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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Interesting Hebrew Reading Program – Aleph Champ

The Aleph Champ program has come to my attention a few times in the last year or so, and I am increasingly interested in its approach – though it is one many homeschoolers will disagree with, perhaps violently (I love controversy!).  Like the Yahadus curriculum I looked at in my previous post, this one, too, is from the Chabad mini-empire of worldwide educators.

Working around a “martial arts” model, kids are first introduced to the alef-bais letters, then the vowels, and then they begin a program of timed readings with a goal to mastering fluency in Hebrew reading.  To reflect the martial arts theme, everything is colour-coded, including special colourful medallions and other incentives that can be awarded along the way.

Here’s the official outline of the program’s stages:

  • White Aleph Champion Master the first 18 letters of the Aleph Bet.
  • Red Aleph Champion Master all 32 letters of the Aleph Bet.
  • Orange Aleph Champion Master the first 3 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Yellow Aleph Champion Master the first 6 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Green Aleph Champion Master the first 9 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Blue Aleph Champion Master all the vowels and exceptions to the rules.
  • Purple Aleph Champion Master reading familiar Prayers and Brachot.
  • Brown Aleph Champion Master reading important Tefillot.
  • Grey Aleph Champion Master reading from the Siddur in a timed fashion.
  • Black Aleph Champion Master reading over 100 words in a minute.

The emphasis of this series is almost entirely on bulk reading, from pages that start out looking like this:

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through pages that – by the green level – look like this:

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and wind up – by the brown level of the program - looking like this:

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The books are simple but not unattractive, and they lack all the cloying illustrations that I so despised about my own Hebrew School texts.

Wow!  It’s pretty impressive… until you realize that with all this reading, the kids still may not understand a single word of Hebrew.  Presumably, some basic Hebrew words will be introduced in the classroom along the way.  And perhaps when kids are reading, teachers may point out a word or two that might have some frame of reference and meaning for the kids.  But that is NOT what they’re focusing on – the goal is pure reading fluency and everything else takes a backseat to that in this program.

Now, the reading books are important, but there is also a workbook component, which again may raise some controversy.  The workbook series is attractive in the same minimalistic way:

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I actually find the workbooks MORE appealing than the readers, perhaps because there is less reading-of-gibberish on each page, and they are highly interactive in a way that I think will appeal to kids.  They are also very “tachlis” (goal) oriented, starting with simple exercises that get the kids writing each letter.  From the first book (white):

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and winding up, in the purple book, with exercises that have children circle the English-transliterated equivalent of each Hebrew word:

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…Which is actually one of my two quibbles with the workbook program.  Or rather, not necessarily MY quibble, but something some (many) parents may disagree with.  These books rely HEAVILY on transliteration.  More so than any other Hebrew program I’ve seen.  Most ignore transliteration altogether, in fact, so these books are a bit surprising in that just about every other page has children write Hebrew word in English letters or vice versa.

The other quibble is about a technique that, in fact, I used myself when I was teaching Hebrew to reluctant and ignorant eighth-graders:  teaching kids “Hebrew” by having them decode English words and sentences in Hebrew characters (and vice versa). 

The very first book starts this off – in my opinion – on the wrong foot, introducing the “fact” that the letter “alef” says “ah.”  Here, children are expected to use the alef-as-ah to fill in various blanks (this is the 2nd page of the first workbook).  This clearly makes more sense for some letters than others and I guess I’m okay with teaching “bais” as in “banana”.   (note: the book uses sefard pronunciations throughout, so bais is known as “bet” etc)

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Here are two “Hebrew” examples from the purple workbook.  Some of the “Hebrew” words your kids will learn on the second (“Ship Shape”) sheet are “sofa bed,” “door nob” (with door pronounced to rhyme with poor, for some reason) and “panda beer” (“bear” rhymes with “cheer”, which is something my Brooklyn friend does as well, but in most of the English-speaking world, it is closer to rhyming with “care” and “chair”).

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(In the first one, kids have to “solve” a series of clues in mish-mash Hebrewized-English, to unscramble the letters of the final answer (“homework”))

Anyway, my point is -

This is a great series if you want your kids to READ Hebrew.  I am very impressed with the simplicity of the materials, which would be easy to teach and learn along with your child (you’d want to practice at night alone, probably, if you were a total novice also).

PROS – here’s what I love:

  • Inexpensive books
  • Simple, easy layout
  • Timed readings mean the lesson can be completed within a relatively short period of time
  • Clearer goals than most Hebrew programs offer concrete, measurable progress
  • Workbook exercises are fun and probably reinforce reading activities quite well
  • Incentives, medallions etc might be a fun addition to the program
  • NO prior knowledge of Hebrew reading necessary to teach
  • No vocabulary necessary, for student or teacher
  • No knowledge of Jewish life assumed, for student or teacher
  • Success is almost guaranteed if all levels are completed – success that means kids WILL be able to read a Chumash, Siddur, or anything else you stick in front of them (as long as it has vowels)

Um… some of these pros can also be seen as CONS:

  • Knowledge of Jewish life cannot be attained through this program alone
  • Pages of nonsensical reading might rub some parents the wrong way
  • Pages of transliteration and encoding/“decoding” English words spelled (badly, cornily, kitschily) might make you crazy!
  • Assumes fluent English reading – in some cases, of script writing
  • Even if a student masters the program completely, they will still know ABSOLUTELY ZERO Hebrew, in the sense that they will have no idea how to put together a sentence comprising nouns, verbs, adjectives or anything else.

Here’s what the full program looks like laid out at a teacher’s desk – pretty!

One plus of this curriculum is that it acknowledges the existence of homeschoolers – they even offer a special “home school starter package” for $91.10, which includes one of each reading book, one of each workbook, and one of each set of colour-coded flashcards, along with all the medallions you’ll need and a spiffy timer for speed drills).  If you just want to test the waters, you can presumably buy just the reading book or just the workbook as well – those are only $4.60 each per level (the timer sells separately for $6).  Just make sure you don’t buy the much cheaper “home kit,” which only includes the almanac and some flash cards.  I haven’t looked at what shipping costs on the site – that might make a difference.  There’s also a $15 downloadable Teacher’s Manual, but I haven’t had a look at it yet; it’s probably a worthwhile read to pick up techniques for getting through the reading and also for coordinating reading and workbook activities.

*** Note: Hmm… just noticed that when you go to check out, the website asks for a school name, saying “The Aleph Champ materials are proprietary, created on the Chabad philosophy and methods, and we license them only to our schools who are trained in the program.”  This may or may not cause problems in terms of how homeschool-friendly the program is.

Another option might be finding a Hebrew school near you that offers the Aleph Champ program: it seems to have gone viral in the Chabad world and just about every Chabad house around North America is offering it (it probably wouldn’t work well in many places outside of North America because it’s all in English!).  Aleph Champ-based Hebrew schools around here, which offer once-a-week classes on weeknights or Sundays, seem to run about $700 for the year.  They might also be willing to just sell you the materials if you promise not to abuse them in some heretical way.

In any event, this program seems to integrate the best of several worlds to offer an exciting, religion-neutral option for parents (Jewish or otherwise!), who want to introduce Hebrew but feel less than confident with their own language abilities OR for parents who feel super-confident teaching Hebrew but want to get right in, down-n-dirty, and plow through the Hebrew at a pace limited only by their kids’ interest and abilities.

5 comments:

alpidarkomama said...

We just call it our "speed-reading" program. Vocabulary, etc. come from elsewhere, but I loved it as a speed-reading program! 3 of the 4 kids have gone through the whole thing. It's great to go back from time to time and just pick a random page for speed reading. It's great practice. :) We didn't use the workbooks because of that silly transliteration thing. I can't stand that.

The Glamorous Housewife said...

Hi there. I am not a homeschooler, but I adore your blog because it gives me a ton of ideas to use with my kids- especially on weekends. My kids go to a Chabad Hebrew school and they use the aleph champ program. It worked for us- my 9 year old finished the black book last year. Now he has moved on to learning all the grammar and what-not. From what I gather, the system is to get kids to learn Hebrew mainly for prayers and their bar/bat mitzvah so fluency isn't the major priority.

Thanks doll,
The Glamorous Housewife

AztecQueen2000 said...

I use it for my two--they love the medallions. In terms of a comprehension component, I try to have my older daughter hear familiar words in what she's reading (for example "baruch" in "umvorach"). i also award a siddur after teh pruple book because most of the tefillos in the brown book would be unfamiliar territory to my five-year-old.
BTW, if you're interested in a program that includes vocabulary, I would recommend "Shush and Say Six" by Dr. Bar-Lev of San Diego State university. It teaches reading backwards, starting with words and working back to letters.

Dina said...

I know several people that use Aleph Champ, but most were dissatisfied and went on to other things. I have used quite a few books to teach kriah, most I disliked, but we are almost finished using Kriah Berurah and we LOVE it. I had been discouraged (by others) from teaching my son the shva rules at such a young age, but this book teaches them well. The goals of this book seem similar in that it is to master Hebrew reading using words from Tefilah and Tanach (you don't learn grammar or vocabulary, but for those subjects, we like the Shy publications materials)

Binah said...

I use a much cheaper, but somewhat similar, method. I use a little non-consumable reader that costs only about $3. It is strictly phonetic reading, no vocabulary, grammar, or other content other than a few basic tefillos. I have no problem with this method whatsoever. Depending on the child, it can be finished in as little as a couple months. Other children may need a year or longer to feel confident.

Once this is mastered, we go straight to Chumash and begin purposefully learning prefixes, suffixes, shorashim, etc. Once we've done the reader, we don't need to spend much, if any, time on decoding.

I've though of buying Aleph Champ for the fun factor, but our $3 reader works well enough. I also fear that the levels that use common tefillos wouldn't really work for my kids, since we frequently daven as a family, so they have a lot memorized before they learn to read.