Writing between Peers in the Beginning Russian Classroom

Joan Bridgewood, Clemson University

One of the tenets of the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum)(1) movement holds that writing should have purpose for the writer. Writing to share or solicit necessary information is more meaningful to a student than "writing for teacher." Krashen also suggests (2) that second language learners perform better when they are provided with interesting and meaningful contextualized material in an environment that is non-threatening. Yet Vygotsky (3) has found that this input may be provided but not absorbed or actively acquired unless the student is also given frequent opportunities for cooperative meaningful interaction.

How to provide students with non-threatening ways of actively using writing for communication at beginning levels, especially given the time constraints of other class activities? This paper is concerned with one such means of providing opportunities for writing in beginning Russian classes at first and second year college level. My involvement with the WAC movement has led me to seek out ways of using writing for peers as an effective way of developing the learning studentís communicative abilities. Writing directed at a responsive non-judgmental peer is more interesting to a beginning student, especially when a response is expected and received. I address just one aspect of writing for peers in this paper: writing for fellow students during class-time. This is not group work, but notes or lists written and passed between students while regular class activities are in progress and without the instructor necessarily seeing the product. The communication exercises described include ones that address both the mechanical aspects of writing and more communicative creative ones. Even after students have "mastered" basic grammar, the Russian alphabet is still perceived by many as unfamiliar and a significant hurdle. This may be because students do not write enough in early classes, working on mechanical skills that lead to easy recognition of the Cyrillic alphabet. I have found the most helpful penmanship assignments are those in which students not only write in an unfamiliar script but read that which other students write and know that their own handwriting will be read by others. The activities described show a gradual change in focus from working on mechanical skills (list making, names,etc) to skill-using activities (Rivers (4)).

During the presentation, I cite several examples of communication exercises involving "writing-for-fellow-students-as-class-proceeds." I will also prepare a handout of 20-30 in-class writing activities that I have used over the past twelve years of teaching First and Second Year Beginning Russian classes. The aim in developing these exercises has been to:

I conclude by addressing the advantages and disadvantages (eg lack of error correction) of this approach, and by discussing to what extent the language teacher should view writing as a process or a product.

(1) Fulwiler, Toby. "The Argument for Writing Across the Curriculum."
(2) Krashen, S. "Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition." Oxford, 1992.
(3) Vygotsky, L. "Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes." Harvard, 1978.
(4) Rivers, W. "A Practical Guide to the Teaching of French." Oxford Univ. Press, 1975.