HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Shifting Paradigms in Hebrew Learning and Teaching

by Vardit Ringvald Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Most Jewish day schools view the learning and teaching of Hebrew language as a vehicle to shape and reinforce their students’ Jewish identity. The outcome desired by heads of school, parents and students is for graduates to have internalized and “owned” the Hebrew language in a way that will allow them to feel comfortable using Hebrew in the context of modern Israel and be equally able to interpret at least the Siddur and the Tanakh confidently.

What most heads of schools fail to understand is that by outsourcing the Hebrew endeavor, they create barriers to their learners’ owning and internalizing the language.

The enormous task of creating an educated graduate who is a true “Hebraic” person creates anxiety among school leadership. Lacking the expertise to lead the Hebrew program and the necessary cadre of professional Hebrew language educators, most Jewish school leaders are driven to outsource the responsibility for their Hebrew education. Schools are led, therefore, to depend on programs that train personnel to teach specific, ready-made, fixed curricula available on the market.

When both teachers and principals lack professional tools as language educators, using these predetermined programs is reassuring. Clearly articulated, packaged content holds out the promise that the school will always have an organized Hebrew program, which “somebody else” with expertise has taken care of developing for them. What most heads of schools fail to understand is that by outsourcing the Hebrew endeavor, they create barriers to their learners’ owning and internalizing the language.

In the field of second language learning, we differentiate between learning and acquisition. Learning refers to knowledge about the structure of the language, to memorized vocabulary lists and to the conscious use of the language in the specific context it was learned. Acquisition encompasses a learner’s abilities to internalize all aspects of the target language and to use it subconsciously and automatically in a variety of “real life” environments—beyond the immediate learned materials. In order to achieve the desired graduate profile, a paradigm shift is required, empowering learners to acquire the Hebrew language instead of only learning about it.

Unlike pre-packaged, content-oriented programs, student language acquisition and the required teacher professional development are dynamic processes fraught with unpredictable elements. In a process that exhibits many clear characteristics and discernable stages, learners generally move from the pre-productive phase (mastering input) to the productive phase (exhibiting proficiency in their output). Gradual progress in a second language is evidenced in both receptive and productive development: from understanding and producing lists of simple words and phrases taken from the immediate surroundings to producing a collection of connected simple sentences, and finally paragraphs. Learners move from the use of simple present tense verbs to other complicated tenses and from using Hebrew in familiar real-life settings to using the language in unfamiliar contexts.

Acquisition progress in terms of the above-mentioned characteristics is not linear, but “zigzag”—and even this differs from one student to the next. The pace of acquisition is impacted by variables such as age, learning style and strategies, motivation, aptitude, learner anxiety level, as well as the particular conditions in which the language is presented, including number of contact hours, intensity of the program in question, type of linguistic input to which learners are exposed (authentic versus inauthentic, authentic materials being those generated by native speakers for native speakers, to be used from the earliest, “novice” level of proficiency), and many others.

In order to achieve the desired graduate profile, a paradigm shift is required, empowering learners to acquire the Hebrew language instead of only learning about it.

Another factor that contributes to the unpredictable rhythm of language acquisition is the distinctive phase, called “the plunge,” during which learners move to the intermediate level with their language expanding horizontally. At this level, they know more vocabulary than before and are familiar with the different tenses. They try to use the language in real life settings, retrieving the information from a larger area of the brain than novice users of the learned language. As a result, learners tend to make errors of all kinds that can impact the pace of their language production and give them the impression that their language level is falling. The feeling accompanying this apparent “plunge” is one of failure. When given a choice, up to 80% of students drop out of the language learning process at this stage.

It is the teachers’ expertise, not any given curriculum, that is key to supporting students through this process. Having curricula and being trained in how to teach a particular curriculum will not result in a program that successfully addresses and resolves the unpredictable onset of the aforementioned difficulties.

Hebrew educators can only truly support their learners when they are fully aware of the language acquisition process, enabling them to make smart curricular decisions in “real time” and ensure that the process is as rewarding as possible in spite of this unpredictability. In order to overcome these challenges, Hebrew educators need to be equipped with the expertise that allows them to make such educated decisions.

Only through the internalization of the principles of second language acquisition theory and the assimilation of an in-depth understanding of all aspects related to the teaching and learning of Hebrew will teachers gain the power to activate the language acquisition process in their learners. In order to help their learners navigate this dynamic process successfully, teachers must understand and master teaching methodologies, means for identifying learner variability, curriculum choice, modification and development, the setting of realistic goals and the measurement of learners’ progress in both summative and formative modes.

In other words, a Hebrew language program that relies on the core principles of these elements has the potential to help its learners achieve their linguistics goals. Such an approach will allow for the flexibility demanded by an inclusive program, which provides every learner with tools for maximizing his or her acquisition process.

To reach this goal, schools have two tasks at hand: helping their teachers gain the necessary expertise, and creating a language program in which this expertise can best be utilized. Providing opportunities for in-service professional development is the primary means of expediting this process for teachers. When teachers learn, internalize and implement the principles of language acquisition within their own contexts—in their individual school settings and classrooms—they conceptualize them in a relatively short period of time and maximize the acquisition process for both themselves and their learners.

By putting their learning into practice through interaction with their learners in real time, teachers are able to experience instances of immediate success, reinforcing their own development and immediately impacting learner outcomes. If the content and sequence of a PD program is custom-suited to the immediate needs of a school and the profile of its teachers, each teacher becomes equipped to follow the process through the lens of his or her learners’ needs. These tasks might seem challenging to implement in the daily life of a school. They entail freeing teachers’ time for professional development, modifying curriculum, and collecting data on an ongoing basis. School leadership must allocate funds as well as establish clear expectations from coordinators and Hebrew educators. When these elements are not part of a school’s culture, of the fabric of the school’s Hebrew language program, the school remains forever dependent upon outside sources for support.

In Hebrew language teaching and learning, a paradigm shift means a revolutionary change in our programs, shifting to the dynamic and flexible process navigated by the core principles of language acquisition. This fundamental change will lead to desired learner outcomes, enabling us as Jewish educators to fulfill our vision of “Hebraic” graduates who will become our Jewishly literate leaders of the future. ♦

Dr. Vardit Ringvald is the Director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University. Dr. Ringvald can be reached at ringvald@brandeis.edu.

What RAVSAK Schools Say About Hebrew Education

Over the past three years, Hebrew at the Center has convened groups of day schools to discuss the benefits, challenges, successes and vision related to Hebrew language in their schools from the point of view of the students, the parents, the teachers and school leadership. Based on conversations with heads of schools, principals, Judaic directors and Hebrew coordinators from more than 20 schools from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and affiliation in Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles, the following themes emerged in the words of those who participated:

“Hebrew plays a significant role in connecting not only to Jewish people but to Israel—the country and people. Hebrew is the language that unites us as a people.”

“Hebrew is part of the students’ Jewish identity and ensures Jewish continuity.”

“All students should be able to engage with the Hebrew language and feel connected.”

“Students want to experience that they are progressing and that after spending years studying Hebrew they can use Hebrew.”

“Success is when kids insist on using Hebrew and when they view Hebrew as worthwhile.”

“Hebrew is a second tier subject. Parents often display attitudes that it isn’t as important. (Parents’ sense of inadequacy in Hebrew may be reflected in their attitudes.) Their perception that the teaching is not effective may influence their attitudes.”

“Teachers usually don’t come with background in teaching a second language though they may (or may not) be professionals. What is needed is investment in their professional development as it relates to the field of Hebrew teaching and learning.”

“We need teachers who are familiar with goal-setting and assessment and understand foreign language teaching.”

“In order to change the status quo, we should be able to set expectations of the level of teaching that is the same as for general studies: classroom management, best practices, differentiation skills, effective communication with parents, and collaborative work with colleagues in the school.”

“There is a need to articulate how Hebrew fits into the larger vision of our school.”

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