The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Reading in Hebrew Vs. Reading in English

on July 9, 2016

I wrote an early version of today’s essay in 1980 while spending a  year living in Israel.  Because our youngest son was attending a public school there and needed help with the new language, I decided that we should take a special class in Hebrew together.  That class was an eye opener for me because I had great difficulty in learning to read. I could repeat the sentences our teacher taught us and even use parts of them to create new sentences, but I couldn’t read!

That experience helped me to understand how many children feel when they are being taught to read  English through a phonics program alone without first acquiring a foundation of sight words. I’d like very much to hear what readers think about my conclusions.


This year, long after earning a doctorate in education, I am learning to read. The language I am trying to read for the first time is Hebrew. And, believe me, I am not a star pupil. So far, I have been attending classes three hours a week for four months and doing about two hours of homework for each class. As a result I can recognize some frequently used words by sight, mumble a few basic sentences with appropriate variations and struggle through a page of my adult workbook. But there are times—alas, many of them—when I stare at a page unable to recognize even a single word.

Strangely enough, despite my rocky progress, I’ve learned a great deal. But that great deal is more about learning to read in itself than about Hebrew. Even if it turns out that what seem to be brilliant insights to me now are commonplace knowledge–or worse, illusions– I have forged a bond of sympathy with children learning the skills of reading in their native language, and I expect that to last a long, long time.

In all its print forms Hebrew is presented without vowels; only consonants are used. For any word on a page a learner like me must sound out the consonants, try to insert likely vowel sounds, then see if any familiar word springs to mind. Apparently the system works very well for Hebrew adults who have accumulated a large sight vocabulary as children, but it doesn’t work at all for me.

I seem to have three difficulties, which are merging into one big problem of slow, painful reading. First, my skill in matching sounds to letter symbols I have been taught is not automatic; always several seconds pass while I search my mind for the vowel sounds to go with the consonants I see.

Second, even when I choose the right vowels in a word I have trouble blending the letter sounds together. In my mind every sound appears to be isolated and to deserve equal stress. That’s not the way words work in Hebrew or English.

Last, I am not moving ahead into instant recognition of those words that I have read many times before. Unfortunately, I have not reached the stage, which teachers call “acquisition of a sight vocabulary”which is essential for fluent reading.

All these difficulties are merging into a fatal problem for me: Even when I manage to to decode all the words on a page, I’m not getting much meaning.  Working so hard to identify words, I have no attention left for the messages they give when combined into sentences and paragraphs.

At this point, many readers may think it is not fair to compare reading in Hebrew to reading in English when English words usually contain vowels.  But that is not necessarily an advantage.  English vowels are not stable in their pronounciation.  For example, the letter “A” in English may sound like “aye”, “uh”, “ ah”, “aw”, or be silent, depending upon which consonants it is teamed with and where it appears in a word.  I can’t help wondering how knowing most vowel sounds helps a child decode the name “Phoebe”!

In my view, building a sight vocabulary in Hebrew, English, or many other languages is absolutely essential for moving into the stage of fluent reading. Phonics alone can’t do the job. Yes, knowing the sounds of letters gives clues that help readers recall words they’ve seen before.  But, at the same time the sounding-out process of looking at individual letters or letter combinations diverts readers from seeing whole words and getting a visual image they can hang onto for future reference.

For all the skills that readers need: intonation, fluency, meaning, and vocabulary building, I think that some assistance, besides phonics, is absolutely necessary.

Beginning readers need:

1. A strong sight vocabulary so that while they are working at sounding out  words in a sentence, there are several other words in that sentence that they recognize on sigh and get clues from..

2. Contextual knowledge from personal experience, familiarity with common story forms, and oral introductions to stories they are being asked to read; plus strong, clear meaning in a story, and the frequent use of patterned stories and poems that repeat and build in a predictable way.

3. Coordination between written and oral language taught through their teachers’oral reading while they follow along on the printed page; thereby setting patterns in their minds of blended sounds, stressed syllables, sentence intonation, pace, and oral expressiveness.

Am I being fair to phonics? How can I be sure after only four months of trying to learn to read Hebrew that phonics will never work for me? Perhaps tomorrow symbols and sounds will all fall together; into my head will pop meaning, and out of my mouth will come words and sentences. But, in the meantime I’m in limbo, which is not a healthy or happy place to be.

What about the normal, healthy English-speaking children I see in this country who are stuck in the same place for a year or more, struggling with each sound, never sure of any word? Even if phonics eventually works for them, has it not already damaged their self-esteem and desire to read? Given the possibility of such circumstances, it seems only common sense, and common decency, to bolster children in the ways I’ve suggested; giving them, right from the beginning, a basic sight vocabulary that will help them decode new words, make sense out of sentences, and enable them to feel like readers.

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