Family & Education

Spelling bee creates a buzz around Hebrew

A new competition hopes to increase interest in modern Hebrew in schools


A new spelling contest is being piloted this year in order to encourage pupil interest in Hebrew.

National spelling bees have been running for several years in languages such as Spanish, French and German.

Now pupils at six Jewish schools will be trying to show they know the difference between an aleph and an ayin in the inaugural Hebrew spelling bee.

It is a joint project of Routes into Language, a national organisation which tries to promote the learning of other languages, and Partnerships for Jewish Schools (Pajes).

“Contestants have to learn a prepared list of words,” explained Sarah Schechter, of Routes into Languages East. “The word will be called out in English. Then they will have to correctly translate into Hebrew, pronounce it and spell it, using the Hebrew alphabet.”

They will have just a minute to spell as many words as possible.

Finalists will be tested on a total of 80 words in all at primary level: 75 if they only started learning the language at secondary school: and 100 words if they are secondary school students who are continuing their language study from primary school.

“We are getting positive feedback so far,” says Mrs Schechter, who first proposed the idea of a Hebrew competition at a conference on the future of Hebrew at Cambridge University organised by the World Zionist Organisation last year.

Spelling bees in other languages have helped to raise the profile of language in school, she says.

“One teacher mentioned that it was lovely to have kudos given to language champions, not just sports champions.”

Contests are useful aids for learning, she points out. “You cannot progress in a language unless you have a basic vocabulary. Traditionally, it is difficult to get children to sit down and learn vocabulary. You can’t learn it by osmosis.”

Apart from equipping them with a body of knowledge, spelling bees also help to develop memory skills, she says.

Three Jewish primary schools — Naima JPS, King David Manchester and Broughton Jewish Cassel-Fox — and three secondaries — JCoSS, JFS and Hasmonean — have provided guinea pigs for the pilot. 

The oldest two years of primary school will be competing and first years in secondary school.

After individual school heats, each primary school will be able to send up to five contestants to the finals, while each secondary school up to ten — five beginners and five continuers. 

The primary finals will take place at the end of this month at the Pajes offices in London , while the following week the secondary contestants will set off for  Cambridge where other spelling bees are being held.

Samantha Benson, co-director of education at Pajes, who has worked on its Ivrit curriculum, says: “As well as being a motivating and enjoyable learning experience for young people, it raises the status of modern Hebrew in our schools and in the wider languages community. We look forward to expanding this project, and reaching even more primary and secondary schools.”

Spelling bees are only one of the ways in which Routes into Language tries to stimulate language learning in schools.

Mrs Schechter, a graduate in French and German and a Hebrew speaker herself, says, “If there is sufficient interest, Pajes and Routes into Language East will run other projects. 

“The Routes into Languages East translation bee, language leader award, singing, film-making and speaking competitions could all be adapted for modern Hebrew.”

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