Why Bonnie and Ronnie Can't “Read” (the Siddur)

January, 2010
In this article, Lifsa Schachter, professor emeritus of education at the Siegal College, shares some of her ideas on a range of questions such as: What are the best ways to teach Hebrew? What are ambitious, but reasonable goals for Hebrew language learning supplementary schools? What constitutes literacy?  Her ideas emanate from the research literature on second language acquisition, as well as from her own experiences and experiments designed to make a difference in the domain of Hebrew language learning.
Among the practical implications indicated in the article:

Laying the Oral Foundation for Literacy

Instruction in Hebrew should begin significantly prior to exposing students to print. We should provide learners with oral encounters with the language, even when our goals for Hebrew instruction are to develop proficiency in decoding Hebrew prayers.


During this oral stage decoding should not be explicitly taught, but the classroom should be rich with Hebrew print including posters, labels, and books, providing necessary pre-reading experiences. Praying and singing should be accompanied by large charts with words laid out in ways that assist in phrasing and highlight repeating. This peripheral exposure insures that the decoding lesson is not the learner's first encounter with Hebrew writing and primes the brain for reading.

Teaching According to Sound Grammatical Principles

All of the strategies used for introducing students to decoding should be based on accurate grammatical principles, guided by attention to removing obstacles that might come from interference from one's mother tongue. Strategies should stimulate active learning and problem solving, and not only recall.

Increasing Motivation to Learn Hebrew

Broadening the importance and visibility of Hebrew in the congregational community is crucial to increasing motivation. There should be public discourse about the importance of Hebrew for Jewish identity and the remarkable story of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. Synagogues need to find ways to bring more Hebrew into their publications and decor, to engage leadership in exploring the place of Hebrew for Jewish continuity, and to make the ability to decode Hebrew a requirement for leadership if Hebrew is to be viewed as something more than a requisite for a rite of passage.
Updated: Jun. 20, 2010