English Learners' Dictionaries
in the Israel School System
The Israel Ministry of Education and
Culture has had a good deal of experience in the use of dictionaries
in English matriculation exams. Following a general decision
to allow the use of auxiliary material during examinations in
all subjects, students in English were allowed, beginning in
the mid-1970s, to use a monolingual English learner's dictionary,
such as Oxford Student's Dictionary or Oxford Advanced Learner's
Dictionary. This was both at the "Ordinary Level" (the
so-called 4 Points examination) and at the higher "Advanced
Level" (5 Points).
The students gained a greater feeling of security by being allowed
to use a dictionary in the examination, and thus the compilers
of the test passages and questions were able to select more difficult
and authentic material for the exams. In addition, there were
extensive repercussions in the classroom. A top-to-bottom reform
such as this introduced from "above" brought about
extensive changes in the curriculum and in classroom techniques,
and led to exercises and instructions in textbooks on the use
of dictionaries. It also resulted in teachers educating pupils
in dictionary-using techniques, and pupils using a dictionary
in class and for homework.
Nevertheless, the English-English learner's dictionary, although
written in simplified language, did not prove to be up to expectation
in use and led to student dissatisfaction. Since it imposes a
rigid ban on translation, students would get a general idea of
the meaning only - the "fluency" or "pragmatic
competence", as posited by current theories of communicative
competence. Yet what they wanted to know was the exact meaning
of the headword.
At the same time, feedback from research in reading comprehension
at Haifa and Tel Aviv Universities - and from classroom experience
in schools - became available. This showed conclusively that
the most effective way of determining whether a text has been
correctly comprehended is to elicit responses in the mother tongue
rather than in the foreign language (English in this case). These
researches confirmed current psycholinguistic theory, which views
the mother tongue as a positive element in foreign language learning
and which calls upon teachers to drop their educational pretence
that the learner has no mother tongue.
All changes in education proceed slowly and by a process of persuasion.
Even the "top-to-bottom" reform of allowing dictionaries
in the examination room took two or three years of work to prepare
teachers for the change. The Ministry was persuaded by the results
of these researches and feedback to allow the English-English-Hebrew and English-English-Arabic dictionaries (published by Kernerman
Publishing) for use in the "Ordinary
Level" English exam. The monolingual dictionary was, however,
still specified for the "Advanced Level" test.
This change was introduced in 1988 and proved very successful.
It clearly responded to student needs, both in class and in the
examination room. The only difficulty was for the new immigrant
pupils, of whom there are a large number in the Israeli educational
system, whose mother tongue is neither Hebrew or Arabic. For
them, English is the third language, not the second. They are
allowed to use an ordinary English-Russian or English-Amharic
dictionary. However, where they do use the semi-bilingual dictionary,
their Hebrew improves due to the definitions and the example
sentences in English, whereas using the bilingual dictionary
often results in uncertainties.
The same arguments and researches that led to the introduction
of the semi-bilingual dictionary at the "Ordinary Level",
together with the ongoing classroom experience of teachers and
pupils, have recently led the English Committee of the Ministry
of Education to decide to replace monolingual with semi-bilingual
dictionaries also at the "Advanced Level" starting
in 1996. This committee was chaired by Professor Bernard Spolsky,
the internationally known applied linguist, and consisted of
teachers, teacher-trainers, university lecturers and Ministry
inspectors. The decision has been welcomed enthusiastically by
both the teaching profession and the students.
I believe that this Israeli experience will prove of interest
to educators in other countries as well.
Raphael Gefen was formerly Chief Inspector
for English at the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture,
and currently lectures at the School of Education of the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem.
K Dictionaries Ltd
10 Nahum Street, Tel Aviv 63503 Israel
tel: 972-3-5468102 fax: 972-3-5468103