Robert Lederman

Dotting the Eyes

What you probably didn't know about reading Hebrew

You may know that the word victual as defined by the Webster’s dictionary means “food usable by people.” However, what I have discovered is less well-known, is how to pronounce it. Surprisingly, knowing how to pronounce actual and factualconceptual or ritual, habitual, instinctual or even hyperintellectual is actually ineffectual in helping you to know how to pronounce victual. It is in fact pronounced, “vittle,” as in little. And while so many of us Anglos are aware of the many irregularities that adorn the English language, it’s actually quite nice to discover a new one!

Accurate pronunciation of written words is not always simple. Precisely how difficult it is varies from language to language. For example, many of us know that though we hardly spoke a word of Hebrew growing up, we could nevertheless read vowelized Hebrew, accurately. However, the situation for non-English speakers trying to read English is quite different; if you can’t speak English it is extremely difficult to read English. And though it can also be difficult to read non-vowelized Hebrew if you can’t speak Hebrew, it is still not as hard as reading English if you can’t speak English.

Phonemic or Not?

When it comes to reading, what mainly differentiates these two languages is the consistency of the relationship between what you see, and what you say. The letter /o/ has at least ten sounds assigned to it. It is vocalized as a /w/ in the word one, yet differently in the words mother, Molly or no. In contrast, bet with a segol is always pronounced beh. It never changes. Unlike English and French, in vowelized Hebrew the relationship between what you see and what you say is almost 100% consistent. In vowelized Hebrew, there is no equivalent to the variations found in pronouncing “ough” as in the words enough, through, cough. A language in which the graphemes (written symbols) correspond to the phonemes (significant spoken sounds) is called a phonemic orthography. English is very much a non-phonemic orthography, whereas vowelized Hebrew is highly phonemic as are Spanish, Italian and Finnish among others. So, when it comes to reading vowelized Hebrew, if you know the letters and the vowels, and you know how to blend the sounds together, then you’re well on the way to accurate reading. The same cannot be said about reading English.

Let’s think for a moment about a child struggling to read English. If a child is sounding out the word one like own, because he thinks it must sound like tone or phone, then no amount of being told to “try again” or “look carefully” is going to change matters. Enlarging the font won’t make any difference either. He actually needs to be taught how to pronounce that sequence of letters. However, a child who can effortlessly sound out all the individual letters and vowels, and letter-vowel combinations required for Hebrew reading, but is reading vowelized Hebrew inaccurately will often be told to “look more carefully”. In fact, “look more carefully” or “look at each letter” or “didn’t you see the kamatz” is what most children, who already know the letters and vowels, are told when sitting with a Hebrew-reading teacher. Often this will bring the desired result. In vowelized Hebrew, enlarging the font may also dramatically improve the reading accuracy. But in these examples, nothing at all journeyed from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student.

Returning to our previous example; no amount of looking more carefully or enlarging the font would change an incorrect pronunciation of the word one. In vowelized Hebrew the answer is on the page, while regarding English, other language-based knowledge is often required to read many of the words. And then there are the sight-words, which just are the way they are. Said another way, when reading English, I’m often required to remember what to say when I see the letters in a certain configuration; in Hebrew, competency in how to say the letter-vowel combination is mostly sufficient for accuracy in reading. Consider this; how many kids in Israel tell their parent excitedly about a new Hebrew word that they learned to read? This is something kids learning to read English do all the time.

So why does enlarging the font in Hebrew, or “looking again” make reading vowelized Hebrew more accurate, even for a student who sees 20/20? What changes? Does the student suddenly understand something that they did not understand before? When the student re-reads the word and looks more carefully, did they suddenly remember a vowel that they had forgotten during the first incorrect rendition? And why, after seeing how much “looking again” helps, do so many teachers not conclude that something’s not going so well with the looking?

Hebrew is not English

Though many theories abound, what must be remembered when attempting to make sense of this is that most of the research on developmental dyslexia comes from English speaking countries.(Ziegler et al.2003) So, when thinking about the student who struggles to read vowelized Hebrew accurately, professionals are using the only model that they know. And that model is the one they were taught in one of the many excellent institutions of higher learning as part of their degree course in learning difficulties, or special education. But it is based overwhelmingly, on conclusions reached from research into dyslexia in English-speaking countries i.e. that reading difficulties are primarily language based. Therefore, if a student cannot speak English, or if they struggle with expressive language, the likelihood is that they will find reading English very challenging indeed. However, one cannot say that one is required to speak Hebrew in order to read vowelized Hebrew. Think about how so many of us Anglo’s learned to read Hebrew accurately years before we could speak even a few words!

What has in fact happened is that many of the theories regarding the challenges of reading English have been wrongly assumed to pertain to all languages to the same degree (Miles,2003). Consequently, to many it comes as a complete surprise to discover that the most sensible thing you can say about a student struggling to read a phonemic orthography (if they can sound out the letter and vowel sounds quickly and 100% accurately) is that if they are saying it wrong, they are likely seeing it wrong; for they say, what they see. And while other explanations exist e.g. ADD, impulsiveness, it is most likely a vision issue that is at the root of it. It is important to note that efficient gathering and processing of visual data is no less critical when reading English too, but in addition the reader needs to deal with the unique language-based demands too. Though matters are improving, it seems that many educators are still not being made sufficiently aware of how critical visual skills are in the process of reading all languages, often limiting or delaying a positive outcome of remedial reading instruction for the struggling reader.

Dotting the Eyes!

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with our eyes when we read.When we’re talking about reading, seeing requires much more than being able to read the bottom line of the eye-test chart. When you are told in an eye examination that you have 20/20 eyesight, it basically means that you can see something small from far. However, reading from books and screens demands so much more from our visual system than that. Just think about the sustained focusing that is required from each eye, particularly because we are trying to see from close-up. Then think about how precisely our eyes need to be perfectly aligned. We also need to be able to move our eyes together from letter to letter, word to word and line to line. We need to be able to do this in a way that is sufficiently efficient as to be able to allow us to simultaneously process the information both visually and phonologically. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the intricacies and complexities of achieving this, reading certainly requires many unique vision skills. Since English is a non-phonemic orthography, improving the essential vision skills that will enable the student to meet the visual demands of reading, will not always immediately remediate incorrect pronunciation of sight-words. This has sadly led many eye doctors to conclude that there is no connection between vision skills and reading. And when the public hear that the eyes have “nothing to do with it” they obviously start looking in other places for a solution. This is indeed tragic for all struggling readers in any language, but especially so for the child struggling to read a phonemic orthography. As Prof. John Stein author of Visual Aspects of Dyslexia, points out;

Reading draws heavily on visual processing; it is glaringly obvious that letters have to be seen and identified and put in the right order in order to be read properly. Even in practiced readers, these visual processes remain essential and are rate limiting. But about 5 % of all children and about half of all dyslexic children complain of visual problems when they try to read: letters appear to blur, move around and go double, so the children cannot see them properly, which often gives them eyestrain and headaches. Obviously, such symptoms interfere with learning to read.

We’ve looked at how reading vowelized Hebrew differs from reading English in terms of what you need to know phonologically to read accurately. What about from a visual perspective? What’s it like when we’re looking at all those symbolic vowels appearing close to the letters? What are our eyes doing? Consider the following sentence made of consonants only. Td I wnt t pl wth Td. Now let’s add some vowels to create two different sentences.

T.d: I  w”nt  t.   pl:  w..t’  T*d-

T.d: I  w*nt  t.   pl:   w..t’  T;d

( .= oo  := ay  “= ah as in want   ..= I   t’=th   *= e    – = ee ;   = o as in box)

Try and be aware of your eyes making so many movements. When we read English, we tend to look at the whole word. But in vowelized Hebrew, we might need to look at each vowel to read the word, especially if the word is unfamiliar. The first sentence reads; Today I want to play with Teddy. The second; Today I went to play with Tod. Attempting to read Td I wnt t pl wth Td is rather like reading a sentence in Hebrew without vowels. You need to know the language and the context and then you’re in with a chance of reading it correctly. But our children all start off and continue for quite a while reading vowelized Hebrew with more of a phonetic than a whole-word approach. If a student cannot make the fine eye movements required to direct his eyes together at each letter and vowel, he/she will continue to struggle in reading even if he/she knows the letters and vowels perfectly. Note that this child may enjoy 20/20 eyesight and not be challenged visually in any other area of life.

Our universities and colleges continue to teach mainly a phonological, language-based approach to treatment of dyslexia. However, when a student familiar with the letters and vowels, continues to struggle when reading vowelized Hebrew accurately, he/she is likely struggling to meet the visual demands of the task. A study that was sponsored by the Ministry of Education showed that improving vision skills improved Hebrew reading dramatically (Atzmon et al.1993). This is because regarding a phonemic orthography, when you change what the reader sees, you will change what the reader says.


Atzmon, D., Nemet, P., Ishay, A., & Karni, E. (1993). A randomized prospective masked and matched comparative study of orthoptic treatment versus conventional reading tutoring treatment for reading disabilities in 62 children. Bin Vis Eye Muscle Surg Q8(2), 91-106.

Miles, E. (2000). Dyslexia may show a different face in different languages. Dyslexia6(3), 193-201.

Stein, J. (2014). Dyslexia: the role of vision and visual attention. Current developmental disorders reports1(4), 267-280.

Ziegler, J. C., Perry, C., Ma-Wyatt, A., Ladner, D., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2003). Developmental dyslexia in different languages: Language-specific or universal?. Journal of experimental child psychology86(3), 169-193.

About the Author
Robert Lederman was Israel's first board-certified Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development(USA). He is a visiting lecturer at the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at Haifa University where he lectures about visual impediments to learning. In addition he lectures both in Israel and abroad about the pervasive nature of vision in human consciousness and the ways that vision development and visual efficiency affect cognitive and motor function.
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