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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unseens: How NOT TO learn English in Israel

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If you're a native English speaker, you've probably never heard of unseens.  I sure hadn't.  But if you are coming here with school-aged kids, you’d better find out quickly, because sooner or later, you’re going to have unseens in your life, too.

The first year I was volunteering to teach English in our local public library, my first kid sat across from me and said we needed to practice unseens.

Now, at this point, I barely understood Hebrew, so I had absolutely no idea what word he was saying.

"What?" I asked.
"Ansinz."  Like it was obvious.
"What?" Me again, in full idiot mode with this fifteen-year-old boy.
"Ensigns."  Now that sounded like an English word... but nothing at all that I could connect with learning the language.

I seem to recall that he had a book with him and at some point, he decided it was easier just to SHOW me what he meant by pulling out the book.

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(See?  Unseens! What’s so hard to understand about that???)

Thus, I was introduced to the word of unseens, otherwise known as, "the way most Israelis learn English."
Otherwise known as, "the reason most Israelis don't speak or understand English."

It's true: I believe that unseens MAY be the single biggest obstacle between Israeli schoolchildren, who generally spend ten years learning English, and the mastery of the English language.  The only reason I say MAY is because the biggest might be English teachers who are afraid to speak English because they don’t know it well enough.

I mention this here – I actually wasn’t sure which blog to post this to because my other blog, Adventures in Mamaland has far more education-related posts – because a lot of English speaking olim wonder how it is that kids here spend ten years ostensibly learning English, and in many parts of the country, STILL come away knowing virtually nothing and unable to carry on even a basic conversation in English.

The Israeli Ministry of Education has recently called for something like 6,000 new English teachers.  Some friends of mine, native English speakers, are actually doing a free upgrading program this year that lets olim turn almost any Bachelor’s degree into a teaching certificate.  The Ministry is emphasizing fluency in spoken English as a goal for grads, which is fantastic.

In the meantime, what they have is unseens.

So what are unseens?

In the early grades, kids learn English the way you'd expect kids to learn any language.  Bright, colourful textbooks full of pictures of British or American children frolicking at school, at home, in the playground.  They read short selections about the London Eye, rollercoasters, and Robin Hood.  You know, all the ingredients of your basic English-speaking childhood.

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(feeling kind of depressed that GZ has been reading for 7 years and these pictures are straight out of the text he has to use for English… but here in the periphery there are no special native-speaker English classes…)

But somewhere between Grade Six and Grade Eight, things get serious, and it's time to start with UNSEENS.
Being good at unseens involves being able to read a section of informational text and then answer a series of questions which usually ascend in difficulty.

For some reason, the text must be about something kids have absolutely zero interest in - like the history of libraries, or a guy in Maine who collects buttons.  Nothing at all like what they might read on their own, given a choice.

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(this one’s about the history of libraries)

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Note that the questions often have line numbers next to them, like this: (lines 5-10).  So all students really have to do is scan the lines indicated to find the answer.

Once unseens come into the picture, the other stuff may still be part of the English curriculum, but the major emphasis is on learning unseens.  And the very best English teachers, at least, the ones most appreciated by their students, are the ones who can give students the best tips for acing unseens.

Here are the tips my students seem to be following for acing unseens:
1) Don't read the text - it's a waste of time.  If you wish, you may glance at the title.
2) Scan the first question.
3) Find the answer in the lines indicated.
4) Repeat.
5) Later questions are free-response as opposed to multiple choice.  But you can copy the words from the text itself.
6) Repeat until you have aced English!

The scary thing is, I know most of these tips because they're exactly how my ulpan teacher emphasized that we should approach the "reading comprehension" portion of our ulpan exam.  Don't read it!  Oh, my goodness, no.  Skim the text, looking for dates and things in quotation marks.  (Hebrew doesn't have capital letters, so lots of names are in quotation marks where they wouldn't be in English.)  If line numbers aren't given for the answers, remember that the first questions usually ask about the first part of the text, and later questions about the later parts.

And there you go - an infallible guide for succeeding in English in Israel.
The only thing you will NOT have accomplished in this way is... attain any sort of fluency in English.

Of course, some degree of "teaching to the test" can happen in any subject, especially one in which there are standardized exams at the end of the high school.  But mostly, unseens just seem like a crutch of weak English teachers who do not want to venture too far beyond the four corners of a page of printed English text and who certainly wouldn’t want to teach their kids how to not sound like great big dummies if they were dropped on a street corner in New York, London, or Toronto. 

Which, by the way, many Israelis dream of being – so it’s worth teaching them how to speak properly.  In fairness, there is an oral and listening component to the English bagrut (standardized exam at the end of high school).  It is my understanding from my students – and from the emphasis their teachers place on “reading comprehension” that it is a far less important part of the grade.

By the way, in case you’re thinking this paucity of richness and depth in English education exists only in high school – guess again.  I just did a paper on academic English in Israel, and I won’t bore you with all the details, but a 2017 paper I found mentioned only one English-writing course for native Hebrew speakers, “Communication in English for Scientists and Engineers,” which is offered at the Technion (Rakedzon & Baram-Tsabari, 2017) .  Another paper I found mentioned that at one of the country’s major universities (I’m guessing Hebrew U in Jerusalem, because that’s where the author is currently located), “…there is absolutely no content relating to writing in English within the mechina [science preparatory] courses – even though all these students will have to write papers in English for masters’ degrees, and are increasingly being expected to write essays in English in first degree [baccalaureate] courses” (Goodman, 2016, p. 95).

S0, yeah.  Even at the university level, Israeli students are not getting the English they need to promote themselves and their work on an international stage.  Or to win grants.  Or to apply to graduate programs abroad.  Or to publish in major journals.  Or just to sound reasonably articulate on their Facebook page.

By the way, I found it disheartening that most research on English education in Israel focuses on disparities between Arab native-speaking students and Hebrew native-speaking students.  It’s true that Arab-speaking students are at a disadvantage here.  In addition to spoken Arabic, they must learn classical written Arabic, which is considered a second language, and many learn Hebrew as well, so by the time they come to English, it’s a third or fourth language, possibly putting them behind native-Hebrew speakers.  In addition, if there is a shortage of native-English teachers in Jewish schools, in Arabic schools there is an almost total absence; this is certainly another axis of disadvantage.  I’m not denying these disparities, but frankly, many native-Hebrew speakers are olim whose first language is Amharic or Russian.  Frankly, all the kids here need every advantage they can get, starting with teachers who are not afraid to actually teach the language, not fall back on tools designed to distance students from the language.

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(This one is designed to make the film industry sound like the dullest thing in the world.)

All of this really doesn’t have a lot to do with English, except that I happen to love English and wish it was taught better so it could be pleasant and fun for everyone involved.  I know it’s pure happenstance that English is the dominant language in the academic world today.  As times change, the next big language could be Arabic or Mandarin or Hindi; if and when that happens, I’ll have to roll with it and get fluent myself.

Until then… we have unseens, holding back yet another generation of Israeli kids.

I’d love to hear about positive deviants and great English teachers – share your experiences in the comments!


Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


3 comments:

  1. Please don't get me started... I taught English here and have nothing good to say about the system, except that the kids can be fun and adorable, especially when meeting them after they graduate.

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  2. I'm hoping to make aliyah in the next year or so and I'd love to teach English. I've taught science at the college level and I've subbed in K-12 schools. I've also had hundreds of articles published in magazines and newspapers. Maybe I can make a difference and be useful. I'd love to know more about where I can access training to get certified to teach English in Israel. I am a bit concerned however as I'm late middle-aged and I've heard that Israeli employers may be even more ageist than US ones which doesn't bode well for me. I suppose if I find one that values experience over youth I'll be OK.

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  3. The way I've been teaching reading comprehension is by teaching how a paragraph is formed. I give exercises on how to find a topic sentence and how to write one. I teach linking words and give exercises on the difference between "although," "despite," and "however" (for example). I teach the student to summarize each paragraph in a few words, so that later it's easier to understand what the entire essay was about. All this to say -- now I feel bad; I should've been teaching them to read the questions first.

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I'd love to hear what you have to say.

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