HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Tools and Contents in the Online Teaching of Hebrew as a Foreign Language

by Luba Charlap Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Online learning has many benefits: it is convenient, up-to-date, enjoyable, taught by experts, and geared to the individual. It eliminates the geographical distance between moderators and learners, and provides a learning experience that is intensified by the learner’s sense of being a part of a diverse and global group.

Children who learned a language by means of media aids grasped words as pictures and as sounds rather than as a combination of letters. The nature of absorbing the language is different.

Research on language teaching has shown that the use of multimedia tools in teaching a foreign / second language increases the efficacy of language acquisition as compared to conventional ways of teaching. Multimedia tools also activate what Yoram Eshet calls “synchronous thinking.” In the studies he conducted, he discovered that children who learned a language by means of media aids grasped words as pictures and as sounds rather than as a combination of letters. In other words, the nature of absorbing the language is different.

This is also true with regard to online teaching: studies have proved the effectiveness of teaching a language, even a foreign language, using online means rather than frontal teaching methods. Teachers of Hebrew as a foreign language attest to the advantages of online teaching in the learning process.

Three Levels in Online Hebrew Teaching

In the teaching of Hebrew as a foreign language, the use of online means is reflected on three levels ranging from the familiar and common to the novel and state-of-the-art:

a. The first (basic) level: Learning resources on the Net

The utilization of the learning resources that can be found on the Net, such as educational software developed by academic, public, and commercial bodies, constitutes the basic level at which numerous teachers have been teaching for many years. The most prominent in this area is the “Sfatarbut” project at The Hebrew University. In this framework, free educational software for the Internet was developed in the various teaching fields: morphology, vocabulary, expression, and even accent enhancement. The departments for teaching Hebrew (Classical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew) in various universities throughout the world offer computer-mediated courses on teaching the language. The Ministry of Education in Israel, particularly the Department of Adult Education, also promotes computer-mediated learning. The Center for Educational Technology dedicates many resources to the development of software for language teaching in schools and ulpanim for immigrants. Additional activities are conducted by the Jewish Agency as well as by educational organizations and commercial bodies.

This level also includes the use of the various Internet sites for performing learning tasks, and the use of online dictionaries, encyclopedias, and databases.

b. The second level: Second-generation software and platforms

The advent of web 2.0 engendered advanced learning resources that utilized tools such as web logs (blogs), Wikis, media sharing applications, and social networks (e.g., Facebook). The use of Course Managing Systems (CMS) such as Blackboard and Moodle is also associated with this level. Additional resources include sophisticated softwares such as Hot Potatoes, which enables the construction of grammar and composition exercises.

All of these are indicative of a trend that involves collaborative and interactive work, with a group of people who, despite their geographic distance, can express themselves in a single document.

c. The advanced level: Utilizing third-generation programs

An additional level of online language teaching and learning is the use of “virtual worlds” for language teaching, a field pioneered in recent years by Mark J. W. Lee. In a course developed by Ram Steiner in the framework of The Mofet Institute’s Online Academy, Steiner demonstrated the use of this medium as a creative tool for developing expression in Hebrew, as we shall see below.

The connection between the tools and the contents

Teaching Hebrew online, both synchronously and asynchronously, can harness the resources and benefits offered by online teaching on all three levels. The teacher learns how to make use of the exceptional properties of computer communication and the Internet for purposes of teaching the Hebrew language, thereby gaining advantages lacking in regular frontal teaching.

I shall clarify and demonstrate what has been described above with the help of a demonstration from the program “Studies toward a Specialization Certificate in the Didactics of Teaching Hebrew as a Foreign Language.” This online program is intended for the preparation of teachers of Hebrew as a Foreign Language in the Diaspora. The program operates in the framework of the “Online Academy” in The Mofet Institute’s International Channel, in which various programs on a range of fields of interest in teacher education are developed. The teacher population in the Diaspora as well as in various settings in Israel expressed a desire for implementing a program of teacher education in Hebrew as a Foreign / Second Language in the schools, colleges, and community ulpanim that would meet the needs of the teacher, wherever he may be.

Learning in the program occurs via the “Mofetnet” computer-mediated website that was developed by Mofet’s computer experts. By means of this website, the learning units and assignments are conveyed from the lecturer-moderator to the students and vice versa. In addition, synchronous mechanisms such as Elluminate are used. Elluminate enables lessons to be held via the Internet with “real-time” interaction among the students and between the lecturer-moderator and the students.

The program includes basic courses (mandatory courses) and enrichment courses (elective courses), with the emphasis on both the field of knowledge and pedagogy. By fulfilling the course requirements, those who complete it are awarded a certificate, approved by the Israeli Ministry of Education.

I would like, therefore, to point out three salient advantages that emerged during the teaching of the online courses in this program, and are capable of indicating the entire direction.

a. Using the Internet space and multimedia tools

In the course “Theory and Practice in Teaching Hebrew as a Foreign Language,” which was developed by this writer, the moderator takes advantage of the wealth of the Internet, and refers the students to available databases such as the Ben-Yehuda Hebrew literature database as well as to Hebrewbooks, Wikipedia, the Hebrew Language Academy website, and so on. The students are also referred to media files (uploaded both by other users and by the moderator) and to various documents—reports, newspaper articles, papers, and so on—that exist on the Internet. Naturally, preference is given to online rather than to non-online sources, both because the former are available at the click of a button and are therefore convenient for the users, and because the references and links render the written course the “tip of the iceberg” as regards the material that is accessible to the learners, thus tempting them to constantly increase their knowledge. This trend predominates both in the mid-term and in the final assignments: The objective is to refer the students to the sources that exist on the Internet and to challenge them to continually expand their search.

Following are examples of references that were required during the course:

In the 1990s, the ACTFL (American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages) laid down guidelines for ranking achievements in Hebrew, a document that enables institutions that teach Hebrew to measure achievements. See the link to the document titled “Standards for Foreign Languages” of this organization: http://www.actfl.org/files/public/StandardsforFLLexecsumm_rev.pdf.

On the topic of standardization in other languages, see the European Union’s language/linguistic website: http:/www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Portfolio_EN.asp.

On the controversy concerning Gilad Zuckerman’s book Israeli: A Beautiful Language, see Yaron London and Motti Kirschenbaum’s interview with Zuckerman in the program “London & Kirschenbaum,” on Israel Television’s Channel 10. The interview can be found at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjU1rnaONG8.

I shall now present some of the assignments given in this course:

Assignment 1: Surf the site of The Hebrew Language Academy (hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il) and Wikipedia, and read about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his work. Assess his personality and his contribution to the revival of the Hebrew Language.

Assignment 2: Read S. Haramati’s article, “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Development of the ‘Hebrew in Hebrew’ Teaching Method” (Qatedra 63), and answer the question: What are Haramati’s reasons for favoring Epstein over Ben-Yehuda as the father of the ‘Hebrew in Hebrew’ method? The article in its entirety can be found at the following Internet address: http://www.snunit.k12.il/heb_journals/katedra/63166.html.

Assignment 3: The Ministry of Education published a new program for teaching Hebrew as a Second Language in the education system in Israel (first–twelfth grades). The complete version of the program can be found at the following Internet address: http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Olim/HoraatIvrit. Read the introduction to the program as well as the list of principles underlying the program. Is there an affinity to the “Hebrew in Hebrew” method, and if so, to what extent?

As is evident, the references to Internet websites—articles, curricula, information websites of professional bodies as well as media websites that are relevant to the teaching topics—enrich and enhance learning. The crux of the matter is the fact that “everything is available at a click of the mouse.”

b. Interaction in the forum setting

The existence of a discussion forum is an essential component of the program and reflects one of the principles of the online program: communicability. Through the forum, a discourse develops between the community of teachers and learners: between the teachers and their students, between the students and their teachers, and among the learners themselves. In addition, the forum encourages an exchange of opinions as well as consultations regarding anything connected to the pedagogy of teaching Hebrew and to questions from the field of Hebrew language. By external measures, our school was doing well with Hebrew instruction. Students were being placed in high Hebrew levels in Jewish high schools; our all-Hebrew musical was an impressive signature program for our eighth graders. The challenge in arguing for a Hebrew initiative lay in articulating a vision for how we could do better.

The aim of this learning discourse is to engender fruitful learning as well as afford a framework for questions and deliberations with regard to professional topics.

c. Language teaching by means of advanced media tools

One of the courses offered by the program, “The Internet and Multimedia as tools for developing oral and written expression,” which was developed by Ram Steiner, aims to employ audiovisual media, Internet websites, multimedia tools, and advanced “new media” tools for the development of teaching.

This course is an example of the use of advanced learning resources such as social networks, blogs, Wiki, google docs, and other software and platforms that are included in “the new Internet,” Web 2.0, in teaching Hebrew as a Foreign Language. Steiner shows how it is possible to utilize these resources for creativity in Hebrew. The trend he promotes is the use of “open software,” usually by adopting games and clips for creativity and activation in Hebrew, instead of “closed programs,” which deal with defined topics in a given way. The course also demonstrates collaborative work: The teacher starts off by imparting the learning material, but from then on the students create by themselves. Students in this collaborative world can create exercises that the teacher will use in the classroom later on. They collaborate on writing papers, devise exams, and express themselves in the language they are learning—all online.

Another development that Steiner aimed at is the use of the “virtual worlds” for language teaching, such as Second Life. In this world, “cartoon” characters controlled by computer users work, build, create, and enjoy themselves—just like in the real world. In the world created by Steiner, there is a synagogue as well as a Hebrew ulpan in which lessons, conversations, and various activities take place in Hebrew. Steiner has therefore shown how it is possible to make use of this virtual world for developing expression in Hebrew.


The uniqueness of an online Hebrew-teaching program is not merely the “tool” aspect, that is, the learning setting and its inherent advantages. Innovation is attained by internalizing the pedagogic worldview that is expressed in this form of learning, and by taking judicious advantage of the resources offered by the Internet. Thus, online teaching of Hebrew as a foreign language is not merely a technological framework, but rather different teaching and another kind of learning. ♦

Professor Luba Charlap is a vice president at Lifshitz Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, and a lecturer at the Mofet Institute in Tel-Aviv. She can be reached at luba@macam.ac.il.

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