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Teaching Russian Students

Teaching Russian Students

I have been teaching in Moscow for just a few months, so any observations I make are of necessity pretty general but here goes:

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of Russian students is an ability to analyse language, probably developed through contact with the traditional Russian/Soviet education system. Communication can take second place to accuracy in the students` minds.

As a result of the above, learners seem to expect a high degree of control in the classroom, with the teacher acting as the central figure. This means that standard exercises (gap-fill, multiple choice, transformation of verbs and vocabulary) are easy to set up and conduct. Students find this approach familiar and comfortable.

When seeking to move on from a controlled practice situation, however, the teacher will probably find that students are liable to leave behind any challenging language being taught, reverting to simple grammar and vocabulary.

The teacher needs to take firm control of the class at the outset, explain very clearly what the class aims and target language are, set up activities with very clear instructions and monitor language use closely to make sure that students have not forgotten the reason for the activity.

It may seem obvious to us as teachers that a discussion or pairwork activity about life experience would be linked to the practice of past forms, for example, but a Russian student may not see the connection. A teacher should always be prepared to remind students of the target language in order to incorporate more complex language into discussions.

Particular problem areas are tense use, relative clauses, comparative and superlative forms, articles and the use of varied intonation. Fluency can also be a bit of a problem with older learners, and making a connection between English as a classroom subject and the real world is also sometimes a problem due to a lack of contact with native speakers.

It seems that any teacher in Russia needs to be able to play the role of a traditional classroom teacher at times, setting the agenda and controlling the classroom, but also needs to encourage risk-taking, experimentation and participation on the part of the students.

Good class planning is essential – plan your class, let the students know what the aims are and stay on track. Be prepared to demonstrate activities, monitor the progress made and give realistic feedback. Above all, challenge the students to move beyond the basics they may be comfortable with give positive feedback for good language use and also realistic feedback on problem areas.

Outside the classroom, encourage the use of the Internet, books, magazines, newspapers, music, films…anything to build a bridge with the English-speaking world.

Homework can be an issue like almost anywhere, Russian students probably mean to do their homework but don`t always get round to it. This may be a problem for some courses, in which case you need to be tough and explain the usefulness of setting aside some time for study outside the classroom. If you give a good reason and set useful homework, your students will at least feel a bit more guilty when they “forget” again be realistic.

Topics that work I haven`t found any surefire buttons to press. Younger learners are easier to get going on more controversial topics, older learners tend to avoid politics and personal issues for obvious reasons. Culture is usually a winner, especially art and literature, and I have found that the students generally have a great sense of humour so have fun.

Steve Wheatley