When one walks into this “laboratory,” the first thing that catches the eye is the row of tiny rooms, enclosed cubicles really, along the left side of the larger room. The window delineating each cubicle, six in all, including one at the back, one learns, is one-way glass, looking in. Then one notices an intercom alongside each door.

Seated inside these tiny rooms are pairs of students: the older one, a final-year B.A. or Master’s degree candidate; the other, an elementary school pupil.

Watching at one of the windows, an observor notices the patience of the older student in dealing with the youngster. The intercom allows listening to the dialogue within, which seems more of a stream of consciousness on the part of the grade schooler being helped. It’s not a psychology session that is being observed, however, but a tutorial. The university student, who is pursuing an advanced degree in special education, is helping a pupil who has reading difficulties.

The one-way mirror enables the graduate student’s instructor to see how well the theoretical lectures are being implemented. The student has the opportunity to put theory into practice. The pupil being tutored, who may suffer from attention deficit syndrome or dyslexia or some other problem interfering with his/her learning, benefits from the one-on-one tutoring. The arrangement, in fact, almost develops into a symbiotic relationship.

The lab in which this and five similar scenes are taking place is the Laboratory for Research and Training in Learning Disabilities. Its overall purpose is to prepare graduate students for remedial teaching and diagnosis and to enable M.A. and Ph.D. candidates to conduct relevant research. The focus is on reading disabilities. That young pupils are also being actively helped is both a by-product and a service of this unique facility.

Dr. Zvia Breznitz, a Senior Lecturer in Education, originally set up a clinical lab in 1980 that was a precursor to the present laboratory. Now, more involved in the neurocognition laboratory that she established in 1992, she leaves supervision of the Learning Disabilities Laboratory to Tamar Teltsch, coordinator of special education field work in the Faculty of Education.

In a sense, though, Breznitz is trying to combine the work of both her labs in a team that she has put together to develop diagnostic tools for learning disabilities. At present, Israel has no normative tests to measure the phenomenon. In fact, until recently, most Israeli education decision-makers had little awareness of the subject in general. It was then that the Knesset set up a committee headed by Prof. Pearla Nesher, Head Scientist for the Ministry of Education, to research the problem of the reading disabled, the frequency and characteristics of the phenomenon. Breznitz, who had done initial research in the area, was mandated to undertake the investigation.

Breznitz was also named a member of a committee appointed by the Ministries of Education and of Science to obtain a general picture of the problem of the learning disabled in Israel. Studies in other parts of the world had shown that reading problems account for 70% of learning disabilities. Part of the committee’s mandate was to define who is learning disabled. Any child or adult so defined would then be eligible for certain benefits in regard to both schooling and employment. The approach, then, was a life-span view of the problem, not restricted to any age or point in time. Israel is only now initiating criteria.

There is still a long way to go, according to Breznitz, who earned her doctorate in cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University and then went to the United States to do post-doctorate work at the National Institutes of Health and further work, in neuropsychology, at the City University of New York and Mt. Sinai Hospital. The University’s Faculty of Education, she said, is negotiating with the Ministry of Education to create the position of a learning disabilities supervisor, to be able to coordinate and further remedial activity in this area. The Faculty also wants to develop a Reading Center to prepare graduate students to be school or district reading supervisors.

Teltsch, whose Master’s degree in special ed was gained much after her B.A. in International Relations and the rearing of a family, explained the workings of the lab. The concept was to bring pupils whose parents either could not afford private treatment for the child or were unable to deal with the learning problem. The children arrive and leave by taxi, paid for by the lab.

The students who work with the children in the lab are either 3rd-year or graduate students specializing in the subject. This is their fieldwork, which they are required to perform twice a week throughout the school year. In feedback, students generally give high marks to the experience, which they say contributed much to their professional development. Following their degree, most implement in the school and other situations what they learned and did in the lab.

Each pupil who comes for remedial help is tested, and an individual program is devised, based on the child’s strengths as well as weaknesses. All materials used are adapted to the particular child and his or her difficulties. The students, Teltsch stressed, are taught to react to the children they are aiding as human beings, to work with the gestalt, the whole person, rather than to focus on a particular problem. The result, she comments, is that the child has a positive experience from someone who cares, not just help in reading.
“Extraordinary bonds develop between teacher and pupil,” she says. “It’s no wonder that the children want to come to the lab.”

Not only do those accepted look forward to their twice weekly visits. A waiting list has developed as the lab’s beneficial work and good name have spread over the course of the more than 15 years that this project has continued. The lab, which takes an eclectic approach to problems, does not accept hyper-active children or those with severe behavioral problems. The emphasis in the sessions is on both decoding and reading comprehension. The aim is to foster an enrichment of the pupil’s language and intellectual experiences.

Asked about follow-up, Teltsch said she has done such studies and saw the tremendous progress that pupils made in the course of a year. Several years later, the pupils were generally still performing well. She is leery, however, of very long-term follow-up research for fear of both school teachers’ reactions and the possible stigmatizing of the children.

Teltsch, who “came to a field where I could contribute more,” has one regret--that budgetary restrictions prevent an expansion of the program to more pupils.

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