Teaching “The Impossible” with Hebrew Through Movement

Hebrew alphabetby Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

“No, it’s impossible.” That was my position, and that of many other educators, when asked about the efficacy of teaching Hebrew language in part-time Jewish educational settings of two sessions or less a week. But our tune has changed, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Lifsa Schachter and the pioneers who joined her in introducing Hebrew Through Movement (HTM) to children who attend “Hebrew School.”

For decades, Jewish educators have struggled to teach Hebrew in our part-time educational settings. Because we didn’t have enough time to teach Hebrew language AND prayer skills, we often focused on the latter, assuming all would be well. In our part-time programs, teachers are given curriculum that generally starts with print and move to sound – “this shape is a Mem and it has the sound of ‘M’ – remember what it looks like and what it sounds like, but don’t confuse it with a Tet.” Students learn that m’odekha means “with all your might” – an out-of-context word isolated from a grammatically complex prayer (V’ahavta). With this approach, many of our children feel duped after 4-5 years of Hebrew – the learning is hard, and often little is retained.

Why do our children struggle so much, retain so little, and (not surprisingly) bolt from our programs as quickly as possible after Bar or Bat Mitzvah? One reason is because we have been teaching Hebrew “backwards.”

Our native language is learned in a progression from sound-to-print – babies hear words and sentences, begin to react to the conversations directed toward them, eventually begin to speak, and years later learn to read print. The sounds of language “in our ears” help beginning (and even advanced) readers learn to sound out and self-correct. As Jewish educators, we assumed that if our students had already learned to read in one language, we could jump over foundational language learning and just teach print (“this is the Mem”). Thus, “print-to-sound.”

But this approach is not working well for our students, especially as the number of days have decreased from three to two, and even down to one. Our pre Bar and Bat Mitzvah students often struggle to remember specific letters and vowel signs that have slipped from memory. Imagine trying to recite a lovely poem in Korean just after having learned the printed symbols, but having no language patterns in your memory to help you out. It would be a true struggle! The same things happens in Hebrew in our current system – students don’t have the language in their heads to help them out.

But Hebrew Through Movement, developed by Dr. Lifsa Schachter based on the work of Dr. James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response system, provides an enriched approach to language. Teachers have a chance of shifting children’s connection to Hebrew AND students’ abilities to actually “read” (i.e., with meaning, albeit with a controlled vocabulary) as compared to “decode” (no understanding). Complementing Hebrew Through Movement in many programs is a newly- directed focus on prayer recitation, bringing the sounds of Hebrew prayers into our children’s heads and hearts each time they join together for learning. A sound-to-print progression is thus honored and respected.

Hebrew Through Movement starts with general Hebrew commands (stand up, sit down, walk to the door), that students react to with their bodies – they stand up, sit down, walk to the door. But once children become proficient in the basics, holiday and prayer words are added – e.g., “walk to the table, point to the candle, lift the candle, put it in the candlestick, (pretend to) light the candle.” It’s the latter set of vocabulary that is key to the use of Hebrew Through Movement in part-time Jewish educational settings. Students who “play” with key words in prayers, blessings, rituals and songs, and then sing, recite or read the related Hebrew, have incredible ah-ha! moments as they realize they now understand a previously unintelligible language. Students who touched a candle when the teacher said the Hebrew word (ner) and mimed lighting the candle (l’hadlik ner) suddenly understand the Shabbat candle blessing when the class recites it at the end of their Hebrew Through Movement lesson.

Last year, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland developed a Hebrew Through Movement curriculum (available for free download) and launched an online learning seminar to help Hebrew teachers across the country gain the skills to teach HTM. At this point in time, most part-time Jewish educational programs that use Hebrew Through Movement dedicate fifteen minutes each class session starting in the youngest ages/grades (e.g., kindergarten, first grade) and continue on through sixth grade. While some educational programs have been using Hebrew Through Movement for 4-6 years, most across the country are still in the early stages of implementing this language curriculum for their students.

Change is not easy, but our children are ready for an approach to Hebrew learning that builds on principles of language learning in use for years by French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese language specialists… never mind the learning “structures” that moms and dads of young babies have tapped into for millennia.

It’s time … and no, teaching Hebrew language in our part-time settings is not impossible anymore!

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the Senior Director of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and Senior Consultant to the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the URJ and HUC-JIR. She has been responsible for a number of Hebrew change projects including HebrewThroughMovement.org and LetsLearnHebrew.org (a just-now-launching online learning program for teaching Hebrew decoding/reading).