Hebrew Sight Words

Hebrew Sight Words and How they are Acquired

What Are Sight Words?

Sight words are words that one can instantly and effortlessly recognize, pronounce and spell. Sight words are like familiar landmarks in the reading landscape. Learning sight words is usually dependent on exposure and experience.

For most people, sight words are the words they encounter frequently in everyday reading.  Meaning, a child that reads a lot of Modern Hebrew children’s literature would acquire a sight word vocabulary that is commonly found in the genre they are reading. If a child reads mostly from the Siddur and Chumash, they would be more likely to acquire sight words that are common in Biblical Hebrew texts.

Why Are Sight Words Important?

Sight words are foundational to reading fluency. Having lots of sight words speeds up reading because readers don’t have to stop and sound out each word letter by letter, dot by dot. They can just process the whole word in an instant. Reading phrases and sentences would be nearly impossible if we had to sound out each word anew every time we saw it. Specifically for Hebrew, reading a word by sight means one instantly recognizes a word, noting if the dot signals a shin or sin, and that they can recognize words even if it they aren’t dotted or vowelized.

How Are Sight Words Acquired?

Sight words are acquired when one is able to connect written language, oral language and the concepts language represents. This is accomplished by a process termed Orthographic Mapping.

Successful readers use orthographic mapping to store picture of words with all their details. During the earlier phases of learning to read, a learner becomes aware of component sounds of words, and that they are represented by letters, vowels, and sometimes teams. In order to read a word, one would need to blend the sounds represented by letters. In order to write, one would need to segment a word into sounds, and then represent each sound by a spelling option. This process would allow a reader to instantly recognize one word from another, with the change of just one letter, such as in the words through, thought or though. Orthographic mapping would help a writer remember the letter ‘l’ in could, and that shake is not spelled like “shaik”.

Hebrew Versus English

In English mapping words can be tricky because many letters represent more than one sound, and many sounds are represented by more than one spelling option. This isn’t the case for Hebrew. There is some overlap in the Hebrew code, but to a much lesser extent than English. In reality, the overlap of the Hebrew code, is due to pronunciation shifts over the generations. Back in the day, most of these overlaps weren’t present. In its original form, every Hebrew letter and vowel had their own unique sound.

Practically speaking, English literacy educators would need to utilize many strategies to support sight word recognition, which wouldn’t be necessary for Hebrew. Many English literacy programs utilize complex strategies for teaching integral high utility words like was, what, one, who, and is. These words don’t follow the simple code. However, they are essential for writing basic sentences. In Hebrew, these important glue words are decodable. Teachers can rely on basic decoding skills for children to read these words.

On the other hand, learning Hebrew sight words poses challenges different than English. Firstly, many important prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns are written as prefixes or suffixes attached to words. Even though they are decodable, they may not be recognized without explicit instruction in morphology- the study of units of meaning with in words. Early on children need to learn how the article ‘the’ is the letter hey written as a prefix. They will need to learn that prepositions like in, from, and to, are written as prefixes with the letters bet, mem and lamed. They will need to learn to decipher words that have prefixes from words that start with the same letters but aren’t prefixes. In order for children to learn this difference, they will need to have a basic vocabulary. In short, Hebrew literacy educators will need to consider teaching morphology as early as possible, so children can comprehend the most basic sentences.

Reading Without Vowels

An additional challenge with Hebrew reading, is that after some time, children may be required to read Hebrew text that is only partly vowelized or that isn’t vowelized at all, such as Rashi or advanced texts. One would only be able to recognize such words if they have vocabulary association for these written words. How else can one recognize un-vowelized words if they aren’t familiar with the words? How would one be able to read at the Torah without a concept of what the words mean? 

On top of that, Hebrew has many, many homonyms – words that are spelled the same way but they have different meaning. In order to recognize such words, one would need to be familiar with the context.

Hebrew Spelling

The first go-to spelling strategy is identifying the sounds of a words and presenting each sound with letters and vowels. However, if there is more than one spelling option for a sound, one would have to use additional strategies to remember which spelling option to use.

For instance, in order to spell the word Sabba in Hebrew, /b/ is the only sound that has one spelling option. In order to spell the other letters, one would need to have some experience with the word. The first sound /s/ can be spelled with a samech, a sin or a sav. The last letter is tricky too. It isn’t audible so one would need to use visual memory to know to use an alef, and not an ayin or a hey.

In addition, spelling Hebrew vowels would be much easier for children that learn to read with the Ashkenazic pronunciation. Ashkenazim pronounce kamatz like /u/ in umbrella and patach like /o/ in octopus. However, Safardim pronounce both kamatz and patach like /o/ in octopus, so deciphering to use kamatz or patach would require a lot of visual memory or an advanced understanding of the Hebrew vowel patterns. Many teachers wouldn’t hold children responsible to spell kamatz and patach correctly because it would be too burdensome. Many adults still need to look up these words in order to vowelize them correctly.

Tips for Learning Hebrew Sight Words

      1. Meaningful Exposure: Provide children with many opportunities to experience frequent words, so they can become sight words. These experiences should be incorporated in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Invite children to participate in activities that incorporate target words such as playing games, reading stories, creating murals, journaling, writing letters and anything else that you think would be engaging.
      2. Word Pairs: When children use words in conjunction with other words, it helps the words stick in their memory. It also helps them create and process more meaningful content. Provide flashcards and othe materials and supports for children to learn how to glue words together.
      3. Multi-Sensory Instruction: Multi-Sensory instruction involves hearing, saying, seeing, and touching a word all at once. A touching or tactile experience with a word can be forming it with clay, writing it in sand, or in the air or using any other medium. The intention is to entice children to participate in stimulating activities that help them engage with words, and help them remember how they should look. Bring in the glitter pens, the puffy paint, the scented markers, chalk and have fun!
    Questions and Answers

    Question: If a child had a hard time decoding, should we teach them words to memorize instead? 
    Answer:   No. When teaching kids words to memorize without having them decode them, they may just learn those words, one at a time. This may not help them learn more words. Not only that, they may also confuse these words with other similar words. Basically, the return on investment will be small. Teaching one decoding element, can help the child independently read many, many words. 
    Question: Will teaching sight words encourage guessing? 
    No. If children learn to decode, and some words become sight words, this should not encourage them to guess. However, there may be some children that may still try to guess words instead of reading.  Some children may try to use language or meaning to figure out words instead of decoding them thoroughly.  Giving these children tasks to decode less familiar words can sharpen their decoding muscles and keep them in the habit of using their decoding muscles. Anyways, when children are learning to read Hebrew as a second language, the language is so new, it is hard for children to use language to compensate for decoding. 


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