound-to-print decoding.

Bottom line, we must more strongly and intentionally honor the sound-to-print progression of learning to read in one’s native language, while paying attention to our unique circumstances.
But in the time we have, can we help learners become competent and confident with synagogue Hebrew? Absolutely! By attending to research, rather than our kishkes, we can shift Hebrew learning in our part-time/synagogue settings to more closely honor what the experts tell us. When we do that, it doesn’t have to be hard!

Read the whole article at eJewish Philanthropy.


Updated: Jan. 08, 2020