Use of Portfolios in Beginning-to-Intermediate Russian

Greta McCaughrin, Washington and Lee University

In the past decade and a half, the pendulum of language instruction has swung from a focus on grammar instruction to a focus on conversationtraining. Galina Stilman, Leon Stilman, and William E. Harkins' Introduction to Russian Grammar, 2nd ed.(NY: Xerox, 1972), which had a near-monopoly in the seventies, has been replaced by 'communicative' texts such as Marita Nummikoski's Troika (NY: Wiley, 1996), with far less attention to grammatical rules. At the risk of simplification, the dilemma is that students with structure-intensive instruction too often remained tongue-tied, while students with the current oral-intensive instruction too often write poorly. I am now observing in students reared in the oral approach a precipitous decline in the art of writing. Clearly the "communicative" classroom needs to communicate in both writing and speech.

The portfolio approach seeks to synergistically combine the oral inductive approach with the deductive grammatical approach. Research by R. Brecht, D. Davidson, and R. Ginsberg, Predictors of Foreign Language Gain During Study Abroad (Washington, DC: National Foreign Language Center, 1993) has indicated that the greatest oral progress abroad is made by students with a strong structural foundation. Benjamin Rifkin, in "Video As a Tool to Promote Paragraph-Length Discourse in the Russian-Language Classroom," AATSEEL Newsletter 41.2-3 (1998): 20-23, reported sophisticated oral work via the use of videos in upper-level courses. The portfolio approach follows parallel lines of thinking, but can be begun as soon as students have been introduced to all case endings and the concept of verbal aspect, namely toward the end of first year or early second year. That is, it can reach a large number of students who do not continue to upper-level courses.

The modus operandi is as follows:

1. The instructor introduces a theme - the subject of the portfolio entry. This can be done by reading an edited passage of approximately one page in length about the theme; by showing a 15-minute video or film excerpt; or by asking a native teaching assistant to speak about the theme in simple Russian. The remainder of the period is devoted to an oral discussion, reviewing in Russian whatever the students have absorbed. Each student makes a contribution of something he/she has retained from the first 15 minutes. The instructor helps students to express themselves orally by suggesting vocabulary, grammar, idioms, etc.

2. The home assignment is to write 1-2 pages (approx. 15 sentences) about the theme, drawing upon the materials introducedin class. The instructor gives very specific instructions for the writing assignment, while leaving ample opportunity for self-expression.

3. At the following class meeting, each student recalls orally a self-selected item from his personal portfolio. Ocassionally, each student might share with classmates on the blackboard one to two sentences from his/her written work; the instructor here has an opportunity to correct written errors predictable in 1st year Russian. In this way students learn from one another.

4. As an incentive to compose well-written portfolio entries, tests ask students to relate orally or in writing themes from their portfolio work. By then, all compositions will have been corrected by the instructor; and some have been re-written.

The following are examples of (cultural) themes for portfolio entries which I have used:

1. Living or eating arrangements: You have married a Russian. Tell us about how you live.

2. Russian cuisine or etiquette: You have been invited as aguest in a Russian home. How to behave?

3. Emotions (using a given list of emotion verbs).
a. You live in Moscow or in a village and you meet a Martian on the street;
b. Emotions you feel when you eat in the university cafeteria;
c. Emotions and superstitions.

4. Women's issues:
a. The Women's liberation movement in Russia (absence of).
b. Abortion issue. Russian vs. American attitudes.
c. Movie: Rebro Adama.
d. Russian image of a beautiful woman.

5. Selected historical moments:
a. Peter I and the founding of St. Petersburg.
b. The blockade of Leningrad
c. Stalin's regime: "Burnt by the Sun"
d. Commit to memory and recite poem, "Chelovek ko mne zashel"
e. World War II: Excerpt from Panova's Ser'ezha
f. Brezhnev's regime: "Chuchelo"

6. Russian school system: What's similar and dissimilar, good and bad, as compared with American schools.

7. How Russians view Americans today: You are Russian and you meet an American student for the first time.

Benefits of the portfolio program:

1. Grammar. Writing is the best grammar teacher. It forces the student to be cognizant of endings, while liberating him from merely filling in pre-ordained verb forms and noun endings. Writing vivifies the structure of the language by applying grammar rules and vocabulary to one's original thoughts. New grammar tidbits can be introduced in the context of writing.

2. Enrichment. For example, the instructor suggests use of conjunctions, constructions such as 'kotoryj,' 'o tom kak" or "chtoby", even adverbial participles, to move from simple tocomplex sentences.

3. Initiative: Writing affords the student the satisfaction of being a creative agent, expressing opinions, and being humorous, as opposed to fixed-response or pattern drills.

4. Speaking: The student gains confidence when he/she orally verbalizes thoughts, having worked them out in writing first.

5. Monitoring: The collection of writings at semester-end in a completed portfolio gives both student and instructor a tangible record of progress.

In the presentation, I will bring a syllabus, source materials I prepared for each theme, and sample student writings from a 30-contact hour course on Russian culture taught largely in Russian at the 3rd semester level (this is our special 6-week semester, following two 12-week semesters) at Washington and Lee University. The use of portfolios in this course aimed to intertwine written and oral communication at an earlier-than-usual stage of Russian instruction on weightier themes than those in memorized dialogues. Hence the portfolio approach bridges both major paradigms of language instruction, enabling students to master both written and spoken Russian efficiently.