Making Rapid Gains in Second Language Writing: A Case Study of a Third-Year Russian Language Course

Article excerpt

Abstract:

This research describes a method applied in a third-year Russian language course designed to push students' writing proficiency to the Intermediate/Advanced threshold and beyond and the findings associated therewith. The approach centered around argumentation and debate, a subject usually designed to improve students' command of logic and reasoning in their first language, but rarely found in second language curricula, much less with an emphasis on writing rather than speaking. Data supporting the researchers' claims reflect ACTFL pre- and post-written proficiency test ratings, biweekly rough draft scores, and participants' responses to a language background questionnaire. Findings suggest that an emphasis on argumentation and debate and content-based instruction proved statistically significant. In addition, participants in the treatment group benefited considerably from the inclusion of native speaker consultations.

Key words: content-based instruction, curriculum development, second language acquisition, teaching methods, writing proficiency

Language: Russian; relevant to all languages

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Introduction

Similar to the natural progression experienced when learning one's first language, students of foreign languages often demonstrate higher oral than written proficiency during the first few years of language instruction. For many, written production never goes beyond "speech-written-down style of writing," whereas for sòme, a process of "differentiation" occurs, which facilitates a distinct style of written language unique from oral production in its syntactic complexity and increased usage of subordinated and embedded clauses (Weissberg, 2006, p. 10). If viewed from the perspective of me ACTFL Written Proficiency Test (WPT) Rating Grid by Sub-Level, such a process of differentiation becomes particularly evident at the Intermediate-High and Advanced-Low dvreshold (see Appendix A for ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines), where writers are expected to demonstrate with increasing consistency the ability to connect sentences into paragraphs using cohesive elements and devices. Sentence cohesion and paragraph-level discourse become increasingly sophisticated and consistent as one progresses stepwise within the Advanced level, thus contributing to a complexity that distinguishes itself from oral communication.

Moving the proficiency dial presents an enormous challenge to second language (L2) writers at any level, but particularly at the Intermediate/Advanced threshold and beyond, where matters of accuracy and consistency become increasingly critical for cogent communication. Modest improvements that once yielded noticeable gain in one's proficiency at the Novice and Intermediate levels often do not facilitate measurable gain at the Advanced and Superior levels, which raises doubts among some administrators as to the benefits associated with having a third- and fourth-year foreign language curriculum at the university.

Indeed, the question arises of whether investing financial resources in study abroad and immersion programs for upper-division students would not be more prudent than investing in third- and fourth-year courses, the outcomes of which often prove negligible proficiency-wise (Schneider, 2001). Those advocating a scarcity problem, i.e., limited contact hours, point out that universities allocate three to five hours per week to foreign language classes, which over the course of a semester pales in comparison to the number of contact hours afforded students in an immersion classroom environment or in programs in the target language culture. Data for pre- and post-classroom foreign language instruction in the university (cf. Rifkin, 2005) support such an explanation of limited classroom outcomes.

Conversely, those advocating pedagogical shortcomings tend to address questions of curriculum development and turn the problem of limited time into a valuable source of motivation by which to achieve rapid gains. …

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