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Why Israelis can’t write

If we're the people of the book, why aren't resources being allocated toward improving writing?
Illustrative: A student writing. (Getty images)
Illustrative: A student writing. (Getty images)

If you studied in an Israeli high school, then you probably can’t write an essay like this in Hebrew. The Israeli school system doesn’t teach writing and that’s something that should concern us.

I know. I know. Another article about the horrors of the Israeli school system. We’ve been inundated with international studies showing that Israeli students lag behind other nations in math, classes are overcrowded, violence is rampant, and teachers are underpaid and overworked.

There’s another big problem that rarely gets mentioned. Many Israelis can’t write properly. No, I’m not talking about writing in English — that’s another story. I’m talking about writing in Hebrew, our national language.

Nowhere is the deemphasis on writing more apparent than in the mandatory high school matriculation exams (bagrut). The “bagruts” are the culmination of all the work a student has completed throughout his elementary and high school education. The Hebrew bagrut includes one composition section in which students must write two essays ranging from 500-700 words. An essay shorter than the length of this article is all we expect today from our 18-year-olds, after 14 years of schooling.

I’m not an expert on the educational system. But having had two children study on and off in the Israeli and US school system — both private and public — enabled me to witness firsthand differences in national curriculum priorities. Nowhere was the difference more striking than in teaching writing.

Attention to writing began early in the US school system. Studying in a third-grade public school, my son was expected to write every day in his “author’s notebook,” Once a week, the teacher looked at the notebook and wrote comments, usually encouraging at this grade level. My son loved writing in his notebook, just as I had at his same age. Indeed, it was that youthful writing that began my lifelong love of the activity. By fourth grade, he was required to write several 500-word reports on a book of his choosing. These reports were carefully edited by his teacher.

As students got older, they were expected to write more complex essays. In sixth grade at a Jewish day school, my daughter was required to produce a five-page research paper on a topic of her choosing. That meant by age 12, she had already mastered writing a paper twice the length required by an 18-year-old Israeli. Back in Israel for seventh grade, my daughter, and the rest of her class, were told by the homeroom teacher that the two most important classes for academic success were English and Math. Nothing was said about improving writing or, for that matter, reading skills.

Returning to America for tenth grade, my daughter took an American History class where she had to produce a 10-page research paper. Her topic, the history of American food, required reading several books and conducting Internet research. In addition, she had to learn the correct format for footnotes. She received inline comments and a page of notes from her teacher.

Had she stayed on in the United States for 11th and 12th grade, she would have been expected to write several lengthy literary papers in English class and additional papers in other social science classes.

Yet back in Israel for her last two years in high school, her writing in all subjects was limited to a few hundred words. The emphasis was on teaching the subject matter, not the writing itself. This was true even though her concentration was not math or science, but history.

Writing is not an easy subject to teach or to learn. It is a muscle that strengthens upon exercise and the help of a good coach. Grading writing takes teachers significantly more time than, say, grading a math or science test. In Israeli schools, where some Hebrew teachers have classes with 30 or 35 students, it is unrealistic to burden them with so much after-school work. Certainly not at current salary levels and work schedules.

But attempts could be made to hone writing skills for smaller numbers of interested and gifted students. Many such programs exist in computer science and math because these subjects are viewed as a national priority for our so-called start up nation. Yet I’m not aware of any resources, governmental or private, being allocated toward improving writing.

Meanwhile, students who are not gifted in math or hard sciences, are losing the chance to learn a marketable skill. Knowing how to write well is essential not only for a career in communications. It’s also important for academics, lawyers, businessmen and bureaucrats — to name but a few professions. Writing also has an important role in many high-tech jobs such as technical writers and content providers.

Finally, knowing how to write well in Hebrew is integral to our ethnic and religious identity. We need to ensure there will be writers who will continue to produce Hebrew literature and nonfiction and original web content.

The Jews, as the cliché goes, are the people of the book. But without our schools teaching proper writing skills one day that might no longer be true.

About the Author
Former journalist -- The Washington Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Women's International Net -- among others. Co-author -- Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford, 2001), Hating America (Oxford, 2003). Completed the Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan.
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