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Teaching Russian Students

Written by Paul Richard

One of the most productive characteristics of Russian students is their ability to analyse language and identify grammatical constructs. This ability is certainly a by-product of their educational system and, in particular, the methods of language instruction used in their schools, institutes and universities. This propensity and ability to analyse language, grammatical structures, collocations, and word-chunks can be used quite productively in the classroom to assist them in improving their ability to communicate in English.

As a result of the educational system they come from, most students expect a high degree of direction and control in the classroom, with the teacher acting as the central, and indeed, authoritative, figure. This means that standard exercises (e.g. gap-fill, multiple-choice, transformation of verbs and vocabulary exercises) are relatively easy to set up and complete with them since they find this approach and these exercises both familiar and comfortable. However, when seeking to move beyond controlled practice situations, the teacher will probably find that students have a tendency to leave behind any challenging language being taught, and will revert to simpler and more familiar grammar and vocabulary.

The teacher needs to take firm control of the class at the outset, and explain very clearly what the targeted vocabulary and topics are, and, of course, endeavour to set up any speaking tasks and activities with very clear instructions. Further, one should also monitor the activity and language use closely to ensure that the students are incorporating the intended vocabulary, and, of course, have not strayed too far from the assigned task in their discussions.

While it may seem obvious to us as teachers that a group discussion or an activity working in pairs talking about some life experiences could and should easily be linked to the practice of past tense verb forms, Russian students may not see the connection so easily. Accordingly, teachers should always be prepared to remind students of the targeted language in order to assist them in incorporating more complex language into their activities and discussions.

Particular problem areas for Russian students of English are so-called “false friends” (and there are many), accurate use of the myriad of verb tenses available, using relative clauses, comparative and superlative forms, definite and indefinite (or no) articles, and the use of varied stress and intonation. In addition, helping them to overcome inaccurate but deeply-ingrained speech patterns, and creating fluency in producing more than smaller chunks of language is often a mighty challenge, as is making the connection between English as a classroom subject and the real world due to a lack of contact with native speakers and the way we speak. Thus, outside of the classroom, encourage them to use the Internet, books, magazines, newspapers, music, films … any- and everything that can serve to build a bridge between the classroom and the English-speaking world.

Thus, any teacher in Russia needs to be able to play the role of a traditional classroom teacher much of the time, setting the agenda and controlling the classroom, but at the same time also needs to encourage risk-taking, experimentation and participation on the part of the students. While good class planning is essential, be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to real-time classroom situations. Consistently challenge the students to move beyond the basics they may be comfortable with while providing both positive feedback for good, accurate use of language and, of course, correction regarding problem areas.

Devotion to learning English outside of class in the ways mentioned above, and, in particular, completion of homework, tends to be an issue of concern. Russian students probably intend to do their homework, but because of time constraints and their other duties and obligations, they often fail to get round to it. This tends to be a problem especially in groups as opposed to individual lessons. In both cases, however, one needs to be fairly strict and tough, and explain the usefulness of setting aside some time for study, homework, and, especially important in my view, preparation for lessons outside of the classroom.

Overall, it is very enjoyable teaching Russian students, and while students often prefer to avoid controversial political or personal topics, they are very engaging and interested in a wide variety of topics, e.g. cultural topics (art, literature, film, etc.), traveling, sports, and outdoor activities. They also have a nice sense of humour and can be loads of fun to work with. Enjoy!