The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning Hebrew or English Reading the Hard Way

on June 4, 2019

Todays piece is based on my difficulties long ago when I lived in Israel for a year and spent much of my time learning to read Hebrew. As a school English teacher in the United States I learned a lot about the process of learning anything that is new and difficult. I hope that you can see a connection to your own experience or those of many young American children.

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

Strangely enough, despite my slow progress, I’ve learned a great deal.  But that “great deal” is more about reading in general than about Hebrew.  Even if it turns out that what seems to be brilliant insights are only commonplace knowledge, I have also forged a bond of empathy with young children learning to read in their native language. And I expect that bond will last for a long, long time.

In all printed materials Hebrew is presented without vowels, and consonants are the only letters used to represent words. Anyone who is a beginning learner must sound-out all the consonants, try to insert likely vowel sounds, then see if any familiar words springs to mind. Apparently, that system works very well for native Hebrews who have accumulated a large sight vocabulary as children.  But, it has not worked at all for me as an American adult. Often, because I’ve chosen the wrong vowel to be part of a word, no real word emerges  

As a process of learning, the type of decoding I’m using is excruciatingly slow for beginning readers. Although I expected that learning to read Hebrew would be difficult, I never guessed that words would turn out to be so unpredictable and meaningless for me. Even now I continue to have three difficulties, which are merging into one big problem of slow, painful reading.  First, my skill in matching sounds to symbols is far from being automatic. Always several seconds pass while I search my mind for the sound to match with the consonant I see.  Second, I haven’t yet learned how to blend individual sounds into words.  In my mind every sound appears to be isolated and entitled to equal stress in a sentence. But that is not the way words work in any language.  

My most serious problem, however, is that I’m not getting any meaning from what I read. I work so hard to identify words that I have no attention left for the messages they deliver. By the time I reach the end of a sentence I’ve forgotten the words I read successfully at the beginning.

I am sure that some of the insights I’ve drawn from my own experiences with Hebrew have already jumped out at you.  The major one is that using phonics alone to decode a text is not the right way for beginning readers in any language. A learner has to work too hard and too long to identify the words on a page, and in the process misses the meaning of several sentences which damages the understanding of any piece as a whole.

In addition, I have come to suspect that the separation of sounds, and the lack of stress and intonation in using phonics to decode words, may be a counterforce to learning to read in any language.

Some readers may object to me drawing conclusions by comparing Hebrew to English because printed English contains vowels, and therefore, it can easily be used  to sound out words.  However, English vowel sounds in words are often unpredictable.  For example, the letter  “A” in printed English may sound like  “aye”, “uh”, “ ah”, “aw”, or be silent, depending on which consonant it is teamed with.

A further objection would most certainly be that there are rules in English phonics that eliminate almost all the ambiguities of pronunciation. Yes, that’s true—if you know all 150 rules and can figure out which one applies in a particular word.  Since I don’t know all of them, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of expecting young children to apply each rule correctly.

In my view, building a sight vocabulary in teaching both Hebrew and English 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 to help readers recall words they’ve seen before, but at the same time the sounding-out process of looking at each individual letter and letter combination diverts readers from looking at whole words and getting a visual image they can hang onto for future reference.

For all three problems: fluency, meaning, and vocabulary building, I think that some assistance to the learner–besides phonics– is absolutely necessary for English as well Hebrew. All beginning readers need:

  • A given sight vocabulary so that while children are working at sounding out words in a sentence, there are at least a few other words in that sentence that they know on sight. 
  • Contextual knowledge from personal experience, familiarity with story forms, and oral introductions to stories to be read; strong, clear meaning in a story; and the frequent use of patterned literature that repeats and build in a predictable way.
  • Coordination of written and oral language through teachers’ oral reading while children follow the printed page, thereby setting patterns in their minds of sound blending, stressed syllables, sentence intonation , pace and oral expressiveness.

Although this kind of assistance is given occasionally by most classroom English teachers, my concern is that it should be given to beginning readers or weak readers regularly for a long time.

Am I being fair to the teaching of phonics for reading? Can I really be sure that after only three months of learning to read Hebrew, phonics will never work for me? Perhaps tomorrow symbols and sounds will all fall together into my head, will pop with meaning, and out of my mouth will come true words.

But, in the meantime I’m in limbo, which is not a healthy or happy place to be. What if the American children I work with, who are stuck in the same place for a year or more, struggling with each sound, never sure of any word?  Even if phonics works eventually 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 decency to bolster children in the ways I’ve suggested. Give them– right from the beginning– a basic sight vocabulary that will help them recognize new words rite away, make sense out of sentences, and see themselves as accomplished readers. 

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