Good News, for a Change

While many of the problems we hear about in education are indeed genuine, for others home-grown solutions are already available.

The media - and educators in general - continue to spread a message of gloom, rather than hope, about the state of education in Israel. While many of the problems we hear about are indeed genuine, for others home-grown solutions are already available. But none are so blind as those who don't want to see.

For example, you have to read prestigious journals abroad to learn that the LITAF program developed by Israeli educator Nira Altalef has solved at least one of these local problems, having proved successful in teaching 95 percent of the children who have been exposed to it to read.

LITAF (an acronym for "Limmud Tippuli Pa'altani" - Active Therapeutic Instruction) originated in 1980, in a poor Tel Aviv neighborhood where two principals were desperately looking for a way to improve the situation in their failing schools. They turned to Altalef, then a junior high educational counselor, who had developed a program for teaching reading to heterogeneous groups of children. Her system worked, and as it helped turn those schools around, its realistic positive message spread.

More than a quarter century later, LITAF is applied in over 300 Israeli schools, and is used to teach reading to over 18,000 first graders per year, both Hebrew and Arabic speakers. For children who have already moved on to advanced grades without having mastered reading, Altalef also developed a remedial program called "TIKVA" (hope), based on the same principles, which has been similarly successful.

As an American-trained scientist who immigrated in 1950, and who founded the department of nuclear physics at the Weizmann Institute, I began to realize 30 years ago that Israel's schools were not providing the country's universities with the students we needed to build a society ready to meet the challenges, technological and otherwise, of the 21st century. It soon became evident that the trouble was at the bottom, not the top. Children who do not learn to read well enough in elementary school will not be able to cope with more difficult learning materials, and are doomed to end up as second-class citizens, unable to contribute to society according to their abilities.

In 1982 a group of us, including Rina Plesser, a secondary school teacher and assistant principal, decided to stop complaining, look for something that worked and give it our support. Nira Altalef had been awarded a prize by the president of Israel for her development of LITAF. She declared that it was the schools' responsibility to teach all children to read without help from their parents and that she knew how to do it. We contacted her and visited a first grade class where LITAF was in use, in a school in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood. Our immediate reaction was amazement. Rina exclaimed: "The children are learning! They're not throwing chairs."

Why is the system not more familiar in Israel? Since I first met Nira, I have observed the resistance she has encountered in the Education Ministry, where ideology and internal politics often seem to take precedence over objective evidence. Through no fault of her own, Nira got caught up in the ministry's ideological battle. Her colleagues in the elementary education department have long been aligned with the "whole language" camp in the U.S., which rejects the teaching of the alphabet, a basic element of LITAF. One consequence of their stubborn adherence to ideology has been the systematic suppression over several decades of test results that showed that an alarming number of seventh grade students could not read. Another has been the refusal to implement any remedial reading program intended to help those left behind join the mainstream.

A normal child entering first grade has in his or her brain an information-processing system far superior to any program being cooked up in Silicon Valley. LITAF exploits this by starting with 30 simple words in the pupil's commonly used vocabulary. These "memory-support" words include all the vowels and consonants, and remind the pupil when necessary of the sound of a letter.

LITAF divides the path to reading mastery into seven stages, through which every child can pass at his or her own individual rate. Some go through all of the stages very rapidly. Others are unable to grasp immediately how words break down into syllables and may spend months learning more words, making sentences and creatively writing paragraphs until ready for the next jump.

Although LITAF exploits simple features of Hebrew and Arabic, there may be useful lessons applicable to English. It has also had success in teaching Bible and literature in schools here, and there are indications it will work with math instruction as well.

A quarter of a century later, the lessons this innovative method of teaching has to offer are no less vital for our educational system than when it was first developed. Experience has shown that grass-roots communication between principals, teachers and parents in different schools leads to the spread of LITAF as long as schools are not under pressure from the ministry to avoid using it.

Giving kids a good chance to learn to read is giving them an opportunity to succeed in life, and that's about as valuable a gift as we can offer. For the rest of us, there's also a lesson to be learned: Education is too critical a mission for us to allow ourselves to be distracted by conflicts over power and ideology. The real test of an educational method should be success, and the time has come to acknowledge that LITAF has passed that test.

Harry (Zvi) Lipkin is professor emeritus of physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.