How Hard Can it Be?

By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

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.”

Instant access.

Stop and consider your own experience with English as you read the words in this article – you are not decoding letter-vowel-letter-vowel-letter, but rather are instantly and accurately reading each word with understanding. You could do so even if you saw words out of context. For the most part, your fluent reading of tens of thousands of English words was not developed through the use of flashcards, drills or re-reading (“hmm, not quite right … practice reading that again three more times”); none of these skill-based activities create fluent readers.

What does? When beginning English readers decode (i.e., sound out) the word p-o-n-y they already know how it is pronounced and have a clear understanding of its meaning. Early English readers can self-correct, if necessary (“oh, that’s not ‘poony,’ it’s ‘pony!”) and then understand the sentence in which it is embedded. Moreso, native language reading research reports that readers turn new-to-them words on a page into instantly accessible sight words via a self-taught and subconscious process that depends on three factors:

  • knowledge of the sounds produced by every letter
  • phonemic awareness, which means that the student can break apart the sounds in a word (i.e., recognize “pony” as having four sounds /p/ /o/ /n/ /y/) and
  • familiarity with the word’s pronunciation and meaning.

By second grade, a typically developing student who meets the three factors above in her native language needs only 1-4 times of decoding a word to store it in memory as a sight word that can be instantly and accurately identified, even if out of context.

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.

Yet, we know of young Jews who competently daven. How? These children have stored Hebrew prayers and blessings in memory through multiple exposures to authentic worship. They recite prayers and, if paying attention to the siddur, can match the sounds in their heads to the print on the page. They pray sound-to-print, much like very young children who learned to orally recite entire picture books and then later use known letters to unlock the print on the page. The bonus comes when Hebrew teachers scaffold sound-to-print learning, giving children the foundation to more easily tackle decoding with stronger skills and confidence to self-correct. More so, the originally unfamiliar Hebrew has the possibility of snapping into memory for future access.

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.

It is true that our pre-bar/bat mitzvah Hebrew learners will never have at their disposal the benefits they had prior to learning to read English – a rich environment in which they heard, responded to and spoke the language before introduced to print. For a whole host of reasons, it would be unusual for our learners to reach the level of fluent Hebrew reading that they have achieved with English – i.e., instant and accurate recognition of a word out of context. To suggest that our students can become fluent Hebrew readers sets them, their teachers, parents and the system up for frustration, even failure.

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!

Want to know more? Join the conversation with #OnwardHebrew, an initiative that champions better Hebrew learning for students in part-time/synagogue settings.

Want more details about the reading research and its application with Hebrew learning? View this webinar segment and then check out some compelling articles.

#OnwardHebrew! Join the conversation!

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Director of Curriculum Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a catalyst for the #OnwardHebrew initiative.