Collaborative writing in Russian with shared text editor

Authors: Lydia Buravova and Jane Hughes


A shared text editor was introduced into a Russian class in writing skills and used over a period of four years. It was initially adopted for its potential practical advantages over a traditional classroom whiteboard. Its use has led to new language learning activities that have contributed to the whole language programme and the writing class has become more integrated into the language programme as a whole. Opportunities for sharing and collaboration have been greatly increased and the role of the teacher has changed.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Context and Initial Motivation

A shared text editor is one of a group of software tools known as shared workspaces. It appears like a very simple word processor but all group members can enter and edit text in the shared editor and see all other entries. A shared editor has some features in common with both synchronous chat and asynchronous discussion tools. We describe the effect of using the shared editor, Network Text Editor (NTE, freely available) for four years in a Russian writing class.

The lesson on Writing Skills is one of the aspects of Russian, alongside Oral (Conversation), Grammar, Aural (Listening Comprehension) and Translation within the Russian Language Programme at SSEES. All aspects are connected by the same content/topic and grammar or vocabulary points but emphasize different language comprehension/production language skills. Using NTE in the class on Writing Skills initially was motivated by seemingly obvious practical advantages of a shared computer board, over the traditional classroom white board: the possibility to monitor individual students' writing "on the spot"; sharing/discussing "good" bits of writing and typical mistakes; playing with layouts of various types of texts/paragraphs and creating students' own texts/paragraphs according to these models; the possibility of saving all students' work in electronic form and as paper hand outs useful for revision; a chance to learn Russian word processing skills; making lessons in writing more fun. Initially most of the exercises for the class were adapted from existing paper based exercises.

2. Development in the language learning activities with NTE

The writing class became more integrated into the language programme. Its links with other aspects of the programme went beyond content or linguistic points. Texts produced in the class on writing are now used as part of communicative exercises in other language lessons and with other groups/years and vice versa (e.g. written texts can be used as a part of the role play with Orals or Aurals, students can be asked to organise information from Listening Comprehension into communicatively useful written texts: application form, letter, card, witness statement, short story etc.)

New language learning activities were developed as the teacher's experience grew. Instead of a set of grammar/vocabulary drills or essay writing, preparing students mainly for similar tasks in their exams, original exercises were developed to make the most of NTE. This process has extended to other aspects of the language programme.

3. Collaborative writing with NTE

In most cases when people collaborate to create texts what is important is the final product. The process itself or individual contributions are mainly forgotten or irrelevant at the end. Writing with the shared text editor brings out the value of the process of creating the final text. At the end of each class a hand out is produced. The hand out is a text in its own right. It is a complete unit content wise, has its own structural layout (title, greetings, beginning/introduction, middle bit - normally creative or practising, conclusions/recommendations) and carries out certain communicative tasks, in this case teaching, in the study environment. The hand out consists of a number of small texts created by students and the teacher. The full informative (teaching) value of the handout is a combination of a print out and oral discussion. The students' texts and the teacher's text would not have the same value if taken out of the context of the handout or teaching situation. They can obviously exist on their own and hopefully eventually exit the teaching situation into real life communications. Sometimes they can be easily exported to real life situations as such (e.g. Christmas cards created in class can be sent by students to their Russian friends), but usually, these are "abstract" text models of what would be used in real life communications.

The collaborative value of the class is very important for the advanced level of the programme (Year 1/Mode 2) at SSEES. This mode is characterised by a variety of students' backgrounds and abilities. You can find native speakers, near native speakers, former Soviet republics' citizens, children from mixed marriages, east Europeans, A-level students all taking the same Mode. Their language skills differ to a large extent with different aspects of Russian (some can speak, but can not write; some write how they speak; A-level students are coached to write essays but helpless with colloquial Russian etc.). The class gives the students a chance to benefit from each other.

Collaboration is in the nature of the NTE tool itself. It enables any of the participants (other student or a teacher) to "physically" interfere with somebody else's text. This is the feature differentiating NTE from Chat tools: with NTE you can correct, improve, move, add, paste your own suggestions about anything which is on the shared board. Constructed texts are a medium of communication but one in which the text during its creation can be commented upon, edited and improved.

4. The teacher's role in class with NTE

The teacher's role in the class with NTE differs from that in a traditional classroom with a whiteboard. From the production point of view the students do a higher proportion of written work in class compared with the teacher. It is not the teacher writing on the whiteboard all the time but the students creating the main body of the handout. The teacher is co-authoring or collaborating with the students. The teacher's role might also include:

  • Monitoring the students as they work,
  • Checking students' work and, when appropriate, suggesting or typing corrections.
  • Acting as consultant about language use to individual students
  • Co-authoring helping to construct one of the student texts.
  • Prompting in order to encourage students to expand on what they had written or to consider a new aspect.
  • Co-ordinating and facilitating, managing time, space and individual contributions.

Outside class time, editing the saved texts has replaced some regular marking tasks for the teacher.

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