Israel Plans to Up Kids' English With New 'Give Me Five' Program

Kids to get more lessons, better teachers and will have to take actual tests in spoken English

A boy places books on classroom tables before a lesson at Moaz Hatorah, an all-boys school, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Israel July 12, 2017. Picture taken July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Nir Elias
NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

Israeli school children need to learn English much better than they do now, says the Education Ministry, and laid out a comprehensive plan dubbed "Give Me Five", including starting lessons in elementary school and improving the quality of the teaching. The focus will be placed on spoken English, according to the plan it announced on Wednesday morning.

Improving the quality of teaching will involve hiring a thousand more English teachers, Israeli and foreign, plus 950 fluent teaching assistants.

Another change will be that the oral matriculation exam for English will be held by Skype or some other electronic means: the conversation will still take place, but will be recorded.

At the present, oral English testing is unreliable and the scores are automatically too high, explains Education Ministry Naftali Bennett. "It feels like a walk in the park," he said, rather than bringing the student to a place where they can actually speak well.

Moving to a digital format will enable better supervision of the testers, who will be able to evaluate the pupil in real time by Skype or some sort of taped test, Bennett said. "A whole generation grew up here knowing only present simple. I want to grow a generation that knows how to speak English," he said.

Also, eighth-grade pupils undergoing Meitzav testing will also have to undergo oral English testing.

The ministry's ultimate goal is to boost the number of pupils who study English as a major in school (in Israeli terms, that means taking a matriculation test of 4 or 5 points). Right now, 62% of all Israeli high-school students take matriculation tests in English, at a level of 4 or 5 points. The ministry hopes to boost that to 70% in four years.

It bears saying that admission to university in Israel is contingent on matriculating at least 4 points in English.

Pupils in grades 10 to 12 will be getting a lot more study hours in English, and all Grade 10 pupils will be taking a special 30-hour course.

Even before that, in 9th grade, the debates and national competitions already held in English will be expanded.

Seventh graders will be given a class, one hour a week, on conversation skills in English, and classroom English-language libraries will be made available from grade 4.

The new plan is supposed to roll out this academic year, which starts this Friday. The ministry estimates that it will cost about 70 million shekels – which it will have to take from its own budget. In other words, something else will fall by the wayside.

Students who choose to learn English teaching as a profession will be eligible for scholarships worth 21,000 shekels – but the threshold for acceptance into teacher training will be raised.

While the ministry may have its plans about improving the quality of teachers, Prof. Yaara Bar-On, president of the Oranim teacher training school, says she hasn't heard a word about it. Oranim's standards for accepting students to train as teachers are higher than the ministry requires, Bar-On said – and agrees with the consensus, she says, that teacher quality needs to improve. "The most important thing is for English teachers not to make mistakes that trip up their students," she told Haaretz.

Bar-On also feels that the level of English matriculation exams is too low, and raising that is more important than making more kids take the test.