HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

We Can Graduate Students Who Know Hebrew

by Naomi Stillman Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Its 10:30 am and the kindergarteners are talking about recycling. They’ve just put their milk cartons from snack in the class recycling bin and are wondering what the cartons will be made into. The third graders just finished reading about Joseph and his brothers and are discussing sibling rivalry. The middle schoolers are putting the finishing touches on their time capsules, the tenth graders are prepping for a debate about society’s obligations towards homeless people, and a senior is working on his graduation speech.

True discourse in the classroom, genuine give and take, is key. Merely responding to questions or comments initiated by the teacher is not enough!

Now let’s imagine that all that activity is happening in Hebrew. Pie in the sky? Or day school of the future?

At this particular moment in Jewish education, a day school alive with Hebrew sounds like either a fond memory or a flight of the imagination. But is it? Not necessarily. The scenario above can start unfolding in Jewish day schools in a few short years if we start now.

We all know some things about learning a language. For example,

  • the earlier you start, the better
  • the more you use it, the better
  • if you stop using it, you’ll forget it

How can we apply these understandings to building a Hebrew plan for our schools?

  1. If starting earlier is better—start in kindergarten.
  2. If using Hebrew more is better—use more Hebrew during the school day. In fact, do everything in Hebrew for half of each day—all activities and classes during that half of the day, including recess, gym, and art can be in Hebrew.
  3. Keep up this commitment through the 12th grade. That’s the way to avoid the familiar syndrome of “Sara knew more Hebrew in third grade than she does now.”

I suspect that at this point, most readers are thinking “that’s easy to say, but totally unrealistic.” I argue that it will be challenging and will require courage, commitment, and patience, but it is eminently doable.

Before getting into the details of the plan, let’s look at some relevant research. In a 1994 report entitled “Integrating Language and Content: Lessons from Immersion,” Fred Genesee reviewed three decades of “immersion” language learning in North America. His purpose was to learn lessons from the immersion programs that can be applied to other, non-immersion second language programs in schools. The review has three significant takeaways:

  1. Second language instruction that is content-rich and connected to other academic subjects and activities is more effective than teaching a second language on its own.
  • In other words, language is acquired most effectively when the language has some meaningful purpose: learning in Hebrew is more motivating than learning Hebrew.
  1. Second language instruction that is discourse-rich is more effective than teaching a second language frontally.
  • True discourse in the classroom is key. Genuine give and take, with students initiating conversations and speaking at length and meaningfully is discourse. Merely responding to questions or comments initiated by the teacher is not enough!
  1. Second language instruction that systematically integrates explicit and implicit learning is more effective than either alone.
  • Explicit language instruction is formal, teaching the rules (such as grammar) of the language—i.e., the language itself is the object of instruction. Implicit language instruction uses the language as a vehicle for engaging content—i.e., the language is the medium of instruction. Both are needed because students need formal linguistic rules to develop correct linguistic form, master increasingly complex linguistic structures, and speak idiomatically, but explicit language instruction alone undermines the purpose of language by detaching it from any meaningful use such as conversation or argument, text study, prayer, cultural exploration, friendship, or fun.
  • Genessee emphasizes that random or associative linguistic information and tasks, even if explicit and seemingly connected to content, do not contribute to students’ language skills. (For example, a poem by Rachel is not a good opportunity to present the roots and conjugations of the verbs in the poem. Instead, it’s a good time to stay focused on the message of the poem). In other words, research shows that the integration of explicit and implicit instruction has to be systematic and part of a formal instructional plan.

If students are given the chance to speak, think, and act in Hebrew from the very earliest grades, they will soon know Hebrew.

All three conclusions point in the same direction: students who do important and interesting things in Hebrew will know Hebrew. So Hebrew at school has to be active and meaningful. Hebrew posters and Shulchanot Ivrit are nice, but unless the students use Hebrew regularly and actively they won’t know Hebrew. What’s more, unless students need Hebrew to succeed academically and fit into school culture, they won’t be motivated to know Hebrew.

How does this translate into a plan?

First, let’s acknowledge that this is a long-term plan, not a fast-acting remedy. By starting with kindergarten and first grade (some schools may want to venture to add second grade, see sidebar below), and adding a grade each year, the whole school will gradually become fluent in Hebrew. Here’s a possible roadmap:

In kindergarten and first grade, at least half of each day’s activities should be in Hebrew. This includes discussions of chagim and Israel and parashat hashavua, but also snack, recess, circle time, arts and crafts, music, and silliness. If students learn the ABCs in kindergarten, they can learn the aleph bet in first grade (research shows it is best not to try to teach two alphabets simultaneously).

Students in grades 2-5 need a more systematic approach. They should continue to learn and play in Hebrew for half of each day, but explicit teaching of grammar, vocabulary, cursive writing, reading without vocalization, and other skills a particular school wants its students to master (such as Rashi script) should be gradually introduced.

Students in grades 6-10 will learn all Judaic and Israel studies in Hebrew, and also take a systematic Hebrew-as-a-second-language class to “organize” their knowledge of the language, and teach grammar, writing, and other language skills more formally.

Finally, in grades 11 and 12 additional elective subject matter can be taught in Hebrew. Courses taught by a Hebrew-speaking expert on the subject may be offered on the history of Israeli film, or the Rambam’s שמונה פרקים, on the classics of Hebrew literature or the history of Zionism.

All this, of course, will require teachers who can and will speak Hebrew in class. They certainly need not be native Israelis. They only have to know Hebrew fluently and courageously enough to use it for both academic (in class) and casual conversation. And ideally, these Hebrew-speaking teachers of Judaic studies and Hebrew language will share the use of effective methodologies and will highlight for the students the continuity between what is studied in Judaic studies and what is studied in Hebrew.

Finally, computer literacy in Hebrew is a must. School computers will be Hebrew-enabled and loaded with relevant Hebrew programs, and students will learn Hebrew keyboarding early on.

This whole enterprise sounds like a lot of effort, and some of you may be asking yourself “Why go to all this trouble?”

Here are some reasons:

  • Bilingual children have been shown to outperform their monolingual peers on standardized tests in all subjects as well as on and tests of cognitive development, problem-solving and higher order thinking.
  • Bilingual children demonstrate greater self-confidence and more creativity than monolingual children.
  • Bilingualism boosts “executive function”— bilingual children develop the ability to control attention and ignore misleading information earlier than monolinguals.

And why Hebrew?

  • Mastery of Hebrew promotes students’ understanding of their history, culture and tradition, strengthening Jewish identity and fostering a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
  • Mastery of Hebrew enables our children to read and study biblical and rabbinic texts, liturgical and modern Hebrew literature, with intelligence and appreciation. Hebrew is the path to deeper, more authentic engagement with texts.
  • Hebrew cultivates students’ bonds to the State of Israel, giving them access to Israel’s people, events, and intellectual ferment.
  • Hebrew is the international and cross-generational Jewish language.

Computer literacy in Hebrew is a must. School computers will be Hebrew-enabled and loaded with relevant Hebrew programs, and students will learn Hebrew keyboarding early on.


If students are given the chance to speak, think, and act in Hebrew from the very earliest grades, they will soon know Hebrew. The key is to use Hebrew to expand the students’ knowledge and perspective, to offer them new knowledge and understandings, to hone their thinking skills, and to engage meaningful content on myriad topics.

What would it take to make this happen?

It will take time. But if we do nothing, the time will pass anyway, and nothing will change. If we start now, then in 10 years, hundreds of students will be fluent in Hebrew.

It will take a genuine belief that the opening scenario (remember the day school of the future?) is realistic and that by teaching Hebrew we are bequeathing a treasure to our students.

It will take high standards and high expectations.

It will take well-trained, deeply committed, professional teachers.

And because we cannot provide true immersion (a full school day in Hebrew and exposure to Hebrew outside of school), we must provide a detailed and carefully planned curriculum that combines content with grammar and linguistics in a thoughtful, linguistically sequential way.

Mostly, it will take Hebrew—Biblical written Hebrew, and modern spoken Hebrew, grammar and games, projects and plays, comics and conversations, פייסבוק (Facebook) and גוגל (Google).

I hope that in ten years, the question “Why bother?” will make no sense; and that an article such as this will appear in Hebrew!

אם תרצו אין זו אגדה: In Theodore Herzl’s famous words: “If you will it, it is no dream.” ♦

Naomi Stillman is Associate Director of NETA, a Hebrew language program that teaches Hebrew via content, in which each lesson is designed to be an immersion experience that activates all four language skills and culminates in demonstrations of achievement. She can be reached at nstillman@hebrewcollege.edu.

Historical Evidence

Let’s look at situations in which non-native children mastered Hebrew. These include the Tarbut schools in Eastern Europe between the world wars; Masad and other camps that functioned in Hebrew from the 1940s to the early 1970s; some day schools in the 1960s and 70s; and a very few day schools today. What did these schools and camps have in common? Both formal learning and daily activities were conducted in Hebrew. In the Tarbut schools, starting in kindergarten, the majority of the school day, including recess, was lived in Hebrew. The Masad camps offered a full summer of all-Hebrew activities and learning. And in successful day schools, all Judaic studies classes happen in Hebrew. That’s how students and campers learned Hebrew and absorbed the message that Hebrew is a useful, versatile language.

Second Grade—Too Late? : An Anecdote

In 2004, I attended a conference at the Library of Congress. During a break, the woman I was chatting with asked what I do. When she heard that I administer a Hebrew program, she told me the following story:

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. In the second grade we got a new teacher from Israel. On the first day of school, he told the class that he knows no English, and proceeded to teach us in Hebrew for the entire year. At the end of the year, we all knew Hebrew—and he revealed that he knows English just fine.

I won’t speak to the moral message imparted, but the linguistic lesson is clear—if you use it, you will know it.

Go To the Next Article

Shifting Paradigms in Hebrew Learning...

Most Jewish day schools view the learning and teaching of Hebrew language as a vehicle to shape and reinforce their......

Hebrew Education

What are the goals of Hebrew in day schools? Do we teach it primarily to access religious texts or to speak in Tel Aviv? What are we achieving today, and what can we realistically strive to achieve? Contributors believe in the capacity of day schools to teach Hebrew and present methods and tools for achieving high goals in Hebrew.

Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion