Family & Education

How to help your child with their Hebrew

Ten minutes' reading practice a day can make a great difference


Little girl (Age 5-6) writes Hello First Grade greetings in Hebrew (Shalom Kita Alef) on a chalkboard in Israeli primary school at the beginning of the school year. Education concept photo

Scott Goldberg of New York’s Yeshiva University recalls meeting a Jewish petrol station attendant years ago who was unable to read Hebrew as a child and withdrew from Jewish schools as a result.

We may all know children or adults who are not confident Hebrew readers, and whether praying, tackling an unfamiliar Hebrew passage, or looking through a menu in Israel, lack accuracy and fluency. This has certainly been a trend we have noted as PaJeS primary Jewish studies advisers on our visits to schools and in our interactions with heads of Jewish studies in mainstream UK primary schools.

The situation has, unfortunately, been exacerbated by Covid, yet Hebrew reading and literacy underpin all Jewish learning and enable participation in Jewish life into adulthood.

In light of this, our aim for 2022-23 has been to upskill Jewish studies and Hebrew language teachers in both theoretical and practical aspects of Hebrew reading instruction, arming them with the tools necessary to address gaps in Hebrew reading.

Dr Goldberg, who is at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Adminstration, was ideally placed to deliver this as his expertise is in developing research-based methods of assessment and teaching Hebrew reading through the lens of second- language acquisition.

We were able to arrange for him to come over for a full day conference in London last month attended by more than 40 participants from 22 schools,  followed by a series of Zoom sessions to train teachers in the “science of reading”.

Key insights were that Hebrew reading — despite appearing to be a decoding process — should be considered a language exercise; and that teachers and parents, rather than reading programmes, teach children to read. 

At home, children can pick up both spoken and heard Hebrew language through parents’ use of common vocabulary linked to chagim and Shabbat, which gives them a good starting point when they enter school and begin to learn to read.

Dr Goldberg recommends that as this exposure will generally be minimal compared to English (their first language), it is crucial that teachers combine phonological (sound), semantic (meaning), and orthographic (signs and symbols) aspects of the Hebrew language in their teaching. Reading cannot happen effectively unless all these are brought together by using strategies that build vocabulary, use visual prompts, experiment with sounds and only then introduce letter symbols. 

We also cannot underestimate the importance of regular reading practice at home, supported by parents. Research shows that an increase in just 10 minutes of reading per day can have an exponential impact on a child’s word exposure, thereby enhancing their fluency and accuracy in a second language.

Feedback from teachers about the conference has been overwhelmingly positive and has already an impact on their approach to Hebrew reading at school; for instance, through a stronger focus on developing children’s Hebrew vocabulary before introducing reading and utilising strategies and resources that promote phonological awareness.

One teacher stated that she has started teaching Hebrew keywords in every Jewish studies lesson, playing games with those words to increase phonological awareness.

It is our hope that by making Hebrew reading a priority at home and at school, we will equip children to feel comfortable in all areas of Jewish life and learning, so that vibrant Jewish engagement continues into the next generation. In the words of Rabbi Lord Sacks, we will thereby “give our children confidence in who they are, so that they can handle change without fear and keep learning through a lifetime”.

Esther Colman is primary Jewish studies consultant for London for PaJeS and Lizzie Caplan primary Jewish studies adviser for the North

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