Over the past three or four years, the teaching of English at the Retamim elementary school in Ashdod has been stepped up. Classes now begin in the first grade, and by the second grade pupils know the ABC's and are capable of putting together monosyllabic words. A year later they are expected to delve deeper into reading and writing English, which is normally reserved for the fourth grade.

Natalie Berg, one of the English teachers at the school, says that the accumulated experience suggests that "children that began studying English early achieve higher scores in later grades, in the region of 87-90."

Education Ministry experts, as well as some of the researchers in academia, are less convinced about the inherent value of learning English earlier, but they are hapless when confronted by the prevalent opinion supporting such approach, and of course the demands of parents.

In light of this, officials at the Ministry of Education are examining the possibility of formally introducing - in all elementary schools - the teaching of English in the third grade, instead of the current fourth.

"In any case, this is the situation in most schools already," a source at the Education Ministry said, "and it is best to adapt to it rather than fight it."

In an official statement yesterday, the Education Ministry said that "professionals are currently holding renewed discussions on whether to introduce the teaching of English in first and second grades, but no decision has been reached on the matter."

"Parents are demanding that English be taught as early as first grade," said an elementary school principal from the Tel Aviv region, who agreed to be interviewed only if her anonymity was guaranteed. "Learning of English has become a status symbol, which also impacts on the image of the school and the demand to be enrolled in it. Some parents began sending their children to learn English in kindergarten. It is impossible to oppose such demand, even if I do not really believe in it."

At Retamim in Ashdod, parents were active participants in the decision to begin teaching English in the first grade, and have even contributed to paying for the extra hours.

"The grassroots led the demand, and the Education Ministry is cooperating," said Shosh Ben-Shimon, a school principal.

According to Education Ministry data, first graders during the current school year are taught English in 33 percent of the elementary schools. The figures rise to 49 percent of second grades, and for the third grades to about 87 percent.

However, the data reflecting national figures hide the great discrepancy based on region and community: in Jewish public and national religious communities, the teaching of English in first and second grades ranges between 40 percent and 60 percent, while for third grades it is nearly 100 percent.

On the other hand, in the first two grades in elementary school in Arab communities, English is taught in about 10 percent of the schools, while in the third grade it is taught in approximately 60 percent of the schools.

Geographically, the southern district sticks out as having a very high number of Jewish schools where English is taught in the first grade.

At Retamim, English is taught in first and second grades two hours a week. In the first grade the learning is mostly through songs and different activities.

"I love you - and you love me," sings Adva Katz to her pupils, who then repeat it.

Later she uses large drawings to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The children are asked to describe what they see in each drawing: a big bear, a big bowl, etc.

In second grade the pupils use workbooks for calligraphy - "moving in the direction of the arrows, from the top to the bottom," instructs Berg on how to write the letter C.

Songs are also used at this level. Michelle Shamnov, one of the pupils in the class, says that she especially likes English lessons because "this way it is possible to learn different things. There are also many people who do not understand Hebrew, and in English it is possible to talk with them."

"They say that the pupils enjoy learning English a great deal in the lower grades," says Professor Ilit Olstein of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an expert in the learning of foreign languages. "This is true but also obvious: songs and games are a great deal of fun. International studies show that starting early does not necessarily guarantee success.

"In Canada, for example, no advantage was found in pupils who started in lower grades compared to those who did so at the age of 12, and who very quickly catch up to that which their colleagues have learned at an earlier age. In the end, they reach the same point."

Olstein believes that the study of a foreign language needs to be intensive.

"Two hours a week is simply not enough," he said. "If someone really wants to improve the learning of English, it is best to invest in offering more teaching hours from the age of 10, when the children are more capable of absorbing the material. Teaching [a foreign language] to first and second graders may interrupt the command of the first language. But I have given up explaining this. Public opinion and myths determine policy."