The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning Hebrew or English Reading the Hard Way

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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Should Schools Teach English Grammar to Children?

Today I am posting a piece I wrote several years ago for the National Council of Teachers of English. I decided to do that because the teaching of grammar to children in school has again raised its ugly head, and I want to make clear why that is a waste of time.

Some years ago, while visiting a grade 4/5 classroom in the school where I was principal, I listened to a group of children reading aloud the first drafts of essays they had written about the holidays celebrated in America. They were helping each other to correct errors and make meaning clearer. In reading her essay aloud one girl said, “In the United States we celebrate Christmas by giving and receiving gifts and sing Christmas carols.” Immediately, another girl in the group interrupted her, saying, “That word should be singing.” The interesting thing for me was not that the second girl was absolutely right, but that she was able to do it without knowing why. Neither she nor any other child in the classroom could have stated: “Sentence elements of equal grammatical rank should be expressed in parallel constructions.” Yet, all of them subconsciously knew that principle of English grammar and were able—most of the time—to demonstrate it in their speech and writing.

This story is but one illustration of what happens most of the time in language usage; we construct grammatically correct sentences or correct our mistakes by intuitively applying the rules that govern English syntax. If, instead, we had to apply those rules consciously, they would only get in our way, making it impossible for us to speak or write at all. For example, to construct a simple two-word sentence, such as “He dreams,” requires the application of at least seven grammar rules. Imagine trying to apply them consciously following the instructions of English grammar: “To say what I mean, I need a noun phrase and a verb phrase. The noun phrase can be made up of a singular noun plus a determiner, a plural noun, a proper noun, or a nominative case pronoun. If I choose a pronoun, it can be singular or plural, but it must be inflected for a first, second, or third person. The verb I choose can be transitive, intransitive, or copulative. If it is transitive, it needs an object. But if it is copulative, it needs a complement. In any case the verb must also be inflected for a first, second, or third person to agree with the pronoun.”

With grammar rules so complicated and hard to remember, you may wonder why we have them at all. The fact is that such rules were created by linguists in order to explain language phenomena that had already existed for thousands of years. Most of the grammatical explanations were reasonable at the time they were created, but some have been discredited by subsequent discoveries about language. Others were cancelled out by actual changes in spoken language over time. In all cases, though, the rules were merely rough models for incompletely understood mental processes. No grammarian ever asserted that a grammar list exists in the brain, from which human beings select and apply rules as they needed them.

Although grammar rules are explanations for what exists in language– not prescriptions for what “ought to be”– they have been misused for a long time. Teaching those rules in schools started with instruction in ancient Latin and Greek, where it made sense because those were “dead” languages that nobody spoke anymore. But then those rules gradually slipped into other parts of the school curriculum, such as modern foreign language courses and English classes, where they should never have been.

Over the years, the teaching of grammar has continued to be prominent in English and foreign language instruction in schools, leaving less class time or energy for students to speak, read, or write. Yet, many perceptive teachers, sensing that grammar lessons might not be beneficial for students, have pressed for research to determine their real impact on learning. As early as 1906, studies were undertaken that attempted to show the relationship between school-taught grammar and naturally acquired language skills. Since then, hundreds of such studies have produced clear and unequivocal conclusions: the teaching of formal grammar does not help any student to speak, to write, to think, or to learn a foreign language.

It is important for today’s educators to know that recent research studies do not justify teaching grammar as the way to help students write better. Although we accept the fact that many social, economic, and political forces influence education, we ought not allow them to outweigh knowledge and reason in determining what the school curriculum should include.

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Creating a Community in a Public School

To me a “community” is more than a mass of people living in the same physical territory. It is a group of comrades bound together by communication, cooperation, purpose, and respect. In a classroom it’s fairly easy for a smart teacher to create such a community. Even a whole school may achieve it when devotion to a particular cause brings people together. But it doesn’t always stay that way. Differences in classrooms or bad experiences for only a few students can dissolve a community and severely damage the learning of those who are affected

What kinds of differences am I talking about? Well, they could be harsher discipline for some students than for others, larger amounts of homework in a classroom than in the one next door, limited opportunities for participation in extra-curricular activities, bullying on the playground, or even ability grouping in a classroom.

The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the students who earned them and their parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not publically criticize the work or behavior of any student. When necessary, those things must be done privately.

The key to creating a classroom community is a teacher who knows how to respect all students and figure out ways for even the most struggling ones to shine. The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the student who earned it and his or her parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not criticize the work or behavior of any student publicly. When necessary, such messages must be delivered privately.

On the other hand, teachers should make it a point to praise positive actions such as when a student has gone out of his way to help a classmate who is struggling to learn what others have quickly absorbed; or one who is new in the classroom, appears confused, and seems too shy to ask for help.

Another action that good teachers choose to take is assigning desirable classroom jobs, such as distributing new books, to a shy child who usually works alone. Still, the teacher must be sure the student is ready to bloom. She talks to him or her, explains the new job, and makes sure that the student is willing to take it on. Or maybe that student is only ready to be an assistant to someone else. Okay, that works for now. Leadership can wait for the future.

In a classroom where a true community exists, cooperation, productivity, and learning soar. Those things happen because each individual is willing to work with others whenever necessary, and to support anyone who needs help, is shy, or has been treated badly in the past. Classroom leaders may not consider everyone their new friend, but they do believe that all classmates deserve the same consideration the teacher gave them when they were new and scared.

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A New Way to Serve Students With Special Needs

Today’s post I wrote and published elsewhere some time ago. I am repeating it today because I’m not finding anything about education in the newspapers I read. If you can suggest any good sources for me now, I would be very grateful.

Several years ago we closed our special resource room for disabled students and set the inmates free.  Although most of those children are still with us, no one remembers just who it was that once inhabited our back ward.  Those children now are in regular classrooms full-time, where they work shoulder to shoulder with regular students, where teachers modify the teaching for their particular needs, and where a specialist comes in to observe students progress and also teach them—along with their regular classmates—in small groups. All this has happened not as a result of the national movement toward “full inclusion schools” but because we, as educators could not tolerate the old pullout and self-contained systems any longer.

What you would have seen if you visited our resource room before we closed it was a relentless dance of students drifting in, filling out workbook pages, getting grades on their daily work records, and drifting out again. Their teacher could not attend to the wide range of needs in the students that had been sent to that room all at once, as was expected.  He felt he had no choice but to use commercial self-instruction programs that required little or no teaching. To both him and me, the principal and outside observers, it was clear that kids weren’t learning much, but at least they were quiet and occupied.

At that time our rural school had about 20 students classified as disabled. Most of them were “learning disabled,” four or five were “emotionally disturbed”, and two or three, “mentally retarded.”  In my opinion, most of those kids might have been more accurately called emotionally battered.  The cruel irony was that our school was battering them even more by isolating them from their regular classmates and filling their days with assignments that were meaningless drudgery.  Worst of all, there was no way out; nobody ever got “unclassified.”

Like most people in and out of education, our teachers and I originally held three misconceptions about special education: (1) the teaching was truly “special”.  (2) It can make handicapped children “whole, and (3)” teaching is the best thing we can give disabled children.

The truth is that good special education teaching is no different from regular teaching. Although the teachers rely more heavily on behavior control than are normally used, their teaching methods are no more magical than those used by teachers in ordinary classrooms.  They plan, struggle, and react; then plan again, trying to capture all children’s attention and hold it until there is a breakthrough of understanding.

Another truth is that all children have learning problems at one time or another. Those who become successful as adults have learned how to work around their deficiencies and emphasize their strengths. Our fate is decided by the number and severity of our learning problems, as balanced against our strength and self-esteem, and the quality of education we get in school and at home.  If lucky, we learn to cope and compensate, but no one is ever cured.

Good teaching is only half the story, the other half is good learning, and that depends more on psychological factors than intellectual ones. Handicapped children need to be persuaded that what they are being taught is worthwhile and they are capable of learning it.  Such beliefs are essential to learning, but hard to come by when you are a student in a resource room.

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The Trouble With Textbooks

Several years and jobs later, I was hired to be the Chair of the English Department at a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks for everyone, none of my teachers were pleased. The old books were still serviceable, and the teachers wanted to get single pieces of literature instead that would give them more freedom to teach.  Besides, textbooks were getting increasingly expensive, which might mean that we would get less money for other things that we needed. As a group we rejected the new textbooks and requested funds to buy a variety of paperbacks instead. The only hardback books we needed to teach English were the poetry collections we already had.

Later on, in two elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperback literature instead of textbooks and workbooks.  My teachers believed that they could teach both English and American history using those materials and the other materials we had accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials we chose and the other less expensive materials we collected were better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools where I worked over time we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve our teaching preferences and students needs.  We also found that paperbacks— their covers strengthened with Scotch tape– lasted just as long—if not longer–than far more expensive textbooks.

Please understand that we were seeking the best things for our students, not lower spending. The problems that haunt all commercial textbooks are the impossibility of meeting the needs of schools all over the country, and the fact that those who are creating them are far removed from the reality of students’ needs, interests, and abilities. It is sad, but true, that you can’t effectively teach a student you don’t know personally.

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