Focus on form in online task-based instruction: developing reading comprehension learning objects (LOs) for Russian intermediate and advanced learners.

Maria Ortenberg and Natalia Antokhin, Defense Language Institute

The majority of students who graduate from the basic intensive course at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) acquire level 2 (advanced level by ACTFL scale) and higher in reading comprehension on the government's Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of 0 to 5. The government's need to safeguard its investment in language training prompted the Institute to provide graduates with meaningful and effective ways to sustain and enhance their proficiency. The LOs currently in development are independent units of instruction based on reading material and designed to address specific learner needs and weaknesses.

It has been argued that reading as a valuable source of language acquisition (Krashen, 1982, p.164), accompanied by meaningful and interesting activities that require the use of the foreign/second language, increases learners' motivation, challenges their language processing capacities, and helps improve interlanguage (Doughty, 2001, Robinson 2001). Since our target audience consists of individual learners who work alone and depend exclusively on their own strengths and weaknesses, these factors are crucial for considering the instructional design of our LOs. Other important factors of task-based instruction were considered for the instructional design of LOs: the learner's interest, including purpose-driven interest (Schiefele, 1992, Hidi & Anderson), the effect of focusing the learner's attention on selected text information, the primacy of meaning over form when learners process a new language sample (Van Patten 1990, 1994), and the facilitative role of focal attention on formal language features in the processing of new language (Schmidt, 1990, 1994; Skehan, 1996).

In the framework of the principles mentioned above, we will discuss the pedagogical implications and challenges of developing web-based Russian reading comprehension activities. This will include such issues as selecting relevant authentic material and designing accompanying activities.

We will discuss (and show using developed LOs as example) the defining factors of instructional design: general reading proficiency objectives, the primary learning tasks of each LO and the challenges encountered in the areas of lexical, structural, discourse, and sociolinguistic competencies in the Russian language.

We will show how these factors are applied through the sequence of reading tasks and activities, which provide the learner with opportunities to use a variety of reading skills.

One of the most important issues of our presentation will be the selection of specific Russian lexical, structural, and discourse features, as well as how they are addressed in Russian LOs. The focus is only on those language features which hinder or enhance the learner in accomplishing the task. They are addressed through a series of tasks and multiple feedbacks (hints, questions, comments, cultural/sociolinguistic/grammar notes, and correct answers), which lead the learner to notice and recognize the problem, and ultimately helps him/her to become an autonomous, self-sufficient language learner.


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