Israel's Schools Are Flunking English, and Startup Nation Is Paying the Price

Israeli firms struggle to find candidates whose skills are up to par ■ ‘English is taught from second grade, but people can’t conduct a conversation’

Lior Dattel
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An English lesson in Israel.
An English lesson in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lior Dattel

When Avi (not his real name), a human resources manager at a high-tech company, sought last year to hire a project manager, he ended up rejecting his top pick because her written English was inadequate. He resumed the search and found that many candidates were incapable of drafting a proper letter or speaking the language fluently. Some didn’t know that sentences must begin with a capital letter, a function of their absence from the Hebrew alphabet.

“In the end, we filled the position abroad. Even among high-school graduates who took the five-unit English matriculation exam [the highest level], some were incapable of conducting a fluent conversation or writing properly,” Avi says.

“A few years ago, when we were looking for a receptionist, we interviewed candidates with five units in English. We asked each to write a letter, addressing it to ‘John.’ Nine out of 10 couldn’t spell the name,” Avi recalls. “None paid careful attention to grammar and some didn’t even know how to write ‘package.’ ... English is taught in schools from second grade, but people end up incapable of carrying on a conversation.”

The shortcoming is hurting high-tech, which already has a chronic shortage of skilled labor and has been moving jobs overseas as a result. “A high level of English is an essential skill for every employee. When the job market has become global and digital, English is even more important. Jobs that require a high level of English usually offer above-average salaries,” says Einav Boumfeld, content and research manager at the job site AllJobs.

AllJobs currently shows over 1,700 administrative positions requiring English at a high or native-speaker level, as well as more than 1,500 in finance and economics, some 1,300 each in sales and engineering and 100 in customer service. In advertising, electricity, construction and infrastructure, hundreds of positions require a good command of English.

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Data for 2018-20 collected by the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation, which conducts the psychometric exams taken by college applicants as well as the Amir and Amiram English placement exams, demonstrate the magnitude of the problem: One-third of high school graduates were unable to communicate in the language independently and fluently. The English of another 18% was insufficient for fluent communication. Only 15% demonstrated a high level of fluency.

The results included only applicants who took the exam in order to get an exemption from studying English. The level of English in the general population is presumably significantly worse.

The results are based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, used in many institutions of higher learning in Europe and elsewhere. It is slated to become the standard in Israel as well. The Education Ministry uses a simpler method, based on the extent of vocabulary acquired by the students at three progressive higher levels of about 650, 760, and 1,400 words.

That goes a long way to explaining the failure of English studies in Israel. Even if they take the five-unit matriculation exam and have learned about 3,000 words, high school graduates lack the tools to write and speak fluent English and compete with graduates in other developed countries.

English studies have suffered more during the coronavirus pandemic. The number of teaching hours in the schools and in remote learning were cut, with many schools choosing to reduce English hours.

Misleading numbers

On paper, English proficiency for high school graduates looks decent. In 2019, about 41% of high school graduates completed five units in English with an average grade of 87.5; 26% took the four-unit exam with an average grade of 77; and about 14.5% did the three-unit exam with an average grade of 87. But that doesn’t reflect the reality.

“Even the level of a student who completes a five-unit exam in English with excellence is not high enough for acceptance to the world’s best universities, according to the index generally used abroad,” says a source in the school system who asked not to be identified. “The teachers do what they can, but the demands made of the students are low, the curriculum doesn’t accord with international standards and the results are unsatisfactory. Along with crowded classrooms and the serious shortage of teachers who speak English at mother-tongue level, you would need a miracle in order to finish high school with English proficiency.”

A sixth grader who spoke to TheMarker confirms that. “We learn a little English in class, but we learn the most from American YouTube videos.” Another adds that “the English we learn in school is easy.”

To increase the number of highly skilled workers, the Education Ministry has shifted to emphasizing math studies, encouraging students to prepare for the five-unit exam. But in 2017, then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his director general, Shmuel Abuhav, proposed a comprehensive reform to English studies at a cost of about 70 million shekels ($21 million) a year.

The curriculum focused on spoken English, teacher training and recruiting, restructured exams to reflect the revamped method and increasing the number of those studying for the four- and five-point matriculation exam. The plan called for recruiting 4,000 new English teachers, who speak the language well, and about 2,000 assistants who speak at mother-tongue level, to help students practice.

It would have also offered stipends to college graduates who majored in English and work as English teachers, as well as funds to develop and buy learning materials, books, apps and films. All that in addition to increasing the number of teaching hours for English in junior high schools, starting English debate clubs in schools and adding an hour of instruction in high schools for practicing conversational English.

But only 13 million shekels were allocated to the program in the first year, and another 14 million shekels in the next. After Bennett’s departure, it was shelved altogether. More recently, Education Minister Yoav Gallant appointed a group to examine ways to improve English instruction in schools.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry says the poor scores don’t reflect the current situation in the schools. It has upgraded the level of studies over the last four years, which has borne fruit in increases in the percentage of graduates pursuing higher education and entering high-tech and the global job market.

“This success is due to the national program for the advancement of English teaching, which included measures to increase the number of those studying for the five-unit matriculation exam, which requires reading, writing and speaking skills. Additional steps were also taken, such as updating the curriculum, allocating additional study hours, developing computerized tests and building classroom libraries,” the ministry said.

Miriam Shtilman Lavsovski, chair of the Israeli High-Tech Association’s education committee and deputy CEO of the medical-imaging company Algotec, is very disturbed about the state of English studies. About two months ago the committee she heads began to promote supplementary English programs for soldiers and advanced English courses in the context of professional retraining. She has asked the Education Ministry to examine options for improving English in schools.

“I love the Hebrew language, but Israel can’t rely on a language that nobody else in the world speaks. We have a problem that is preventing us from opening up to the world. The modern global economy is English-speaking. It’s the language of business, knowledge and technology. Without a high level of English among the population as a whole we won’t be able to improve the country’s productivity,” says Shtilman Lavsovski.

Miriam Shtilman Lavsovski.Credit: Martin Bentsen

“Companies lacking employees who can speak English to suppliers abroad are in trouble, lawyers who don’t know English well won’t be able to work on international transactions, and students who rely only on information in Hebrew will have problems in their college studies.

“Even to be a waiter in the good restaurants in Tel Aviv you have to speak a high level of English. The Israeli economy has to develop English as the language of its work and business as other countries have done, and thanks to that have become centers of research, knowledge and international trade. Improving the level of English in Israel is the key to advancing the economy and improving productivity,” she says.

Are customer service jobs also going abroad?

“Customer service is the most extreme example. Israeli high-tech companies operate call centers in India and Latvia, although it’s a simple service. In Israel, it’s impossible to set up a call center for the rest of the world because there aren’t enough people who know English well. There are thousands of high-tech jobs that could stay in Israel, but they go abroad due to the lack of English. Companies want to broadcast professionalism, and can’t allow a situation in which the person answering the phone does so in a way that is seen as rude.”

Math isn’t enough

On the other hand, we’re progressing with five-unit math studies.

“But high-tech isn’t only engineers, there are supporting functions and it’s hard to fill them when people don’t know enough English.”

Why is that happening?

“There isn’t sufficient awareness of the problem. The government also works in Hebrew and many decision-makers aren’t English speakers themselves. It begins with the simple things. I think it’s a crime we’re getting children used to working with operating systems translated into Hebrew. There are high school graduates who don’t know how to work with an operating system in English and have to get used to the fact that suddenly everything is reversed. We can’t accept a situation in which students use a program with a Hebrew interface, because that’s no longer relevant to what’s happening in the real world.”

And if we increase the number of graduates doing five-unit English?

“That won’t be enough. The goal of the Education Ministry shouldn’t be graduates who can get by with English on their post-army trip, but preparing students to work at a job in English.”

How do we do that?

“We have to insist from an early age on the rules of grammar and correct writing, but also allow students to experience the language, and teach them the language that’s spoken in the real world, in the print media, too. The level must improve.”

Bella Abrahams, director of corporate public affairs at Intel Israel, says that learning English is more than simply a tool for getting a job. It’s also about creating equal opportunities and reducing social gaps.

“It’s a complex problem that affects all of Israeli society, not only the Education Ministry or high-tech companies,” adds Abrahams. “Schools that don’t insist on having the student learn English at the five-unit level are tracking them to not to go to university. A five-unit English exam should be the default level for all Israeli students. As a country, we have to make an effort to have all students know English at least at a five-unit level, so they can be accepted to academic institutions, and to workplaces and emerging industries that pay high salaries. ... There are very large salary gaps between people with a good command of English and those whose English is poor.

Bella Abrahams.Credit: Intel

“We like to call ourselves Startup Nation, and we’re competing in the global world. We have excellent human resources here that attract foreign companies to the country, so the more we increase employees’ skills, the more we’ll have to offer. Even people who aren’t trained as engineers can work in high-tech. Our integration into the global economy depends on our level of English.”

Abrahams says the Education Ministry must invest more in English teachers and increase the time spent teaching English and practicing speaking, reading and writing. She even proposes teaching other subjects in English to aid the effort.

Remote learning could also be brought in for the purpose. “We could have study groups with students from Israel and abroad and remain in contact with them. If lesson are already on Zoom, why limit them to the students in the class? We can also work with a child in Japan or Great Britain,” Abrahams adds.

Hadar Shemesh, an English communications coach who operates an online school for English studies, says her customers include politicians, media figures and people in high-tech. “Most of those who come to me struggle with speaking fluently. There’s a gap between the English they comprehend and the English that comes out of their mouths, sometimes due to a lack of confidence or a fear of speaking English,” she says.

“The problem begins with how English is taught in school, as a written rather than a spoken language. When you teach a language technically, the students have difficulty absorbing it. They don’t teach the language the way that it should be pronounced. Students are conscious of their accent and are afraid of making grammatical errors or not being understood. To reinforce language abilities you need a lot of experience in speaking but, lacking confidence, people don’t practice the language and they get stuck,” Shemesh explains.

Israeli schools in effect instill a fear of English conversation. “In English lessons they stress the rules of the language and the grammar, and teach with a binary approach of right and wrong. When the students grow up with this knowledge, they develop anxieties. People who speak English as a mother tongue don’t judge and criticize themselves when they speak and don’t count their mistakes.

“There are people who tell me that when they were in school the teacher laughed at their English in front of the class, and since then they don’t speak it. Bad teachers can scar students for life. Students have to make mistakes because that’s the only way they learn,” says Shemesh.

She says she would start training students in spoken language even before they start learning the alphabet, and leave more room for the oral use of the language. “When you learn something new, like the use of tenses, it’s not enough to ask the students to do exercises in their notebooks on the correct use of each tense, they have to practice by speaking.”

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