Developing Oral Communication Skills in Advanced Russian

Irene Walter, St. Olaf College

One of the pedagogical challenges in teaching Advanced Russian is designing ways to push students’ oral communication skills to a level of communicative competence approximating the level of a generally educated native Russian student. This ambitious goal is more attainable than one might think.

In the senior Russian course on The Russian Press that I have been teaching for a number of years I usually have a group of eight to twelve Russian language majors. Most of them have come back to this, their final college semester, straight from spending a semester in Russia. (Prior to the semester abroad most of them have had six semesters of the Russian language taken at St. Olaf College.) In other words, these are experienced language learners capable of making further and more challenging advancement in their language skills.

Two years ago I took part in a summer workshop on incorporating Oral Communication credit into various content courses across the curriculum. The workshop, led by the Speech-Communication faculty, was offered by St. Olaf College and supported by federal grant funds. The basic idea of Oral Communication Across the Curriculum is to introduce students to principles of effective oral communication through assigned readings, lectures, class discussions, and other instructional features of the course, including a variety of assessments (the instructor’s, that of pairs, as well as self-assessments). Course assignments provide opportunities to practice speaking skills and may take a variety of forms: manuscripted or extemporaneous speeches, debates, student-led discussions, group presentations, individual interviews, watching and discussing Glasnost Film Festival documentaries followed up by role-play, problem-solving, etc. As a participant of the workshop I had to design discipline and course specific portfolios of assignments and evaluations.

How do these oral communication strategies work in classroom practice? If, for example, I had to give a segment on speech presentation, I would start by giving an outline of various genres of speeches along with the particular features that pertain to each genre. This would be followed by a discussion of appropriate speech topics and goals. Next would come discussion about the body of the speech (introduction, purpose statement, theses, supporting information, use of quotations, transitions, conclusion, and summary). Students would be instructed to pay close attention to the alertness of their listeners. They would also be asked to stay within concrete time limits, and the evaluation forms would be distributed. The next class period would then be devoted to the students’ speech presentations.

I have taught the course on Russian Press incorporating Oral Communication credit for the last two years and intend to continue to do so in the future. It has been my experience that the variety of techniques (most of them come from Speech-Communication principles) not only enhance the course by providing a lively variety to its content, but they also significantly contribute to the development of oral skills: speaking, listening, interacting within a group and effective communication.

It is possible to apply oral communication techniques to a variety of language level courses. While teaching various courses I have observed that these methods help to foster student engagement with the course content, with communication concepts, with their own ideas, and with one another.

I intend to accompany my presentation with a variety of handouts, which I will share with interested colleagues.