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What I've Learned about Learning... by Learning Hebrew

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #40, 2001.

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Howard and Susan Richman


It's early morning, and I'm the only one up eating breakfast. Propped up in front of me is a college Hebrew text, open to lesson 3. I'm reading through my lesson one more time while enjoying my granola, firming up the new verb conjugations I've just learned, seeing if I can read the little story faster and more smoothly, peeking ahead to see if I know any words in the next lesson, which I'll officially start in a few days. Playing in the background is a tape of Hebrew songs.

What's going on here? Well, I'm homeschooling myself, I guess. I'm teaching myself to read, speak, and understand Hebrew, a very new language for me. I've been at it quite faithfully almost every day since early September.

The whole endeavor has taught me so much about learning in general. I think making ourselves learn something really new is a very valuable tool to help us become more sensitive to what our kids may go through as they struggle to learn something unfamiliar.

Learning Takes Time

Learning takes time - lots of it. I realize in my gut now that learning takes more than wishing or hoping. It takes time for regular practice, time to actually do the work of learning. I know how often we all hear people say, "Oh, I wish I knew how to play piano!" . . . or skate . . . or speak French . . . or whatever. But they do not do anything to bring this about. It's as if they think that wishing were enough to have the new skill or knowledge just zap into their minds. Learning doesn't work that way. It takes time and concerted effort. The more we can help our kids learn this, the better. I'd thought about learning Hebrew for quite a while before really finding it in myself to simply make the daily commitment to really doing something to put this goal into practice.

Learning Takes Planning

It helps to plan for learning time. I've never been a super one for micro-planning my own days, or my homeschooling days with my kids. But in learning Hebrew, I've realized again that it is really necessary to set aside some specific time each day for focused study. I find rising early and studying during and after breakfast works well for me (but this would definitely not work well for my daughter, Hannah, who is very groggy in the morning, and needs some relaxed time with a good book for an hour before she's ready to focus on new and hard material). I've also become more expert in finding tiny moments throughout my day to review, to extend learning in a new way, to keep on keeping on. I listen to Hebrew tapes while doing dishes or riding in the car. I bring along a tiny Hebrew book in my shoulder bag to take out during the many inevitable little waiting times. I say verb conjugations aloud or in my head while driving to town on a quick errand.

If we look at our kids and see them having real trouble with an area, maybe the first thing we need to look at is how we are using time. Are we helping them find regular times for focused work, and are we encouraging them to also use those little bits of time we all do have scattered throughout our days? Our kids may indeed need real guidance from us in this area. After all, many of us adults still struggle with time use.

Learning Takes Effort

Learning something really new is hard, and it's easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. When faced with learning Hebrew in the past I had hoped that maybe I could just do it orally or use what are called "transliterations" of Hebrew into English letters. The thought of learning an entire new alphabet felt really overwhelming. Once I actually began my focused study, it was hard. Very hard. I had to go slowly, reviewing regularly. I had to search to find materials that didn't assume I could grasp it all in one lesson.

One beginning Hebrew book I found actually had the alphabet laid out on one page in such small type I could barely even see the differences in the strange letters. The English sound equivalent of each letter was given in a chart, and the text's authors expected that that would be all I needed. Just "study" that one page once or twice, and I'd have it. For me, it took well over a month before I really had the whole alphabet down thoroughly.

I found that the time spent searching for a program that went at the slower pace I needed was well worth it. I finally found a CD-ROM program that took me patiently through each letter, building up my skill very gradually, with lots of meaningful practice exercises. Using this program my progress was much surer, and my discouragement lessened.

This all made me realize again how overwhelmed many kids must feel when they face learning to read in English (which is not nearly as phonetically regular as Hebrew!), or encounter seemingly huge tasks like remembering all the multiplication combinations or all the events leading up to a major war. If we've recently had a similar experience in learning something very hard, we are better able to understand what our kids might need. We'll realize with empathy that probably "once over" won't do it - that we'll need to help them learn the material in multiple ways, with a wide variety of materials maybe, with regular and cheerful review. We'll learn not to be impatient when they falter and forget, as we'll know we had the same experience only recently ourselves. We'll learn to help, not judge. And we'll learn to help them celebrate each little step of progress, and not worry overmuch about the thousand mile journey ahead.

It Helps to Keep Learning Materials All in one Place

My husband has dabbled in learning Hebrew many times over the years, so we actually owned quite a few books and tapes, but they were scattered everywhere. I gradually gathered them all together, even finding the Hebrew translation of Else Minarik's classic Father Bear Comes Home picture book that I'd given to my husband one year as a Father's Day gift. What a treat when I could gradually start deciphering this!

These books soon took up a major shelf, combined with all the new resources I was purchasing. This had the added advantage of getting me to clear off a suitable shelf for storing all these books. (My home always can use some judicious dejunking!)

With our own kids, how often do we allow materials to get scattered all about the house, making it hard for our kids to get going on their work, as they literally may have no idea where their books are? Organize your home library. It really helps! If you can see those enrichment books right there next to your basic texts, you'll be much more likely to actually use them. But do remember to keep at least a few of the most engaging resources right by your child's bedside for late night browsing!

Moving On to New Things Can be Hard

We all need little pushes to make us tackle the next level of work. These pushes can come in many forms. For me, it's been the non-credit distance Hebrew course I just enrolled in. I'm receiving regular audio tapes that actually teach the material in my text. So what I'm getting is much more like a teaching session in a class, not just a quick read through of the text. I get helps, advice, repeated practice, encouragement for regular study, and even a friendly group of other adults also studying the same material.

But the greatest benefit of signing up for this course was that it pushed me over a real obstacle I'd encountered - learning to read and write handwritten cursive Hebrew, something I'd been putting off all fall.

This step just seemed too hard. After all, the cursive letters seemed to bear no resemblance at all to their printed forms. I tried to tell myself that I just really didn't need to learn cursive, even though without it I had no way of practicing new vocabulary through writing things down myself. But my distance-learning course required cursive and so I had to plunge in.

I was actually very surprised at how quickly I could pick it up. The task was much easier than learning the Hebrew alphabet initially, since I was just making a new visual link to something that I already knew.

I also found that making myself first read handwritten cursive for a week or more before plunging in to writing it was a great help, as this gave me a firm sense of what these new forms looked like. This might be something parents should consider when they are teaching their children cursive in English.

My worries over learning handwritten Hebrew were much worse than the reality - and I've realized that this may be true for many of our kids. Their fears over tackling the next higher level of work may be much worse than the task itself. We may need to give them extra support and encouragement, show them how the new material will link in and connect with something they already know, and then just matter-of-factly help them start in, so that they can see for themselves that this new challenge might not be as bad as they'd feared. And for older kids a well-planned outside class or distance course may be a great spur.

Beyond Phonics

Reading is more than phonics, though phonics is a necessary first step. Learning to read Hebrew has let me experience in a whole new way what reading is probably like for younger kids. I indeed had to start with the very basics, with learning individual sounds and which "wiggle" stood for which sound, and then with blending them together very slowly.

But sounding words out was slow, very slow, and I usually could not recognize a word again if I'd sounded it out once. The next time the word came up, I'd be in the same boat - slowly sounding it out, saying it over several times to get the whole word in my head, and then trying to see if this word was in my fledgling Hebrew vocabulary so I'd know if I'd done it correctly. Having a CD-ROM that would read the word aloud for me after I'd worked it out really helped in this verification process - but most helpful was when I realized this program also had a "quiz" mode. This way the computer would read each word aloud, and then my job was just to find that word out of a list of about twenty Hebrew words.

I was astonished at the change. I was no longer having to do the "sounding out," as the computer had already done this for me. I just had to find the word that had been called out. My sluggish mind seemed to suddenly go into zoom mode - I could suddenly just see which word was the one I needed. Reading became much more effortless, much faster, much more energizing. I could then more readily read other material much more quickly too, and began gaining much needed confidence that I could indeed make progress. It made me think that many kids who have trouble with beginning reading, who seem stuck at this very slow plodding stage, might also be helped by using programs or reading games where the task was just to find a given spoken word very quickly. Parents could even use simple homemade flashcards, laid out on a table, and just ask the kids to find a specific word.

Another book that was especially useful to me in helping me develop fluency was an old 1930's Hebrew reader for children. I call this my "Dick and Jane" Hebrew book, and I just love it. The book assumed that kids had the phonics basics, but little vocabulary and little ability to recognize meaningful words. It encouraged very playful repetition, with regular motivation for rereading until you could read a passage very quickly. "One little girl could read this story in 30 seconds!" the text would say cheerily . . . and I definitely soon found myself glancing up at the clock to see if I could do as well.

My distance teacher realizes this need for rereading to gain fluency too, often urging us to reread a little story a dozen times until we can read at normal speed effortlessly. Again, parents may want to try this with their children who have trouble learning to read, encouraging them to reread a short story many times until it's no longer hard. It's what many of the naturally best readers do. I think back on the many times my daughter Molly (an early and eager reader and now an honors college student) reread her favorite picture books, then her most delightful beginning chapter books, and finally her beloved major classics. She rarely viewed one reading as the end of her journey with a book, where so often weaker readers are just glad to have finally made it to the end - they never want to do it one more time! If they'd do it about a dozen times more, it just might become easy for them.

Spiritual Goals Help

Obviously learning Hebrew ties in with spiritual learning. I couldn't help but feel amazed and awed as I could actually read the first few verses of Genesis with understanding, and then snatches of Psalms and prayers. Hebrew is known, after all, as the Holy Language, and even in learning the basic letters the best books and programs let a learner in on the very rich legacy of Jewish lore surrounding the religious meanings of each letter. As a new learner, I began realizing too that all of these fascinating stories were like little learning guides, little mnemonic devices - generous helps to make an abstract process much more concrete and engaging and meaningful for a beginner. I'd learn, say, that the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was the first letter of the Hebrew Bible. Its shape opens to the left (and remember, Hebrew is read left to right), pointing and guiding the way to the rest of the Bible. The very shape of the letter had a story to it, and so became easy for me to remember. I realized that if we can help our own children have these sorts of memory guides and helps, they'll learn better too. And further, if we can imbue all learning tasks with a sense of the holy, and with a deep sense of appreciation for those who've paved the way for us to learn, then we'll be that much further ahead too.

So take the challenge to learn something new for yourself this year - it just may help you learn more about how to help your children learn too.

Sue Richman Recommends:

At Home with Hebrew: Learn the Holy Language on Your PC. This is the CD-ROM program that was most helpful to me. See http://HebrewResources.com for full ordering info and sample screens. Neal Walters, the very gifted teacher who developed this computer program, also leads my distance course.


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