Review of Russian Language Instructional Sites on the Web (Based on Sher's Russian Index)

Article excerpt

You are your institution's Web guru on less commonly taught languages. The part-time teacher of Russian, relatively unschooled in second language acquisition (SLA), whose Web skills end at ordering a book from Amazon, asks you for recommendations on sites for students of the language. You can Google your way to a cumbersome list or check a comprehensive megalist of Russian sites, such as Sher's Russian Index. But will you find anything worthwhile? The answer is a cautious and very limited yes, as this review shows. But first, let's establish some ground rules.

1) All the sites mentioned come from Sher's Index, probably the most comprehensive of the Russian megasites. They are all free.

2) Sites tightly based on individual textbooks or school syllabi are not scrutinized. This frees the reviewer of a number of conflicts of interest. It also takes in all potential users, regardless of whether they are enrolled in intensive instruction or engaged in casual independent study.

3) Sites are examined in terms of methodological direction, learner strategies, interactivity and feedback, ease of use, and, where applicable, audibility. On all of the sites reviewed, successful feedback is programmed mostly through Javascripts. The more sophisticated RusNet site uses php. The most primitive type of feedback substitutes the right answer for a wrong one, or invites the user to try again. None of the sites add a significant second layer designed to trap nonsense responses, warn of repetitive errors, or provide information on what part of the answer might have been right. Such an additional layer requires a few additional lines of script for each validation.

4) This review excludes "raw" or "authentic" sites (i.e., those not specifically created for Russian language instruction). This leaves out the plethora of sites with multimedia content that constitute the most precious resources for learners approaching the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advanced threshold in the receptive skills, especially in listening comprehension..

5) Finally, I have left out my own independent contributions through the National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC).

EARLY GRAMMAR-BASED SITES

With the rules set out, let's answer the question at the top of the screen: "What will a reliable connection bring you?" The quick answer is that learners will not master Russian from scratch or even make significant progress from looking at available computer screens. Why should this be, given the Web's enormous potential for the delivery of language materials? To begin with, few sites pass Ushi Felix's (2003) "best practice" test, namely, they are mostly not "the most appropriate tools to their best potential to achieve sound pedagogical processes and outcomes" (p. 8-9). This means that most sites set good goals, but exhibit wrong practices. Even fewer sites map instructional delivery practices to legitimate goals.

Still, learners will, even at the ACTFL Intermediate level, find occasional instructional materials of some value, especially in the receptive skills (after they make their way past the links leading through the great Cyberian graveyard dotted with the tombstones of projects from the halcyon days of the 1990s when technologists experimented with their brand new toys). The fact that things worked at all (you clicked on a link and saw something in Cyrillic!) produced such a sense of giddiness that methodological considerations received short shrift. However, the field owes a debt to some of the older pages of the earliest Russian language Web warriors (e.g., Mitrevski's Russian Web Tutor, and Beard's Russian Online Interactive Reference Grammar. Their simple Javascripts provided templates for others. In addition to writing on-line tutorials, they provided copious notes on the writing of Javascripts for Russian-language instruction, which laid the basis for more sophisticated pages that were developed later on. …