Just like every year, at the first meeting of my school’s English team, our team coordinator updated us about the Education Ministry’s changes for the coming year. One of the most "meaningful" changes for us this year was that starting in the next school year, all our students will take their oral matriculation exams not with an actual living and breathing teacher, but sitting opposite a computer. Students will be tested with the help of either Skype or an avatar.
Over the last few years, the education minister and his officials have been trying to convince us that we should focus on communication skills when we teach our students. The very fact that the only test that allows actual interhuman communication between a teacher and students is replaced by a computerized test is very symbolic for the frivolous and unprofessional way in which the ministry’s language teaching policies are designed and dictated. There is a clear dissonance between the ministry’s declared goals for English learning and its actual policies.
Earlier this year, Shmuel Abuav, the Education Ministry’s director general (whom I admire and respect, let that be clear), sent a personal letter to all English teachers. After Mr Abuav stressed how important and dear the Hebrew language is to us, he expressed his appreciation for the work of the English teachers, and stressed how important it is—both on a personal and national level—that students learn English well. He then wrote that, on the subject of English learning, Minister Bennett had decided “on a change in approach, moving from a pedagogical focus on systematic, syntactic and grammatical English to fluent English, spoken from people's mouths.”
Let’s forget for one moment that fluent English usually is grammatical somehow, that the new methods of assessing the spoken English skills of our students totally contradict that phrase (“from people's mouths”), or that the sheer size of most classes (in my case, 30 students are considered a small class) makes it rather difficult to teach fluent speaking effectively during class hours.
What is way more important and worrying, is that we see here a zero-sum type of thinking that does not sit well with what most experts say about language learning. Learning a language is a holistic, gradual process, and all its aspects and elements should be addressed and developed for a language learner to be able to communicate well in a specific language.
Yes, fluency has to be developed, but only on the basis of actual knowledge of the language. Paul Nation, one of the world’s most respected experts on language learning, defines fluency as learners “becoming more fluent in using the language they already know; that is, making the best use of what they have already learned.”
Nation defined four vital strands of language learning: learning through reading and listening; learning through speaking and writing; language-focused learning: spelling, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary; becoming fluent in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Of these four strands, language-focused learning is actually the most time-efficient component.
Ideally, each of the four elements should occupy about a quarter of class time to make the learning as efficient as possible. None of the strands can or must be taught at the expense of one of the others. In reality, most of our students who enter high school do not have a strong basis in English, and still, for many different reasons (among which the English literature program, within the framework of which much of the class time in 10th and 11th grade is devoted to a small number of literary pieces, and hardly to actually learning the English language itself), many of the students who did not acquire a rich language until high school will not do so in those three years either.
David Crystal, another well-known English language expert, provided another relevant reason why teaching “systematic, syntactic and grammatical English” is important after all. He wrote that grammar is necessary for language to make sense and avoid misunderstandings. In his opinion, a standard grammar is especially needed “in a highly diversified society … to facilitate intelligible supra-regional communication, nationally and internationally.” Most Israelis are not bad at all in communicating. If they respected and followed rules a bit more—in English as elsewhere—their communication skills might improve surprisingly.
The fact that the Hebrew of most young Jewish Israelis becomes poorer and poorer (I don’t know what the situation is for Arab students and their knowledge of Arabic) also affects their (lack of) success in learning a foreign language. You cannot expect a native Hebrew speaker who has hardly any reading skills and a very limited vocabulary and only a rudimentary knowledge of grammar in his mother tongue to be able to truly master a foreign language, using it to write and speak it fluently, precisely and appropriately.
Language learning is not a startup. There is no quick exit. It is not a matter of either this or that. When we talk about learning languages within the educational system, students have to pass through certain phases of development and learning—both in their mother tongue and with foreign languages—in order to become successful language learners and users. This means that the whole approach of language teaching (Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and G’d willing more languages) in Israel has to change, if we want that teaching to become more efficient and professional.
The writers of the new English curriculum (well established academic experts and experienced, professional teachers) clearly realize this, but so far we do not see that understanding in what is dictated to us from above every year. As long as the ministry keeps coming up with only cosmetic and bureaucratic changes, and while the person who heads it deals mainly with slogans and tweets rather than with revolutionizing the essence of language learning in this country, we can keep on dreaming about English learning and teaching one day becoming yet another Israeli success story.
The author is a historian and an English teacher at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. He writes a weekly column in the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad.