Biblical Hebrew Pedagogy

For the 2012 annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting I was asked by Randall Buth to participate in a panel of the Applied Linguistics for Biblical Languages Group on the question, “Where Do We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training?”.

I was flattered and intrigued. I haven’t participated in this group in the past and didn’t quite know what to expect. However, since our Biblical Hebrew textbook is coming out in the early Summer with Baker Academic and I am currently teaching intro BH using the draft textbook, I thought I’d throw in my 2¢, listen carefully, and hopefully learn something I could apply.

Perhaps for those who have attended this group in the past, it was more of the same tune. For me, it was stimulating, encouraging, and energizing. As I listened to the presentations of the other panelists (and listened as I read my own presentation!), it dawned on me that I’d been slipping into old, lazy patterns in the last few weeks of my BH class. That realization was combined with Daniel Street‘s presentation in which he drove home the point that reading proficiency (the widely-agreed goal of biblical language learning) only comes after conversational proficiency. That is, you can’t get to real reading without first learning to communicate by speaking and hearing. (By the way, Daniel has begun his round-up of the relevant sessions at SBL on his blog, here). [Update Dec 7, 2012: Daniel has continued his post-SBL report here.]

The result of the experience was that I returned with a renewed dedication and refreshed energy to create a better communicative classroom environment. So far, it’s been a lot better. I happened to mention the panel to one of my students after class last week and her response was encouraging: “So that’s why you’ve been using more Hebrew in class” (and, I will add, why I put an abrupt stop to their increasing habit of coaxing English glosses out of me if they didn’t immediately get the meaning of our vocabulary icons).

Below is my presentation for the panel. I hope it provokes a productive discussion. (One of the comments after the presentation was a concern that my learning outcomes would not fit that instructor’s context; to be clear, my proposed learning outcomes are about “setting the bar” generally and I acknowledged to the audience that a good and wise teacher will also adapt to his or her contextual needs.)

paper delivered on Nov 17, 2012, with slight modification


Almost eight years ago I joined the faculty in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. As the professor responsible for Biblical Hebrew language, establishing clear learning outcomes and developing a sequence of courses that reflects these outcomes as goals and allows for their achievement has been an ongoing goal and, admittedly, a challenge. Though I first taught Biblical Hebrew in 1997 and so have been working through pedagogical issues for fifteen years, success in the classroom (according to my own bar, which is fairly high) has been elusive. Every year I modify the syllabus and just about every year John Cook and I have worked on improving our introductory textbook (even creating a wholly new, illustrated, communicative-focused version three years ago). Below are my current thoughts on how we ought to set goals, followed by draft goals for a three-year sequence that I submit for discussion.

A significant part of the challenge in determining learning outcomes that are appropriate at U of T, and perhaps also at your institutions, is the student demographic. The students who sign up for our Biblical Hebrew courses consistently reflect a wide range of backgrounds and interests. In terms of linguistic abilities, some are mono-lingual, while many are natively multi-lingual. The majority no longer speak English as a first language and there is a significant immigrant/international student presence, a few of whom are still learning English even as they are attempting to learn Hebrew.

In terms of educational background, we always have a few Jewish students who studied Hebrew in Israel or Hebrew Day School and so begin the year already knowing the alphabet and a number of basic vocabulary, but little more. These students are thrown in with students who are truly starting from zero, producing a challenging though potentially quite useful and rewarding classroom dynamic. Educational background also figures prominently in terms of how taking Biblical Hebrew fits their program of study. In the typical first-year classroom, less than half are pursuing a specialist, major, or minor in our department or a related area, such as religious studies, Jewish studies, or Classics. The others are there out of personal interest only, and reflect backgrounds as diverse as commerce, engineering, and art.

And this brings us to student motivation for learning Biblical Hebrew, which necessarily affects (or, at least, has for me) determining learning outcomes. Out of a typical ten student sample in our introductory Biblical Hebrew courses, one is taking it simply to satisfy the final language requirement in our specialist (our department require specialists to study two languages). Two students aren’t sure why they chose the course, five students want to “read the Tanak” or “Old Testament,” and three students are preparing for some sort of seminary or graduate education. This profile fits the students I’ve taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, and Toronto.

Moving from undergraduates to graduate education, I have been mostly disappointed by the Hebrew competency, or more accurately, lack thereof, among graduate students that I have taught in the contexts of both a Christian liberal arts college and two public research universities. Rarely has any first-year MA or PhD student I have taught brought in what I consider an acceptable Hebrew competency. In fact, in my last Grad/Undergrad seminar on advanced Hebrew grammar, the two undergraduates who were completing our departmental three-year sequence outperformed almost every graduate student, whether MA or PhD, whether beginning their program or well along in their coursework.

Of course, for many people my description and the issues it raises will serve in turn to prompt all sorts of questions about contexts and purposes for studying Hebrew—the questions that motivated this session. And this is why I agreed to be a part of the panel, so that I could voice my concerns, add my two cents on “setting the bar,” and listen to wiser teachers than me.

My First 2¢: Establishing Learning Outcomes

And so this brings us to my thoughts on “setting the bar” for various levels of, in my case, Biblical Hebrew learning. The basic learning outcomes that I have arrived at for each year are the product of three streams of experiences. The first is my work on two Intro BH textbooks with John Cook, at Asbury Theological Seminary.

The second stream is the year I spent at the end of my doctorate enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bulk of my time was spend in ulpan, learning Israeli Hebrew both for research and for enjoyment. What I realized later was that an unexpected pedagogical benefit equaled if not surpassed the two original reasons. Finally, during a year of transition in our department, I was the Israeli Hebrew language coordinator and spent some time investigating curricula and learning outcomes for a three-year sequence of Israeli Hebrew courses.

My interest in and investigation of Israeli Hebrew language curricula introduced me to the wealth of research on language learning and teaching by groups like the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)* as well as documents specific to ancient languages, such as the Standards for Classical Language Learning (1997).** While I have not immersed myself in the research like those who annually participate in this group have, I did glean enough to inform the development of a curriculum with clear, sometimes measurable, learning outcomes.

* See especially the document Performance Descriptors for Language Learners, 2012 Edition, accessible at

**Standards for Classical Language Learning. 1997. American Classical League. Oxford, OH: Miami University. Classical_Learning.pdf. Last accessed 11/15/2012.

For example, the ACTFL has produced a very helpful document, Performance Descriptors for Language Learners, 2012 Edition (henceforth, Performance Descriptors), which lays out learning outcomes for language performance at three levels, novice, intermediate, and advanced. The document is primarily aimed at modern, spoken languages, but not exclusively so. In fact, they include a paragraph explicitly addressing the application of the descriptors to “classical languages,” in which they both note that this aligns with many of the learning outcomes identified in the Standards for Classical Language Learning and suggest that,

… while reading and understanding the written messages of the ancient world is a key to communication in the study of Latin and classical Greek, the oral use of the language can also be employed to help students avoid reading or translating word-for-word as they must listen in “chunks” (several words holding the meaning or phrases) and respond spontaneously during oral communication. This practice also builds student interest and heightens understanding of and appreciation for the languages and their cultures. (Performance Descriptors for Language Learners 2012:11; emphasis added, RDH)

Building and maintaining student interest in the classroom while increasing linguistic ability has become a primary goal in my search for the right curricular structure and so has informed my development of learning outcomes.

Above all, my teaching and learning experiences led me conclude that successfully engaging a higher percentage of students required a more active approach to the ancient language learning process. Traditional outcomes are typically passive in the sense that they stress only the recognition component of language use and minimize, if not omit, the production component. Such outcomes stress parsing, analysis, lexicon, and place a priority on translation, typically a minimal component of modern language learning environments, in which it used decreasingly, which stands in direct contrast to the increasing use of translation in intermediate and advanced levels of ancient language learning.

Besides the deadening boredom of the traditional curriculum—both for student and teacher!—it only makes pedagogical sense to engage as many of the physical senses as possible, in the recognition that the more parts of the brain the student is required to activate in class, the more likely comprehension and retention will follow.

What follows in the next few minutes, then, is my attempt to use the best of modern language teaching practices for a Biblical Hebrew sequence, while keeping in mind that there are significant practical (though not principled) differences in the ultimate goal of the process.

Another 2¢: Draft Learning Outcomes

The ACTFL’s Performance Descriptors document notes that “The most common program model for language learning in this country continues to be two years of instruction at the secondary level. This model limits students to performance in the Novice range.” While some may argue that language learning at the secondary level differs from the post-secondary level, I suggest that this is not the case. The difference in the learning achievement and rate is generally a factor of the contact hours, sustained study time, and personal interest. I argue that these three ranges of the Performance Descriptors may be legitimately applied to any adult (secondary or post-secondary) learning sequence.

In addition to the three ranges (novice, intermediate, and advanced), the Performance Descriptors describes the learning outcomes across three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational) For ancient languages such as Biblical Hebrew, I consider the presentational mode to be the least relevant to the ultimate goal of a deeply sympathetic linguistic and communicative interaction with the biblical discourses. Thus, I draw more strongly from the interpersonal and interpretive modes in formulating my learning outcomes for three levels of Hebrew learning.

Novice (1st year) = understands highly practiced words, phrases, and formulaic language; expresses self using variety of words, phrases, simple sentences, and questions that have been highly practiced and memorized; gets meaning of the main idea of highly predictable oral and written discourse, with strong visual support.

Functions: can ask highly predictable and formulaic questions and respond to such questions by listing, naming, identifying, or reformulating; can comprehend meaning through recognition of key words and formulaic phrases that are highly contextualized.

Context/Content: exhibits emerging ability to communicate in highly practiced contexts related to oneself and core texts; comprehends texts with highly predictable, familiar contexts.

Text type: understands and produces highly practiced words, phrases, and sentences; able to ask formulaic or memorized questions; able to reformulate simple discourse example; derives meaning in listening and reading exercises when discourse is supported by visuals or redundancy.

Language control: can comprehend highly practiced and basic texts when supported by visual and contextual clues, redundancy, or restatement, and when the message/text contains familiar structures; relies on vocabulary to derive meaning from discourse; may derive meaning by recognizing familiar structural patterns.

Vocabulary: able to understand and produce a number of high frequency words, highly practiced expressions, and formulaic questions.

Communication strategies: able to—imitate modeled words, phrases, and sentence types; use facial expressions and gestures; ask for repetition; indicate lack of understanding; able to—skim and scan; rely on visual support and background knowledge; predict meaning based on context and/or prior knowledge, experience; recognize roots, prefixes, suffixes.

In more traditional terms:

basic grammar

@600 words

recognition of words (pointed and unpointed)

recognition of narrative patterns (word order, verb types)

production of question-answer about texts, comments about texts

aural recognition of vocabulary and questions about texts

recognition of narrative arc and ability to summarize/reformulate in simple terms

Intermediate (2nd yr) = understands main ideas and some supporting details from a variety of familiar texts; expresses self and awareness of texts using sentences, reformulation, and question-answer pairs.

Functions: can understand, ask, and answer a variety of questions; comprehends mains ideas and identifies supporting details.

Context/Content: exhibits emerging evidence of ability to communicate about occasionally unfamiliar discourse.

Text type: able to understand and produce discrete sentences, strings of sentences, and connected sentences; comprehends paragraph discourse (spoken and written).

Language control: understands straightforward language that contains mostly familiar structures; sufficient control of grammar (vocabulary, structure) and conventions to understand fully and with ease short texts, ranging from low to medium complexity.

Vocabulary: comprehends and uses medium-to-high frequency vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.

Communication strategies: able to—ask questions; ask for clarification; self-correct or restate when not understood; circumlocute; skim and scan; use visual support and background knowledge; predict meaning based on context or prior knowledge, experience; use contextual clues; recognize roots, prefixes, suffixes.

In more traditional terms:

@25 chapters of narrative (e.g., Josh, Judg, 1 Sam, 2 Sam, 1 Kgs, or 2 Kgs)

recognition of narrative agents and events, story arc and critical supporting details

ability to invert/manipulate text and create new texts, in both written and oral exercises

aural recognition of vocabulary, questions about texts, and whole (small) texts

production of answers, from simple to complex, to questions about texts.

Advanced (3rd year) = understands main ideas and supporting details from familiar and new texts, and confidently navigates texts with new or unexpected complications.

Functions: can understand and produce with confidence and relative ease narrations and descriptions in all major time frames (e.g., past, present, future) and modalities (real, irreal); comprehends the main idea and supporting details of narrative texts; exhibits emerging ability to comprehend poetic texts; makes inferences and derives meaning from context and linguistic features.

Context/Content: comprehends texts pertaining to variety of topics and situations.

Text type: comprehends multi-paragraph discourse (spoken and written) and poetry.

Language control: consistent control of medium-to-high frequency structures facilitates comprehension and production; sufficient control of grammar (vocabulary, structure) and conventions to understand fully and with ease more complex texts with connected language and cohesive devices; derives meaning by understanding sequencing, time frames, and chronology.

Vocabulary: comprehends and uses low-to-medium frequency vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.

Communication strategies: able to—request clarification; repeat; restate; rephrase; circumlocute; skim and scan; use visual support and background knowledge; predict meaning based on context or prior knowledge, experience; use contextual clues; use linguistic knowledge; identify organizing principles of a text; create inferences; differentiate main ideas from supporting details in order to verify.

In more traditional terms:

@25 chapters poetry and narrative (e.g., Qoh, select Pss, select Job, minor prophets; 1 Chr, 2 Chr, Ezra-Neh)

composition of prose and poetry; oral delivery; aural recognition of texts

original production of prose and poetry, both planned and extemporaneous, both written and oral

parsing/analysis of grammar (accurate production of vocalized forms, with knowledge of “rules”; accurate production of syntax, with knowledge of patterns)

historical-comparative-typological contextualization of “ancient/biblical” Hebrew

Last 1¢ for the Full Nickel: Concluding Thoughts

I have now outlined what I think are practical, achievable learning outcomes for a three-year sequence in Biblical Hebrew, outcomes grounded in both modern language pedagogy and a recognition that ancient language learning has a slightly different end goal. I want to end with a couple musings, about … “life, the universe, and everything”(Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

First, should learning outcomes differ depending on institutional context? I don’t think so. If the research suggests that we learn languages using certain techniques, they should be applied to undergraduates, seminarians, and graduate students alike. The pace may differ, but the techniques shouldn’t.

Second, language learning outcomes should not be confused with exegetical outcomes. We do little to no exegetical training at the undergraduate level at Toronto, even though we have high language expectations. If students are interested in exegesis and the related activity of finding significance in the textual meaning, we encourage them to pursue further studies in a theological context. Even in theological contexts, I do not think that the language learning and exegetical instruction should be confused. Certainly brief exegetical discussions in the language course may serve to motivate students, but if the language courses become exegesis, the language learning itself will suffer at the hands of discussions in English (or whatever modern language is used).

Third, at the end of the day, everyone’s goal in learning Biblical Hebrew (or Greek) is to read and comprehend the biblical texts. But my interactions with students from over a dozen years of teaching Hebrew tells me that we undershoot both reading and comprehension. Our aim is low, much too low for students to engage these texts in any sympathetic communicative way.

Finally, is too little worse than none? If we aren’t going to teach towards the kind real proficiency and comprehension, I don’t think there is a reason to teach the language. For example, I think a lone year of language instruction is, to be blunt, useless. Any institution and instructor that is serious about achieving advanced performance, and so deep textual comprehension, should work towards mapping out a three-year sequence, at a minimum.


7 Responses to “Biblical Hebrew Pedagogy”

  1. bobmacdonald Says:

    Robert – have you considered singing the Hebrew text as part of the learning and memorization process?

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Bob, I use singing almost every class meeting. And most of the songs we sing are straight out of the Bible. It’s a very, very useful (and fun) way to learning language. We also take texts and act them as as plays (we did a simplified Genesis 3 last week). It’s incredibly fun, and getting students over the discomfort of feeling embarrassment is a critical step in the psychology of language learning. Play acting helps with this, I think. By the end of the year, my students will be acting out Ruth in *memorized* parts.

      By the way, thanks for the incredible carnival.

  2. John de Hoog Says:

    Dear Dr Holmstedt,

    I’ve just finished a year of teaching Hebrew. I taught it for the first time this year, having just come into the teaching profession after about 20 years in pastoral ministry. I’m teaching at the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia.

    I had only a one year course in Hebrew myself, more than 20 years ago, but I kept at the Hebrew during my years as a pastor. However, there is so much more that I have not had exposure to and your presentation at the SBL meeting showed me something of that. Thank you for the stimulation provided by your talk. I have also downloaded your first textbook and plan to use it next time I teach Hebrew.

    In 2013 I will be teaching a subject called “Foundations of Hebrew Exegesis.” For the first half of the course I plan to take the students through the Book of Ruth. I have been reading your Baylor Handbook on Ruth and I plan to use it for my teaching work, so thank you for this book.

    Is there a key anywhere in the book or elsewhere to the abbreviations you use? For example, I can’t figure out exactly what you mean by NP and PP. I am using the book on the Logos platform, and I can find lots of instances of these abbreviations but not a definition. I have figured out many of the abbreviations but there are some I can’t get.

    Again, thanks for your work,
    John de Hoog

  3. robertholmstedt Says:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for the encouraging comment.

    You are the exception that proves the rule — you’ve not just survived with one year of BH, but are actually teaching it.

    On the abbreviations in my Ruth volume, the lack of an initial list was a well-taken criticism in a review of the book and I’m still hoping that Baylor lets me add a page into the next printing. Sometimes when you use terms so often for some many years, it’s easy to forget that they aren’t universally known.

    Most of the terms you’re struggling with are abbreviations for types of phrases. Thus, NP = Noun Phrase, PP = Prepositional Phrase, etc. If you want to throw a list at me in another comment, I’ll explain them.

  4. Where Should We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training? (SBL 2012 Report) | καὶ τὰ λοιπά Says:

    […] about where the bar is currently being set and some possible strategies for raising the bar. Robert has posted his paper and some reflections on the panel here, so be sure to check that […]

  5. More thoughts on teaching ancient languages « Alternation Says:

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