Hitting the Reset Button on Delayed Decoding

After a ‘noble experiment’ in delaying decoding, Congregation Beth Israel in Austin has decided to start teaching Hebrew decoding in third grade. “We’re hitting a reset” said the school’s education coordinator Sarah Jew. “The delayed decoding just wasn’t working for us.”

“Parents were over-the-moon happy to hear we are going back to teaching decoding in third grade,” noted Carly Cera, the synagogue’s director of youth education. She noted that her teachers are also “excited to go back to teaching Hebrew earlier.”

Educators had been exposing younger students to Hebrew through aural language activities, then delving into decoding in fifth grade, relying on personal tutors to guide students through decoding.

“Finding quality volunteers to work one-to-one with kids is a big obstacle,” says Cera.  “By the end of fifth grade, our students need to be reading for fluency and have a repertoire of sight words, not sounding out Yisrael every time they see it. We found that they were still decoding.”

The school enrolls more than 300 students, most of whom begin in kindergarten.

The educators noticed that the incoming religious school students who came through their preschool were already beginning to recognize Hebrew letters because of coloring sheets and small projects. “By the time they get to our Hebrew program, they’ve sung the alef bet countless times already. We didn’t see a good reason to push back learning to read until much later.”

Beginning this year, in third grade, Beth Israel learners will begin decoding, as well as engage in aural and oral Hebrew activities to experience a more immersive environment. By fifth grade, students will be combining prayer meaning with prayer reading. “Our teachers really like Making T’filah Meaningful but they said the missing piece was that students weren’t reading the prayer. They needed more reading practice to put everything in context,” Cera says.

To get their students moving with Hebrew, Cera and Jew have also decided to use the Hebrew Alive approach because of its emphasis on hearing authentic Hebrew and generating language. “It’s interactive and it’s real Hebrew,” Jew says. Educators also plan to add in a writing component for extra practice, “to get their brains used to right-to-left reading and reinforce what Hebrew looks like.”

This multi-sensory approach aligns with research showing that teaching decoding in concert with oral Hebrew language leads to stronger Hebrew skills. According to Dina Maiben, who directs the Hebrew program at Gratz College and is an expert in second language acquisition, educators should aim to give students a variety of listening, reading, speaking, and writing opportunities that provide a balance between ease and challenge, and that build on what they have learned previously as they progress. 

The school also gives families things to do over the summer to reinforce Hebrew skills. “Parents understand that kids need to practice at home, but it’s hard to do if they don’t have materials. Of course, we tell them come to services, but we also recommended various Hebrew worksheets and apps. It’s use it or lose it.”

Even as Cera and Jew are confident that starting Hebrew decoding earlier is the right for their school, they were heartened by an end-of-the-year survey of students that confirmed they are headed in a good direction. “We were thrilled to find that the overwhelming reason kids said they came to school was to learn Hebrew,” Cera says. “It’s cool to learn another language. Our job is to make them remember it’s a real language and get them excited about it.”