I’d hate to have me as a student.
I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.
I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.
At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.
This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”
I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.
We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.
Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.
We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.
I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.
In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.
My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:
She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.
The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.
When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.
With pictures and colours where possible…
…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)
With colour-coding to show grammar patterns
I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.
Verb conjugation, time and reflexives
Time index cards, showing colour-coding
I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)
Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises
They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)
Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)
This is what my desk looks like in the process:
- Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
- The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
- The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
- The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
- Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
- Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
- The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.
Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me
What did I forget?
March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!
I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:
- Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
- Reading my index cards out loud
- Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
- Playing on Quizlet
- Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
- Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
- Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
- Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
- Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it
Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!
Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.