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Liat Peleg, a first-grade teacher at Katznelson School, in Givatayim, writes "Grandfather read Danny a story" (in Hebrew) on the blackboard and calls a group of students to the front of the room. After seating them on a bench, she asks them to split the words into syllables, and then to move on to sentence-completion and other exercises.

Reading, unlike other subjects, is taught in small groups of five or six students, according to their level of knowledge and the pace of their progress. A few minutes later, Peleg writes a different sentence on the board and calls up a new group. The ones in the first group return to their seats to work in their own workbooks.

Noa Katz, a student in the class, finishes her task, such as composing new sentences using the vocabular words, with relative speed. She says she began learning to read and write while still in kindergarten, adding: "Maybe by the middle of the first grade, or maybe in second grade, we will learn to write in script, not just printing. It's easier and faster to write in script," Noa says.

Some of her classmates need more time, but they complete their tasks on their own. A few wait for help from the teacher, who circulates among the groups. A few will postpone their tasks until later, perhaps as homework.

Even though 90 percent of the school's students will meet the Education Ministry standards for literacy fundamentals by the end of first grade, differences are already apparent among the students. Ten percent of the remainder will need extra assistance.

Of the 29 classroom hours, about 10 are dedicated to language acquisition. In second grade, that will drop to six hours. "You can't go any lower than that," Principal Maya Benvenisti says.

The gaps in native-language fluency - between children from different socioeconomic levels, between the best and the worst-performing students and between Arabs and Jews - show up as early as the first grade, and they only increase over time.

Recent weeks have seen the release of figures from Israeli as well as international tests, the results of which point to the existence of separate islands in what is purportedly a uniform, egalitarian land.

If schools are judged according to their ability to narrow the gaps between students from different backgrounds, among other criteria, then in the Israeli case the scores are quite low.

"The situation is catastrophic not only in the Arab sector, but also in relation to gaps in achievement on a socioeconomic basis within the Jewish sector," an Education Ministry official says.

On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, Israel ranked first of the 57 participating countries in terms of the "internal" gap between the best- and worst-performing students in the country.

The previous Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and PISA test exams were administered in 2001 and 2002. There was little change in Israel's relative place on the list, at the top of the bottom third. The responses from Education Ministry officials was also similar. "The moment of truth has arrived. The Education Ministry must deal with the failures of the students in a thorough manner," then Education Ministry Pedagogic Secretariat chairman Prof. Ya'akov Katz said in 2003 with regard to the PISA results.

For Education Ministry Yuli Tamir, last year's test results "underline the need for reform. One cannot make cosmetic changes in education." Both Katz, who worked under education minister Limor Livnat, and Tamir point to the country's junior high schools as the stage that shapes the failure of Israel's students.

Prof. Dorit Ravid of Tel Aviv University's Constantiner School of Education, Department of Communications Disorders, disagrees. "If they were to claim that there isn't enough money and the state can only invest in one stage of the education process in regard to language and literacy, then my unequivocal recommendation would be to invest in the elementary schools. That is the core of our problems. We fail at PISA simply because the children who failed at PIRLS in the fourth grade are older. Fourth grade is the 'watershed,'" Ravid said. "In terms of cognitive, language and literacy development, the students go from learning to read and write to a situation of reading and writing in order to learn."

In the PIRLS test, students respond to questions relating to various text passages. In addition to the overall test score, grades are given for reading for both "literary experience" and for information acquisition," in addition to the use of specific reading skills and strategies.

The average Israeli student scored 512 points, on a scale of 0 to 1,000 - 31st out of the 45 states and entities that participated. In reading for "literary experience," the Israelis averaged 516 points (30th place), while in reading for "information acquisition" the score was 507 (32nd place). The literary texts were illustrated short stories with different plots and characters. The "scientific" text" included science, geography and other areas, with accompanying maps, diagrams, photographs, tables and other visual guides. The Israelis scored higher on questions that tested the complex skills of "interpreting and intergrating ideas" and "examining or evaluating text features" than on those that tested the less complex skills of "focusing on and retrieving specific information" and "making straightforward inferences" (516 and 507 points, respectively).

The message, not the details

"In the past, textbooks did not sufficiently expose the students to scientific text," Prof. Ilit Olstein of the Hebrew University School of Education, one of two Israeli researchers for the PIRLS test, says to explain the differences between the grades for the two types of reading. Comprehending scientific texts, she adds, "requires the ability to make logical connections. The students must, for example, understand the meaning of terms such as "were it not for" and "notwithstanding." In contrast, the comprehension of literary texts is simpler." Regarding the difference in the grades for reading skills, Olstein says, "the children understand the whole better. They can answer questions such as 'what is the message of the story' or explain their own position toward it. However, there is not enough precise reading of all the details of the text. More emphasis must be placed on having the students relate to exact details, not just general messages."

"Our students don't manage to create the internal connections within the story, between the words, phrases and sentences, that are necessary for total comprehension," Ravid says. "We must remember that God is in the details," she adds.

According to the Chair of the Pedagogic Secretariat, Prof. Anat Zohar, the language curriculum introduced into the country's Jewish education sector about three years ago deals with these issues. She says the equivalent program for the Arab sector should be completed within a few months.