Sound-Letter Correspondence Acquisition in First Semester Russian

Meghan Murphy-Lee, University of Kansas

The ability to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet is an obstacle for beginning students of Russian. During the first few weeks of class instruction, teachers rapidly present the Cyrillic alphabet but students often do not acquire the sound-letter correspondences at the same rate. In our study we will focus on the rate at which beginning students master the correspondence between Russian letters and the sounds they represent. The mastery of this skill will be measured by the students' success at reading familiar and unfamiliar words in sentence-length discourse. In previous studies, the emphasis has largely been on either pronunciation, comprehension or teaching the alphabet in a short amount of time (Robin, 1984, Ingram, 1984, Leaver, 1984). In contrast, this study will deal with the problems of sound-letter correspondence for beginning students of Russian, focusing on reliable recognition and production of sound-letter correspondences rather than on the quality of the students' production. We hypothesize that certain graphemes will be more difficult for students to process and will take longer for students to learn to read aloud comfortably, e.g., graphemes which represent unfamiliar sounds (x, shch, zh) and those which look like English graphemes but are pronounced differently (r, n, b, v). We will consider only the quality of student production where the letter in question produces the sound to which it is primarily related and not letters in other environments (i.e., reduction and devoicing). In that this study will focus on primary articulation of graphemes, we will not address the distinction between hard and soft consonants.

The study will track approximately thirty-five learners' progress over a sixteen week period in elementary Russian, analyzing their ability to read Russian aloud by having them read a varied list of sentences three times throughout the semester. The texts, containing both known and unknown words, will be recorded for later analysis.

The analysis will establish a hierarchy of acquisition speeds for sound-letter correspondences over the first semester. We hope that with a more exact understanding of the difficulties with particular letters that beginning Russian students face, we can adjust the teaching and practice/review of the alphabet to help learners overcome difficulties in acquiring sound-letter correspondences. Once learners are able to overcome this obstacle, we expect that students will move earlier in their studies towards a focus on reading comprehension.


Ingram, Frank. 1984. "Why Johnny Can't Read Russian." Russian Language Journal. 38/131: 63- 76.
Leaver, Betty Lou. 1984. "Twenty Minutes to the Mastery of the Russian Alphabet." Foreign Language Annals. 17/3: 215-220.
Robin, Richard. 1984. "Russian phonetics instruction in American Colleges: Two Surveys." Russian Language Journal. 38/129-130: 15-25.