Understanding Why Students Struggle With Hebrew Reading*
KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE
As students settle into another school year, it is an opportune time to reflect on an inconvenient truth: Too many children struggle to read Hebrew. Much to teacher’s and principals’ dismay and parents’ frustrations, about 20 to 30 percent of children are not reading on grade level. Schools must invest heavily in an always occupied resource room, and parents are forced to hire tutors, an unwelcome addition to an already high tuition cost. Some of these children will be labeled with colorful acronyms such as ADD, ADHD, or LD, while others will be given medications as they keep getting into trouble by displaying at-risk behavior. Success in Chumash and Gemara will be out of the question, and one need not look far into the future to understand the predicament these children will face. The inability to give children the Hebrew reading skills they need not only damages their self-esteem, it threatens their future involvement in Jewish life. Imagine the terror and panic that seizes a young man who is called up to recite during prayer service before the entire community, or a father who stumbles through Kiddush before his wife and children.
To solve this reading problem, we must have an honest discussion about its origins. It is my contention children are not reading fluently because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what is usually referred to as the “Mesorah Method” (“MM”) , also known as the “Kamatz Aleph UH” method. The Mesora Method that was espoused by all religious rabbis in the past has been inadvertently distorted to mean the exact opposite of what it originally meant, convincing a generation or two that this approach was the only acceptable and kosher way to teach children. This error sentenced — and continues to sentence — thousands of students to undue hardship and confusion.
Before setting the record straight on the MM, a little introduction into the Aleph-Bais is in order. We must first understands the basics of our written code before we understand its reading methods.
UNDERSTANDING THE Aleph-BAIS
The Aleph-Bais is a difficult, but efficient reading and writing system.
Primitive writing systems are easy because they use pictographs, pictures for words, like a picture of a hand to signify the word “Stop!” The Aleph-Bais is difficult because it forces people to do two things that are unnatural: consciously split the words of speech into their smallest sounds, and imagine that these sounds have shapes. Thus, a word like Torah is split into tiny sounds, T + OH + R + UH. These sounds get their own corresponding symbols and some symbols are blended together: T is blended with OH, R is blended with UH (the final HEH is silent). The upshot is that the Aleph-Bais is efficient because once you have memorized the various sounds and their corresponding symbols — the shapes of the letters and vowels — you can theoretically read and write an infinite number of words. This is a much more efficient method than memorizing different pictographs for each and every word.
This brings us to a startling conclusion: Sounds came first; letters are merely their symbolic representations. Therefore, most students are incorrectly taught how to read. They are introduced to letters first, and are told that these letters have sounds. But this is backwards. Letters don’t exist in nature. Letters don’t have sounds. Sounds of speech do exist in nature, and we symbolically represented them with letters. Only later did we name the letters Aleph, Bais, Gimmel, etc. One thing is clear: when it comes to reading, a letter’s “sound” is more important than its name.
HOW THE “MESORAH” BECAME THE MESORAH
With this knowledge in mind we can reconstruct how reading was once taught by teachers and parents. A teacher would open any book they were lucky enough to possess. They would point to a letter and teach its sound. The teacher would then repeat the process with other letters, and possibly some vowels, teaching the student how to blend sounds together. They would repeat this process with all the letters and vowels until the student grasped the information completely, at which time the student would be an independent reader. The method can be summed up as follows: First teach the student a letter then teach him a vowel, and finally teach him how to blend the two together: “Kamatz Aleph UH!”
All was well until a new trend was introduced by certain educators who made the following observation: Hebrew can be read without vowels. So they concluded that they did not need to teach vowels. Then they went further: Why should we teach the letters, why not simply teach whole words instead? For example, show a student the word “Abba” and tell him that this word says Abba. We can skip teaching letters and vowels if we can just teach entire words. Out of convenience I will refer to this approach as “Whole Language.”
It is unsurprising that the rabbis were horrified by this development. Hebrew was always taught by first teaching the student the small sounds of language and showing him how to blend them together: Kamatz + Aleph = UH. Now they were told to skip the “details” and teach students to memorize “whole” words. No wonder that the rabbis fought this tooth and nail. They argued that their traditional (Mesorah) approach was superior to the new one. Decades of the “Whole Language” experience has proved them right!
Over decades, the Mesorah Method’s original intent was lost, distorted, and misapplied. How did this happen? Answer: It was taken literally! I will refer to this approach by the name: “Literalist MM.”
THE “MESORAH METHOD” TAKEN LITERALLY
Whole Language never took off within the Frum world, so most Frum people forgot what the “reading war” was about. All that remained was the term “Mesorah Method” or “Kamatz Aleph UH Method,” but most people forgot why this method was developed to begin with. The disaster soon followed: People took the words literally. “Kamatz Aleph UH” no longer meant “teach the student the individual letter sounds and vowel sounds, and then teach him how to blend them together”; instead it was understood to mean “only teach the student the name Kamatz, and only teach the student the name Aleph, make him say the names: Kamatz, Aleph; and only afterwards must the student say: UH!”
So instead of fighting against Whole Language, the MM was misunderstood to mean the following:
- When teaching to read, we must follow this order: First the student needs to see and say the Kamatz, then he needs to see and say the Aleph, and only afterwards does he conclude: “UH.”
- The letter and vowel “names” are the most important piece of knowledge the student needs to know, as opposed to the letter and vowel “sounds” which are not as vital.
- Only a Kamatz and an Aleph together can make the sound UH. Meaning: Letters and vowels on their own have no sounds. Only when they are joined together do they make a sound.
This distorted approach to the MM’s original intent hinders the student’s ability to read properly by artificially creating three basic problems:
- Students read upside down.
- Teachers teach the letter names and not the actual sounds the letters and vowels make.
- Students have to memorize far more information than they would otherwise need to.
The above three points are interconnected and, taken together, they are the main reason that so many of our children cannot read on grade level.
I would elaborate on these points. (For a complete discussion, please see the full article here www.capitlearning.com).
The first and most obvious problem caused by the Literalist MM is that the student is taught to read “upside-down.” When a student is taught “Kamatz Aleph UH,” they take it literally: First they look at the Kamatz, then the Aleph, and then they say them together: “UH.” This process encourage the student to read Hebrew from the bottom to the top, which is wrong (Fig. 1). Hebrew is supposed to be read from top to bottom and right to left (Fig. 2). The “Kamatz Aleph UH” approach reverses the order and forces the student to read upside-down, from the bottom (Kamatz or Patach) to the top (Aleph or Bais).
This leaves the student in a quandary: Does he read from top to bottom, or bottom to top? Most students discover the answer on their own: Hebrew is read from top to bottom. This means that the teacher’s implied direction of “bottom to top reading” must be ignored by the student. While some students figure out that they should be bypassing the teacher’s explicit instructions and read Hebrew “top to bottom,” too many students cannot “reverse engineer” the teacher’s instructions. Any student who fails to do so will end up totally confused by this contradiction.
I would point out that it is only the “Ashkenazy Literalist MM” that suffers from “dyslexia” as it teachers its students to read upside-down. The “Sephardi Mesorah” has it right: “Aleph Kamatz AH,” Aleph before the Kamatz, top to bottom. Could there really be two different traditions here? Of course not! The Mesorah of teaching students to read “Kamatz Aleph AH” was never meant to be taken literally. It originally meant: Teach the students the individual parts of the code before you teach them how to blend these parts together.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The Literalist MM insists that teachers must first teach the letter names, and only after the student knows the names can they proceed to learn the sounds that correspond with them. This works for some students, but not all. While students seem to grasp a symbol’s name, many don’t seem to hold on to their corresponding sound. Parents and teachers phrase the problem like this: “The child seems to know their Aleph-Bais, but for some reason they can’t read.” Why is this so?
The explanation is as follows: When it comes to reading, the names of the letters and vowels are a hindrance. Take for example the word “Siddur.” It is unimportant that the “S” sound is called “Samech” and that the vowel underneath it is called a “Chirik.” What matters are the “S” and “EE” sounds, and that together they say “See,” and that they form the first diphone (i.e. consonant + vowel) of the word “Siddur.” The names Samech and Chirik are completely beside the point. One can be a perfect Hebrew reader and never learn the symbols’ names. Most students can hold on to multiple associations (name + sound). But for too many students these multiple associations are a source of confusion.
To be sure, students can and should master the letter’s and vowel’s names. The letters are especially necessary for page numbers and Biblical chapter and verse demarcations. But teaching students the symbols’ names before teaching them the sounds burdens them with information they do not need, and hinders their ability to read.
Still, there will be parents and teachers who insist that letter names be taught before the letter sounds They should be aware of the potential problem this can cause, and be ever vigilant regarding any negative consequences to the student’s ability to read. I recommend that this entire process should take place outside of and before the “K’riah” class. So once a child begins to learn to read, the names of the letters should be dropped, and the sounds should take their place. After the reading class is over, the names can be reintroduced.
Hebrew contains 33 consonants and 12 vowels, depending on how you count them. All Hebrew words are combinations of these letters and vowels. If we multiply the number of letters by the number of vowels, we realize that Hebrew contains a few hundred “sound combinations.”
The Literalist MM forces students to memorize not only the (few) consonants and vowels, but also all their possible combination. When a student is taught “BAH” (the Patach under the Bais), the student is forced to memorize the entire combination together. So instead of 2 symbols combined, the student memorizes on big symbol that is made of two parts. There is a reason for this: Patach + Bais cannot equal “BAH.” It doesn’t even sound like BAH. A Patach contains the following sounds: P, T and CH. Where is the P sound, the T sound, the CH sound in BAH? Furthermore, a Bais contains a S sound. But, there is no S sound in BAH either. So the student knows that he must skip the “Patach” & “Bais” sounds and only retain the “BAH.” To repeat: B + AH = BAH. But under no circumstances does BAIS + Patach = BAH.
In other words, the student is not taught to break each word to its smallest components, but rather to recognize consonants with their vowels simultaneously. So instead of the student having to identify 33 consonants and 12 vowels and blend them together, they now need to identity and memorize hundreds of different combinations. This means that students must memorize almost a dozen times more information to be able to read accurately. To add to the confusion, according to the Literalist MM, Hebrew does not have one Patach, but actually over 20 different Patachs: a Patach under an Aleph, a Patach under a Bais, etc. The same would apply to all the vowels. In the same vein, the Literalist MM has more than one Aleph. It has over 10 Alephs: one over a Patach, one over a Kamatz etc.
Hebrew is a phonetic language that can be mastered by everyone, yet we find so many struggling Hebrew readers. This issue can be avoided if those running our school systems realize that there is a flaw in their teaching method. They have misinterpreted the Mesorah by taking it literally, and consequently developed a completely new and unworkable reading method for the three reasons detailed above.
The good news is that these problems can be avoided. We can stop confusing students with conflicting instructions, information overload, and illogical postulates. We can make learning to read Hebrew simple, easy, and fun. With a little effort, we can minimize the number of children who struggle with Hebrew. For this to happen, we must embrace the original and authentic Mesorah, which always was and will be: Teach your children how to read Hebrew!
Eyal Rav-Noy is director of JLA (Jewish Learning Academy), specializing in adult education and Jewish outreach. He is the author of the book “Who Really Wrote the Bible? And Why it Should be Taken Seriously Again.” He has lectured on the topic of Biblical Literature and Archeology, and made radio appearances all over the US. Together with his wife Tzippy, he founded CAP IT, Inc., a company that offers complete Hebrew reading solutions through its unique curriculums and educational methods. Their reading kits are being implemented in schools around the US and Canada. They offer their services at the CAP IT!® Learning Center, where they evaluate and treat students with learning disabilities and special needs. For feedback regarding this article, he can be reached on his site: www.CAPITLEARNING.com