Kids Who Can't Read in School, Grow Up to Be College Students Who Can't Write

Israeli students are among the best in the world, says Professor Ron Barkai, a historian from Tel Aviv University. "I've taught abroad, and nowhere have I seen such open, mature, involved and dedicated students." But upon reviewing his prized students' term papers, Barkai feels frustrated.

"Most of them suffer from the same problem," he complained. "They are unable to write. They cannot put together a sentence and present a coherent argument in print."

Year after year, Barkai complains to his students about their lack of writing skills. But if you ask him, they are not to blame.

"In Israel, pupils don't learn how write," he said. "In France, for example, they give this issue tremendous attention. If you graduate from high school, you know how to write an essay and how to organize conflicting arguments about any given subject. In Israel, students begin to learn in university what they should have mastered in high school."

Many senior lecturers from various institutes of higher education echo Barkai's grievances. Students' poor writing skills are especially noticeable in the humanities - literature, philosophy and history. Lecturers in those fields speak of broken Hebrew laden with grammatical mistakes and formulated with utter obliviousness to style and precision.

"The Israeli student has a poor level of writing. It's worse than anyplace I know abroad, and it's getting still worse," said Professor Menachem Perry of Tel Aviv University's department of literature.

"They don't seem very sensitive to what good Hebrew should sound and look like," he added. "They use foreign and monotonous structures. Maybe it's because language is deteriorating in the press as well. It's also reflected in the books they read."

Literacy experts in the education system speak of problems on all textual levels, from single words to the general grammatical structure of student essays. It begins with depleted vocabularies, arbitrary punctuation and foreign expressions imported from English, and continues with the content itself. Many students, say lecturers, are incapable of presenting an eloquently constructed argument.

Aliza Lazarsson of Bar-Ilan University's teacher training program said that although these problems are prevalent in many countries in the West, the state of affairs in Israel is particularly bad.

"Look at how students structure their writing. It's a mess," she said. "They are incapable of identifying convoluted or ill-constructed sentences. I try to tell them to think twice when writing, but they take the easy way out and put down the first word that comes to their minds."

Budget cuts in programs for teaching academic writing have not improved matters, said Dr. Shoshan Brosh-Weitz, who headed Tel Aviv University's department of academic literacy before it was closed down in 2003. But he agreed that the real problem starts at school. "High school students in Israel write something like four papers a year, compared to the 40 in Britain," he said.

Lazarsson concurred, but added that poor writing skills among teachers are part of the problem. "Many teachers aren't capable of analyzing text. I wouldn't want my children to study with them," she said.

Despite this, matriculation grades for Hebrew writing have remain steady in recent years, with pupils receiving higher marks in this than in other subjects. Last summer, the average grade on the Hebrew matriculation exam was 76.