The Making of Ready, Set...Go Alef Bet: An Interview with Dina Maiben

1. What motivated you to write a pre-primer for Alef Bet Quest?

I love writing and creating cool teaching materials, and this project was something of a natural for me because it dovetails so neatly with Alef Bet Quest. Then too, Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! completes the new Behrman House modern system for Hebrew learning. It’s like putting in the final piece of the puzzle and I find that sense of completion to be personally satisfying. But from a teaching standpoint, the most important factor by far is the crucial role played by a student’s very first experience with the Hebrew letters. Researchers in Israel have found that the order in which Hebrew letters are introduced can have a huge impact both on a student’s ultimate success in learning to read Hebrew and on how hard it is to become a proficient reader. I wanted to design a pre-primer for the new system so all of our students would get off to the best possible start.

2. What is the hardest part of writing a pre-primer?

Writing a textbook is never easy. There are always a variety of concerns (sometimes conflicting concerns) that have to be balanced. What surprised me is that writing a pre-primer was completely different from writing a primer. With a primer, the structure and sequence are the most important concerns. Every new item has to systematically build on what has come before it. Each new key word can only be composed of the letters and vowels you’re introducing or that the students already know. And as I said, there is research that tells us which letters and vowels should be introduced together and which ones need to be widely separated. In order to balance both of those requirements there’s very little room to maneuver. A pre-primer allows much greater freedom in selecting key words because the focus is only on the initial letter of each new word.

But pre-primers have their own unique problems. Because they are designed for younger students, the print needs to be larger and each page can hold fewer items. That makes it more difficult to provide as much practice as most of us would like. Also, because the students will not be able to fully decode any of the words until they are nearly done with the program, all of the Hebrew language work has to be done orally. That required a lot of thinking about what would work best for the learners and their teachers, then tailoring the method for a Hebrew school classroom. Like I said, the process of writing any textbook is something of a juggling act.

3. What was the most fun for you?

Working on a pre-primer allowed me to be really playful. I loved coming up with the funny chapter titles and the mnemonics for every letter. And even though they were a challenge, I had a great time developing the Hebrew language sections. My first Hebrew teacher, Carmela Nielsen, was a real inspiration on these activities. She was a Sabra who was incredibly passionate about her native tongue. She felt that Hebrew language materials should always be light-hearted, fun, and filled with humor. I think she would have been really pleased with the language activities in Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet!

4. What do you think makes Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! different from other pre-primers?

First and foremost, Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! is the first pre-primer that has a fully integrated digital component. In an age when students are using digital learning strategies more and at a younger age, it’s crucial for Jewish educators to make good use of the tools our students are so adept at using. A second unique feature is the emphasis on the sounds of Hebrew. Even the chapter titles reinforce the sounds represented by each letter. That’s essential because associating the sound with each symbol is an absolute necessity for decoding.

As I mentioned, Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! also contains a new and powerful oral Hebrew language component. Building a strong base in oral language is something that reading specialists in all languages tend to emphasize. It’s important to remember that reading is a language skill, and that every word of meaningful Hebrew language a student acquires helps to reinforce the sound-symbol relationships. It is helpful for beginning Hebrew students to read the words they already know. That’s a powerful motivator for students who are learning to decode in an entirely new system.

Another unique feature of Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! is the multi-sensory approach it takes. There is a great deal of evidence that involving as many senses as possible—touch, taste, smell, and kinesthetic movement, as well as hearing and seeing—helps more students master reading skills faster and read with greater accuracy. To help make strong auditory connections to the letter shapes, the chapter titles use alliteration to reinforce the sounds of the new letters introduced in that chapter, and there is a mnemonic for every Hebrew letter—I think this is the first Hebrew reading book that has a mnemonic for every letter. The teacher guide contains suggestions for kinesthetic activities and movements or yoga poses for every letter. In fact, a whole multi-sensory method for introducing the letters and their sounds is stressed in the teacher guide.

Finally, Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! is the first pre-primer that adheres strictly to the findings of the research on what works best for learning to read Hebrew. It’s really the complete package.

5. We heard a rumor that the “little collie dog” featured in this book has personal meaning for you. Tell us about it.

The little dog is actually a Shetland Sheepdog (or Sheltie). They’re small “cousins” of the Collie and they were bred to herd the compact sheep found on the Shetland Islands. I’ve had Shelties most of my life and I absolutely love them. They’re sweet, playful, and incredibly intelligent. Right now I have two Shelties and the little guy with the veterinarian on page 56 looks just like my Zevi. He’s even got the same expression!

Actually, I love all sorts of animals. I have a cat as well as the dogs, and they all play together—just like the ones in Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! When I was a kid, my favorite animals were dolphins and kangaroos, which also make an appearance in Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! because the words are so similar in Hebrew and English.

6. In your experience, which letters cause kids most problems?

There are three kinds of letters that most often cause problems for beginning Hebrew readers, children and adults alike: letters that look similar; those that represent sounds that are similar but not identical; and those that represent sounds that are not found in the learner’s native language. Hebrew is loaded with letters that look alike. English has a few pairs, (like b and d or p and q), but Hebrew has more than 30 pairs of symbols that look incredibly similar. For this reason, even experienced native Hebrew readers have to take a closer look at individual letters than is necessary to read English. Our students need to be trained to look closely at every symbol, and need to get a lot of practice in this area because this is not a skill that gets much emphasis in English reading instruction no matter what method is used. There are also several letters that represent similar sounds, and hearing those tiny differences can be difficult for some learners. These two concerns are what makes the order of instruction is so important. Ready, Set…Go Alef Bet! uses a sequence that minimizes the likelihood that students will confuse them.

Then there are letters, like Chet and Chaf. They are difficult because English does not have an equivalent sound. Some students compensate by substituting the closest sound that English does contain. They may replace the hard, glottal “ch” sound with “h” at the beginning or “k” in the middle or end of a word. A similar thing happens with Tzadi. Some students have a great deal of difficulty pronouncing it in the first position of a word. Even though English has the “tz” sound, it occurs naturally only in the middle or end of a word. Some students will substitute “s” or “z” for Tzadi at the beginning of a word. Many students have trouble pronouncing sounds that are either not found in their native language, or that are used differently from their native language.

Because beginning readers need to feel successful from the beginning, the letters that represent these difficult sounds are not introduced until the second half of the book, and are separated from the letters that represent similar sounds.

7. Which animation is your favorite in the online companion?

I love the animated letters in the online companion! The digital design team really outdid themselves on this. The Shin as a ship bobbing in the water, the pole vaulting Vav, and the final Nun being nailed into a board are really clever. But my favorite has to be the Pey popping pink peppermints!