Output Focused Instruction and the Acquisition of Relativization in Russian

Benjamin Rifkin, University of Wisconsin, Madison

1. Purpose

This paper will present the findings of an experiment investigating the hypothesis that output-focused instruction, used together with syntactical consciousness raising activities, can help students use subordinate clauses (relativization, or, as defined for the purposes of this study, the use of subordinate clauses introduced by the relative pronoun kotoryj) in narration tasks more frequently and more accurately in their Russian-language speech than peers in a control group without output-focused instruction or syntactical consciousness raising. If this is found to be true, students with this kind of instruction would come closer to achieving advanced level proficiency as defined in the ACTFL oral proficiency guidelines, a level of oral proficiency associated with minimal professional competence, since the guidelines privilege syntax as one of the defining characteristics of advanced level speech.

2. Background

Studies by Carroll (1967) and Magnan (1986) have shown that the vast majority of college graduates with four years of foreign language instruction achieve only intermediate level oral proficiency according to the ACTFL proficiency guidelines (or 1/1+ on the interagency language roundtable or ILR scale). Studies by Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg (1993) and Thompson (1996) show that this is true also for learners of Russian. The Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg study also showed that those students who did achieve advanced level oral proficiency (2/2+ on the ILR scale) generally did so in the context of a study abroad experience, but that not all those students who studied Russian abroad achieved the advanced level: these researchers reported that of the 300 learners participating in the study whose pre-program oral proficiency rating was intermediate or intermediate high (and thus, arguably within reach of the advanced level), only 164 achieved a post-program rating of advanced or advanced high (Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg: Table 5, p. 10). Nearly half of the students whose pre-program oral proficiency rating was at the intermediate or intermediate high level failed to achieve significant improvements in their oral proficiency as measured in an oral proficiency interview. Thus, it would seem that currently configured programs of instruction are successful in bringing students to minimal professional competence only approximately 55% of the time. The purpose of this paper is to suggest alternative approaches to instruction in North America that might help improve the frequency with which learners of Russian in North American educational institutions achieve advanced level oral proficiency upon completion of a semester- or year-long study abroad program in Russia.

3. Output Focused Instruction

Some second language acquisition researchers have focused on output (that is, learners' oral discourse) as a means of targeting syntax in the context of classroom instruction. Swain (1985) argues that "[Production/Output] ... may force the learner to move from semantic processing to syntactic processing" (Swain, 1985, p. 249). Gass (1997) notes that the idea that output or language use could be part of the learning mechanism was not seriously contemplated prior to Swain's (1985) important paper, in which she introduced the notion of comprehensible or "pushed" output: "learners are pushed or stretched in their production as a necessary part of making themselves understood. In so doing, they might modify a previous utterance or they might try forms that they hadn't used before." According to what Ellis calls the output hypothesis, "production will aid acquisition only when the learner is pushed. Opportunities to speak may not in themselves be sufficient" (Ellis, 118). This suggests that the output-focused classroom cannot merely present opportunities for speech, but must create situations in which learners are compelled to speak, to negotiate meaning, and to achieve communicative goals.

4. Research Design

The author of this paper proposes to describe briefly an experiment in output focused instruction and syntactical consciousness raising in the Russian-language curriculum and to present findings on the use of relativization (as defined above in section 1) in narration tasks by students in the experimental class. The presentation will provide a brief description of the tasks in the experimental class that "pushed or stretched" the learners as described by Swain and Ellis (see above). The author will then compare the frequency and accuracy of the relativization in the students' speech before and after the experimental treatment to the frequency and accuracy of relativization in the speech of students in a control class without output focused instruction. Relativization in the speech of the learners in both groups will also be compared to that observed in the speech of several native speakers of Russian in order to determine the degree to which the learners in each group approach the frequency of the use of relativization in analogous narrations of native speakers. All the speech samples analyzed for this paper were created in response to narration tasks (retelling a film or television show the learners in experimental and control groups and the native speakers had recently seen).

5. Participants, Experimental Treatment and the Collection of Data

The experimental and control groups were heterogeneous classes, consisting of students at various stages of the completion of their bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees, but all students in the experimental and control groups demonstrated intermediate or intermediate high oral proficiency in oral proficiency interviews conducted before the experiment.

In the experimental group, the class in which the students were given output focused instruction, students were given a list of conjunctions and other "connecting words and phrases" and asked to use those words and phrases in their speech as they completed extended narration tasks. Each class session (of 45 class hours in 3 contact hours a week for the duration of a 15-week semester) was focused on narration, description and comparison tasks which the students were required to complete in pairs or triads for the duration of most of the class session. All student speech was tape recorded for self-analysis and for analysis for this investigation. The students wrote critiques in English of their speech performance in Russian on a regular basis, thus focusing their attention on the length and complexity of their discourse and the degree to which they used subordinate clauses in their speech. The critiques constitute the "consciousness raising" component of this experiment. In the control group, students were, of course, asked to complete listening, speaking, reading and writing tasks, but did not spend nearly as much time in extended discourse in the classroom, were not asked to focus their attention on complex syntax and were not provided a list of devices to facilitate relativization in their speech. Lastly, the students in the control group did not record their speech and therefore did not reflect on their speech performance in class to the same degree that their peers in the experimental group did.

While data were collected on all three designated speech tasks, this paper reports only on the data relevant to narration tasks (due to the 20-minute time constraint for presentations at the conference).

6. Analysis of Data and Conclusions

Although only one student in the experimental group crossed the 1+/2 threshhold (as compared to none in the control group), it will be shown that the speech of the students in the experimental group features consistently more frequent and more accurate use of relativization than the speech of the students in the control group. The author of this paper will argue that the students in the experimental group would show an increased likelihood of achieving an advanced level oral proficiency rating after a study-abroad experience due to the nature of the output focused instruction precisely because the output focused instruction improved their control of relativization, a defining characteristic of advanced level speech. Furthermore, it will be shown that the learners in the experimental group demonstrated frequencies of relativization approaching the range of native speakers, while the learners in the control group did not. The author will argue that while the learners in the experimental group could not, in the course of a mere 45 contact hours, master all three speech functions critical to advanced level oral proficiency (narration, description, comparison in paragraph-length discourse in all time frames), the improvement in their control of relativization sugests that they are better positioned to achieve advanced level oral proficiency in the context of a semester- or year-long study abroad program than learners with less control of relativization. The paper will include references to the experimental group students' own critiques demonstrating their perception of the learning experience they were undergoing to further support the author's claim that this approach is productive.

The author will conclude with brief comments on the data for description and comparison and then consider suggestions for future research on questions related to output focused production, particularly with regard to preparation for subsequent study abroad and improvements in language gain after the study abroad experience.


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