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Canadian ex-pat helps spread English literacy in Israel

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Gaila Cohen-Morrison

Hebrew and Arabic may be the two most commonly spoken languages in Israel, but English literacy is critical for economic and professional success in the Jewish state, according to Gaila Cohen-Morrison, the director of Ahava.

This Israeli-based non-profit organization promotes English literacy by providing English-language classes to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

Cohen-Morrison, a teacher from Montreal who has been living in Israel for almost 40 years, founded Ahava in 2000. Ahava is actually the English transliteration of a Hebrew acronym meaning “English learned in a natural way.”

Cohen-Morrison visited Toronto recently, as part of a North American fundraising mission. Her goal was to raise awareness about Ahava and the importance of affordable and effective English-language education in Israel.

When Cohen-Morrison was teaching English in the Israeli school system, parents frequently asked her for private tutoring. However, many families could not afford the one-on-one service, so she began to offer English lessons for small groups of up to six children.

“I developed a technique whereby the kids would do a lot of speaking in English for 45 minutes. They don’t get a chance to have that kind of (oral language) time in a class of 40. This method was giving them a chance to speak and to expand on their vocabulary,” she said. “That’s how Ahava was born. It became very popular in my community (Mitzpe Yeriho), so I began to do teacher training.”

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Cohen-Morrison provides training to the Jerusalem English Language Library for Youth, as well as the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University’s education department. “Those teachers use my methods across the country,” she noted.

She said the idea that all Israelis speak English is a myth, because one does not hear much English spoken outside of the metropolitan area of Tel Aviv.

Most Israelis who speak English well either have English-speaking parents, or their families have lived outside of Israel, Cohen-Morrison said, adding that many affluent families pay for private English-language tutoring.

She pointed out that only five per cent of the population is “linguistically blessed” and can learn to speak English just by attending public schools.

Cohen-Morrison stressed the importance of English within the Israeli education system. When students finish high school, they must pass the Bagrut, or matriculation, exams, and one of the core courses is English.

University applicants are also required to take the Psychometric Entrance Tests (referred to by Israelis as psychometry), which determine one’s eligibility for university.

Students with lower English scores must take English-language courses in university, because many of the university-level textbooks are in English, Cohen-Morrison said, noting that there are several private education companies that are geared exclusively toward preparing students for the psychometry tests.

When it comes to English-language education, Israel has a two-tier system that is often based on the financial status of one’s family, and Ahava provides a counterbalance to this social and educational inequity, Cohen-Morrison said.

“What we’re doing at Ahava is we’re giving kids private group lessons that are subsidized through the charity. We keep the prices reasonable for large families with many kids,” she said.

Improving English literacy for disadvantaged children is very gratifying, she concluded. “I saw a need and I have worked hard to fill this need.”

For more info, visit ahava-english.org.