hebrew for beginners
hebrew for beginners

Hebrew for beginners

Ensuring you know how to read Hebrew fluently is integral to your Hebrew journey. I have lost count of how many pupils I have taught how to read Hebrew, but I always emphasise that reading Hebrew slowly and carefully builds the reader's fluency. I think this is more important than reading it quickly. I think nothing is worse than listening to someone read Hebrew that is riddled with mistakes!

I will never forget when I was at a Jewish primary school; the Hebrew teacher had competitions to see how fast the students could read Hebrew. Sure, they knew how to read Hebrew, but were they fluent? Yes, everyone knew the Hebrew alphabet, but could they read like they were supposed?

How to teach beginners to learn to read Hebrew

Learning how to teach beginners to learn to read Hebrew was paramount in primary school. They were preparing us for learning Hebrew in high school. It was still compulsory even if you did not plan to continue studying Hebrew in high school. Having the ability to learn biblical Hebrew is a skill that not everyone can master. The same can be said for modern Hebrew too.

Reading this language takes skill and perseverance. So, when I teach my pupils to read, I first teach them the alphabet letters and the vowels. As I do this, I also teach them how to recognise the different types of syllables in a word. I have learned that this skill enables people to read Hebrew fluently.

Through the years of teaching, I have worked out there are six different types of Hebrew syllables. So, I tell my students; it is like looking for a pattern. Learning to read Hebrew will become much easier once they can work out the pattern. I emphasise that this is a pattern. All they need to do is recognise the pattern, which is relatively easy.

Breaking up words into syllables also helps slow the reader down tremendously. It is all very well being able to read the language, but if it is riddled with mistakes and the reader is stumbling over every word, they cannot claim to be able to read Hebrew fluently. As mentioned earlier, I always emphasise fluency over speed.

Even when I am asked to read Hebrew in the synagogue, I take my time and mentally break the words into syllables. It helps me concentrate on each word, slows my reading down, and helps me to read fluently. I share this with my pupils, so they do not feel that they are the only ones doing this. I explain that I have been doing this for the past thirty years or so.

Reading Hebrew without vowels

Reading without vowels also occurs in Hebrew. That is, reading Hebrew without vowels! I explain to my pupils reading without vowels is how most people in Israel read and write Hebrew. It can be particularly challenging to be confronted with a word that consists of letters and no vowels! I know that it can be extremely challenging for people who do not speak or read Hebrew as their first language. For a long time, I have been teaching Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah students to learn to read their Torah portion. In the first lesson, they become extremely overwhelmed. They look at the Torah portion, and all they see are paragraphs of Hebrew, both with and without vowels. Understandably, they become highly overwhelmed and want to quit immediately!

I explain to them that reading (and eventually chanting) without vowels is hugely overwhelming, and it is something that we will deal with further down the track. Then, I ask them to get a piece of paper and cover the text, so they don't see it. At this point, I take the approach of 'out of sight, out of mind'. Eventually, once they are fluent in reading with vowels, we progress to read the Torah portion without vowels, and they can read it quite fluently after a few lessons of practising it. The approach I take with them is: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time". They love the analogy, and it works!

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