By Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

The long awaited Avi Chai Foundation Hebrew report, Hebrew For What?|Hebrew at the Heart of Jewish Day Schools, was released this month, and is enjoying broad discussion and commentary among Hebrew educators and administrators.

While I read it closely and with great interest, I was left scratching my head, surprised both by its content, and by what failed to make its way into the hefty 64-page volume.

On this Pesach 5777, our season of fundamental questions, let’s start with the report’s Executive Summary, which, right off the bat, outlines some of my concerns. As the summary opens, its researcher/authors lament the difficult and complex task of teaching Hebrew, due to the multiple purposes that the Hebrew curriculum serves (studying both classical sacred texts, and acquiring modern Hebrew communication skills) in a day school setting. The authors seem to be seeking readers’ leniency by describing a nearly impossible task, relating that Hebrew faculty is hard to find; instructional minutes are hard to come by; parental demands add stress; maintaining older students’ interest is challenging; and my personal favorite, the non-Romanized alphabet makes Hebrew harder to learn than other commonly taught world languages, such as Spanish and French.

Before we continue, I say we need to come to some common understanding about what it is we are trying to accomplish with Hebrew in the day school classroom, refine and articulate our goals regarding Hebrew instruction, and align our teaching with our goals. I believe that a better grasp of the Second Languages Acquisition (SLA) research, which is, lamentably, all but absent from the Avi Chai report, will aid our grasp of the issues above, and how to address them.

Big Idea #1: Humans acquire language one way only – by understanding messages (Chomsky/Krashen). If we want our students to acquire Hebrew for any purpose, sacred or secular, conversational or literary, then we must begin by delivering comprehensible input, aural/oral and written messages that they can understand and that are so compelling that they attend to them effortlessly and automatically.

The Avi Chai report researchers uncover a curious trend in their surveys. The day school kids, they report, seem to be losing their Hebrew ability after fifth grade! Interestingly, this deterioration of skill in not found elsewhere in the literature among students of other languages, nor is the Hebrew phenomenon explained in the report within any SLA framework. So I offer these fundamental questions:

Could it be that after 5th grade, many Hebrew programs shift from a more experiential, conversational, compelling comprehensible input (CCI)-rich communicative model, to a high-stakes grammar and vocabulary-heavy memorize-and-test grind (unsupported by any SLA research)?

Could it be that after 5th grade, Hebrew is no longer used as the lingua franca of the classroom, but that upper level teachers talk (in English) about how Hebrew’s grammar and syntax, morphology and phonology work?  Such a focus on the surface of the language in lieu of language as a tool for communication is also unsupported by any of the best-practice research, and would come at the expense of CCI and its attendant student comfort and engagement. As the amount of CCI, overall program interest and therefore quality decline, so do student outcomes.

Could it be that some programs abandon communicating in modern Hebrew altogether after 5th grade, instead shifting their limited instructional minutes to classical sacred texts – using mostly English? This possibility would most certainly render the class less conducive to Hebrew language acquisition.

Recommendations: Create and defend an early start-long sequence modern Hebrew language program, rich in CCI, that broadens students’ linguistic foundation from year to year.  Insure that the content is compelling by incorporating student interests and ideas. Integrate lots more reading into the program from an early age, with literacy materials connected to and based on the acquired aural/oral language. Reading compounds language gains, and can be leveraged for the study of sacred texts. The handicap of a non-Romanized alphabet can be overcome if students are exposed to appropriate reading materials over the long haul. Protect the time dedicated to modern Hebrew instruction; it is different from sacred text study, and should not be substituted at the beginner-to-intermediate levels. Educate faculty, parents and students about your new (department-wide!) approach. Demonstrate CCI lessons at go-to-school-night, which is sure to create a buzz. Parents will be more likely to support you if their children are happy and successfully learning, and they understand the framework and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Watch student enthusiasm take off and soar, alongside acquisition. While face to face modern Hebrew communication will grow proportionately with the amount of quality CCI, it will not keep pace with the complex concepts, parables, allegories and commentaries contained in the Hebrew sacred texts. Either these will have to be adapted for beginner to intermediate Hebrew learners’ needs, or their study will have to take place in English, or in combination of Hebrew and English, whichever arrangement best meets the linguistic needs of the students. We cannot hope to teach beginners’ basic modern Hebrew for daily communication, and Talmud Torah as it appears in its original form, on the same day. It’s like reading a high school social studies textbook to a kindergartner! We must adapt our Hebrew texts to meet the needs of our learners, insure our students are engaged and comfortable –

NOT STRESSED OUT or made to feel inadequate. A high affective filter can be a major obstacle to language acquisition, so we must be vigilant that we aren’t freaking out our kids, or they will tune out and turn off. And researchers will conclude that they are ‘losing their Hebrew language,’ when it’s really the program, itself, that has lost its way.

If it’s not clear by now, I am advocating for two entirely separate classes: modern Hebrew, and ‘Judaics’/sacred texts. Let’s treat modern Hebrew like the secular subject it is – like Spanish or French – and inform our instruction with both the tenets of Second Language Acquisition research and the intuitive strategies that have been embraced by thousands of world language teachers over the past 20+ years. Of course we’ll apply and enjoy the strong modern Hebrew literacy skills our students develop over in their classical Judaics/Talmud & Torah classroom, where they’ll also benefit from the linguistic knowledge they’ve gained in modern Hebrew class (general vocabulary, familiar verb forms, prefixes, transition words, etc.). The sounds and meanings are already in their heads! By starting with language for meaning – modern Ivrit –  we will build capacity for the more intellectual pursuit of classical text analysis by prioritizing and insuring the development of comprehension, literacy skills, interest and confidence.

Big Idea #2:  Listening comprehension and reading, the receptive/input skills, precede writing and speaking, the productive/output skills (Read this blog post ).

Among other benefits, familiarity with this basic tenet of SLA research helps manage student, parent, teacher, administrator (and researcher) expectations. Students require copious amounts of CCI before they are able to produce the target language at the discourse level. “A flood of input for a trickle of output,” according to linguistics Professor Wynn Wong. And yet, according to the Avi Chai report researchers, “At a few, although not all, of the schools we visited, we observed classes in which students’ speaking proficiency was evidently poorer in the higher grades than in lower ones. While elementary school students responded in Hebrew to their teachers’ promptings, and seemed able to express themselves quite fluently in Israeli-accented Hebrew, by the time they reached the higher grades students struggled to express themselves. They groped to find the vocabulary to convey their thoughts.  Even where the rule in class was to speak only in Hebrew, students would often opt to find the right phrase in English before reverting to Hebrew.” (p. 29)
Could it be that the elementary teacher-prompted responses required only a perfunctory one word or short answer, demonstrating the students’ listening comprehension, whereas the upper school request demanded Hebrew speaking above the students’ level of acquisition, and at the discourse level? Is the latter task reasonable, and does it reflect understanding of the SLA research? Rather than bemoaning their students’ low interpersonal Hebrew proficiency, teachers (and researchers) must instead learn how students acquire, appreciate the natural stages of language emergence (not forced output), discern what kind of production is typical for the amount of CCI they’ve received, and ascertain how to continuously engage students in a Hebrew language-rich atmosphere.  Expectations are lower in the lower school, a consistency between what is expected and what is observed.
Suddenly, at the higher levels, though, students are expected to make a developmental leap, even as the quantity and quality of language input is diminished.
Recommendations: Teachers and researchers are encouraged to master the theoretical underpinnings of SLA as well as the pedagogy that aligns with it, to get a better grasp on appropriate expectations for language output. Continued high quality CCI is as important as ever in the upper grades.
Big Ideas #3 & #4: When the classroom messages are compelling, listening and engagement are greater; by personalizing and customizing comprehensible messages through class-elicited scenes, stories and images, interest skyrockets, and we optimize the input.
It’s hard to discern from the Avi Chai report just how interesting (or not) the general content of modern Hebrew classes is, though stakeholders’ complaints seem to suggest a general disinterest in Hebrew class particularly at the upper levels.  Either the content or the instruction (or both) are souring students’ attitude.
What can we do about it?
Recommendation: We need to take a sober look at our content. Many schools embrace a pre-fabricated all inclusive curriculum that blends modern Hebrew with Judaics and prayerbook Hebrew, killing many proverbial birds with a single stone.  But they are, regrettably, also killing interest and engagement, because the set curriculum is…OK I’ll say it: Boring as all get-out! Set curricula often ‘covers’ static and humorless topics about which the students are not interested or passionate; nor do many of the themes incorporate the highest frequency words for greatest linguistic coverage.
So how can we insure that all students will be interested and remain engaged in the banter of our daily classes?  By involving them in the creation of the content! By including their hobbies and passions in class stories and conversations! By surveying their interests, and intentionally inserting this personalized information into the ‘curriculum!’ By, once knowing our students well, finding stories, video clips, commercials, poetry and songs, etc. that appeal to our group! Once we accept that modern Hebrew is separate from Judaics/sacred texts, we are free to banter on an endless array of fiction/real topics, so long as our messages are compelling and comprehensible, and contribute to an ever-widening linguistic foundation. By starting with student interest rather than imposing a prefab or teacher-driven curriculum, we guarantee broader relevance and authenticity, we build a community where individuals feel known and recognized, and we engage in pleasant conversation, in which all students have a foothold.
We democratize the language classroom!
Whew. Perhaps those are enough big ideas to chew on for one blog post.
The Avi Chai report sheds light on stakeholders’ negative attitudes about Hebrew instruction, informing the quagmire in which we find ourselves. I contend (with no blame) that often vague and contradictory instructional goals, poor and/or spotty Hebrew language teacher training, limited support and quality materials, all uninformed by SLA research, have landed us in this predicament.
The good news is, we can address our dire situation immediately and to great effect. If my own teaching experiment is any indication, stakeholders are all eager to learn a better way. The light and humorous beginners’ Hebrew scenes and stories are a welcome respite from the drudgery of grammar paradigms and vocabulary lists, nonsense words both spoken and copied into מחברות (notebooks). Teachers, students and parents all report renewed enthusiasm for Comprehensible Hebrew, and kids look forward to class.
Recommendations: Let’s re-think what we’re doing – but through the lens of Second Language Acquisition research. Acquiring language isn’t like learning chemistry or social studies.  It’s an unconscious process. It’s driven by compelling, comprehensible input. Let’s rebuild our community’s confidence in Hebrew instruction as a worthwhile endeavor by demonstrating success after success. What constitutes that success? Our students will have a joyful experience in effective Hebrew classes; they will feel capable and successful at acquiring, comprehending and utilizing Hebrew, and they will embrace it as their own.
This article is reposted with permission from Comprehensible Hebrew.