Why teach the hagim?


The theme of this book is the holidays (hagim) of the Jewish people. I chose this theme for six main reasons. Furthermore, they fulfil a number of principles underlying language learning upon which the curriculum is based. I am referring to the curriculum which was implemented in September, 2001 superceding the earlier curriculum of 1988.


 Firstly, there is the cultural aspect. We are living in Israel and the Jewish holiday cycle (hagim) is an integral part of our lifestyle. The school calendar is arranged around them. Our students should know about the meaning and relevance of these holidays. The cycle of holidays is a living history which connects us to the past, the present and the future. The hagim are a part of the society we live in, and our role as teachers is to reinforce and extend society values.


The holidays are spaced out over the year and can provide a focus and reason for breaking the routine of our teaching. We have the opportunity to go outside of the textbook and bring in other material.


A lot of teachers will see incorporating the hagim into their teaching schedules as a vehicle to provide the children with fun and something lighter.  While I definitely see this as a reason for teaching the hagim, it should not be seen as the main aim of including this subject matter. It should not be seen as a time to provide busy work such as colouring in a picture or carrying out a handicraft activity related to the festival.   Providing fun is an important, but secondary, reason to teach the hagim.


Using holidays as our subject matter provides a framework for reinforcing a teaching point. For example, you have been working on the past tense with your sixth grade students and a holiday is coming up. Your discussion can revolve around what the students did last year for the festival. A writing exercise can then follow giving the students the opportunity to reinforce their awareness, use and understanding of this language construct.


Likewise, and my fifth reason to encourage you to teach the hagim, is the framework they provide to review language items taught earlier in the year. For example, Shavuot is coming up and you want to revise vocabulary presented to your grade threes. Fruit is a lexical area which lends itself to both the festival and the need to review vocabulary. Or in grade six you want something to review the reading skills taught throughout the year. The topic of Shavuot provides you with a vehicle for this in that you can use a reading about the holiday.


Finally, teaching the hagim provides us as teachers with a way to ensure that we impact the different domains which underpin the curriculum we are using. Access to information, social interaction, presentation and appreciation of literature, language and culture can all be touched on when we plan lessons around the subject of the holidays. Teaching content related materials provides a vehicle to access these domains and to work towards achievement of standards as laid down in section 2 of the curriculum.


Language learning is facilitated when pupils build on their prior language and world knowledge, have opportunities to learn by doing, use language as a means for gaining information in other areas, can see the usefulness of what they are learning and have opportunities to use the target language outside the classroom. When using the hagim as subject matter throughout the year you fulfil these principles which underlie language learning and are part of the driving force of the English Curriculum. Furthermore, as English teachers we are able to use hagim as subject matter to make our teaching more effective in that the teaching of the hagim provides teachers with the opportunity to  create a language rich environment. Each holiday should be accompanied by a wall display related to the topic. It can be prepared by the teacher or generated by the students themselves. For example, before Rosh Hashannah the students can prepare and display new year wishes.


As we can safely assume that most of our students have prior knowledge of this subject matter, our teaching is more effective in that it activates and builds on the pupils background knowledge. 


Research support of content based curricula.


Research from the field also supports and justifies teaching the hagim in our English classes. CBI (content based instruction) is defined as the integration of particular content with language teaching aims. This basic definition must be kept in mind when we teach the hagim. The content provides a vehicle for the acquisition of EFL (English as a Foreign Language).


Research in immersion and bilingual education as well as in content based ESL (English as a Second Language) has consistently demonstrated that using the target language as a way of learning content is effective. While less research has been done in the use of CBI in EFL, the underlying principles involved in implementing CBI have led to it also being applied to EFL. In Israel the use of thematic units, which is a form of CBI, has long been a basis of our EFL teaching.


In the United States CBI in EFL is supported by the 1996 Standards for Foreign Language Learning. Research has been carried out in post-secondary foreign language contexts. This research shows that CBI results in language learning, content learning, increased motivation levels and a higher interest level. (Grabe and Stoller 1997). In England CBI is referred to as interdisciplinary instruction. It is becoming increasingly popular particularly at the Middle School level. This popularity has been fueled by a growing recognition that learning is improved when students are able to understand the underlying relationships that connect what they are taught from one class period to the next. ( Met 1996). In the Israeli elementary classroom this tenet underscores the interdisciplinary approach to the yearly theme. The English teacher also addresses the annual theme.


Both practice and theory support using CBI in EFL in the Israeli elementary classroom. The content area of holidays is an ongoing subject  which broadens the students self-knowledge basis while simultaneously increasing motivation, interest and acquisition of the English language.  


How this book is organized.


In compiling and writing this material I have tried to make it sufficiently lucid and comprehensive to meet the needs of the practising elementary English teacher. What is attempted here is two-fold access to information for the teacher and presentation to the pupil.


Each holiday begins with some background material for the teacher. The material is a quick summary to refresh the teachers mind of the different strands of the holiday.


A list of words or phrases (lexical items) is given for each holiday. At least one related activity (usually a word search) is provided. Word searches are always enjoyed by the students. However, it must be remembered that all activities need to have a language aim to them. I do not suggest that you simply take the word search and hand it to the pupils, but first think about the benchmark you are trying to achieve by giving the students this task. In the jargon of today even a word search needs to be purpose based.


Singing is a proven method used in language teaching. It familiarizes pupils with the sound of the language. Vocabulary acquisition is increased through exposure to the song lyrics. Words to songs are provided for each holiday. The methodology of teaching songs is probably known to all of you. To refresh your memories here is a basic method I have found successful. Pupils listen to the song (teacher sung or tape.) Teacher goes over the words. Song is taught line by line teacher sings first line, pupils repeat after her; teacher sings next line, pupils repeat after her; the 2 lines are sung together. This process is continued until the pupils are singing the entire song.


For many teachers the activity section will be the most important. The activities presented are graded according to level. Objectives are provided as are descriptions of the activity. Worksheets are also provided.


One activity mentioned throughout this book is Hangman (known as ish talui in Hebrew). Here is a short explanation of the activity for those of you who are unfamiliar with it. Choose a word (e.g. GAMES) and write it on the blackboard using a dash ( _ ) for each letter  (e.g. _ _ _ _ _ ).

Have pupils raise their hands and call out a letter. If the letter is in the word write it in its correct place. If the letter is not in the word start building a gallows and a stick figure of a man to be hanged. If 11 letters are called then the man will be hanged. The aim of the game is for the pupils to guess the word before they are hanged.


Some activities, such as Hangman described above, can be used for every festival. While many of the activities can be adapted and changed for different holidays, the aim of this book is to provide the teacher in the field with tailor made activities. Therefore, I have taken the liberty to repeat games for different holidays. As the classroom teacher keep a record of what activities you have used and vary them over the year.


Alternative assessment, continuous assessment, performance-based tasks, and portfolios are all concepts we are familiar with as we work towards implementing the National Curriculum which went into effect in September 2001. The portfolio is a way to unify the holidays presented throughout the year. Students can keep their work done in a portfolio. Teachers will have to provide guidelines of how this is to be done and to monitor it over the year. You will find a portfolio checklist in the last chapter of the book. Maintaining a portfolio is good training for junior high and high school. It can make the CBI carried out through the year more effective and meaningful. I have found that an on-going portfolio of this nature increases interest and motivation while fostering a sense of pride in the pupils work.  


Background information, lexical items, songs and activities are provided for each holiday of the Jewish people. The activities have been prepared to meet the guidelines set out in the English Curriculum. It is my hope that this resource book will allow the teacher to effectively prepare a lesson around a particular holiday.




The curricula referred to here are

                  Ministry of Education. (1988). English Curriculum for State Schools  and State Religious Schools, Grades 5-12 (new edition). Jerusalem, Israel: Ministry of Education.

                  Ministry of Education. ( 2001).  English Curriculum for All Grades : Principles and standards for Learning English as a Foreign Language in Israeli Schools. Jerusalem, Israel: Ministry of Education.



The materials in this book have been collected over a period of many years of teaching in the EFL classroom. I am indebted to colleagues and students for permission to use some of their activities. Each activity has been adapted to meet the demands of the English Curriculum used today in Israel.


Please feel free to use the work pages for classroom use only. Any other use will require copyright permission.


While compiling the following activities every effort was made to contact owners of possible copyright material. I would be pleased to hear from any copyright holder who could not be located.