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About one-quarter of all seventh-graders who were tested for learning disabilities were found to have reading difficulties and failed to meet Education Ministry milestones. During the 2005-06 school year, the tests were administered to about 28,000 students, out of a total of approximately 75,000 Jewish seventh-graders countrywide, in schools participating in a ministry program to identify and work with children with learning disabilities.

According to the test results, about 10 percent of the students tested appeared to have a learning disability ¬while another 15 percent have reading difficulties. Additional testing is needed to confirm the results.

The ministry plans to expand the testing program to additional schools and to lower grades.

About 20 percent of students who took the Bagrut matriculation exams last year received various accommodations to compensate for learning disabilities.

The test given to the seventh-graders examines reading and reading comprehension. It evaluates letter recognition, word and sentence comprehension, reading speed and other aspects of reading.

"A seventh-grader should be able to read freely, automatically," Dr. Yehudit El-Dor, who heads the ministry's division for learning disability, explained.

"About 25 percent of the children have difficulty reading, which may be expressed in reading relatively slowly, in failing to comprehend word meaning, and the like," El-Dor said.

She said that while reading difficulties among the children with learning disabilities are caused by a neurological disturbance, which is usually accompanied by difficulties with writing and other skills, for the students with reading difficulties, but no learning disability, the reason may be a cultural deficit, overall low ability or inadequate teaching. Each cause must be treated differently.

"A child who was not exposed to reading at home, or who doesn't get books from the library regularly, develops a gap in his or her reading ability," El-Dor says.

"This is a cultural deficit. Other reasons can include emotional problems that prevent the child from focusing on study, or inadequate teachers during the initial stages of reading. When this happens in the lower grades and no one realizes it, a significant gap, amounting to one or two years, can develop," El-Dor said.

The ministry program includes an initial evaluation of failing students, a school-wide intervention program and in-service training for teachers. Individual and group programs are tailored to the needs of each student. The ministry is currently drafting a program to identify learning disabilities in reading, writing, English language skills and mathematics.

"The earlier we can identify learning disabilities, the more effective the treatment will be," Education Ministry Director Shmuel Abuav said. "These children have potential and ability, but they are not expressed. Early detection releases this blockage and enables students with learning disabilities to succeed in their studies," Abuav said.