Volume V- 2000
The Alternate Textbook and Teaching English in Ukraine
by Olga Kulchytska
Dr. Olga O. Kulchytska is Assistant Professor of English and Chairperson of the English Philology Department at PreCarpathian University, Ivano-Frankvisk, Ukraine, where both students and teachers are bilingual speakers of Ukrainian and Russian, and the language of instruction is Ukrainian. In 1996, Dr. Kulchytska conducted research under a Fulbright grant at the University of Illinois, Urbana. With three colleagues (Liubov V. Mykhailiuk, Ella E. Mintsis and Anatolii B. Furda) she has written the book, English Language Teaching in Ukraine: Innovation vs. Tradition , which she hopes will appear in 1999.
A teacher needs to be willing to negotiate a contract with
students rather than impose standards.... A teacher needs to use approaches
that enable students to take responsibility for their learning.
-Ukrainian Graduate Student
These lines from a student's paper echoed questions I had been asking myself:
Are teachers and students in Ukraine active partners in seeking
Are individual choice and decision-making encouraged in our foreign language classes?
What are the strategies of successful learning?
Is it wise to use western educational techniques in my country?
The questions led my students and me to create our own materials for advanced English majors, which we call the "Alternative Textbook." In this article, I will be concerned with the pedagogical principles involved, and I will present brief excerpts from the text. I will also provide what amounts to a running commentary by the students themselves. I begin by briefly discussing the social and educational background that resulted in this ongoing endeavor. Although we began this project only in 1996, its seeds were planted quite a bit earlier.
A New Era Begins
In recent years, radical changes have occurred in social, cultural, economic and political life in Ukraine. Change has also been profoundly felt in our educational institutions. This process started with perestroika in 1986, and continued after Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. The country was opened to new radio and TV programs, and to audio courses in foreign languages. Native speakers arrived as foreign language teachers, and new pedagogical ideas, approaches and textbooks were introduced. Prior to democratization, our students were controlled and manipulated by the preplanned and predesigned five-year curriculum of the Ministry of Education. Students were rarely asked for their opinion on foreign language education. They had very little choice, but followed the teacher, the provider of knowledge. Students could speak their minds but seldom did so, since argument presupposes an independence of thought that was not necessary to succeed. To be considered a good student, it was enough to reproduce accurately the contents of a lecture or textbook unit on the exam. The approaches used in this preplanned curriculum did successfully develop students' passive knowledge of the foreign language system. Their comprehension, reading, and speaking skills within certain limited themes were very good. For example, our students found it easier to discuss art than to use everyday language or solve real- world tasks in English.
In 1988, Professor S. Nikolaeva of the Kiev State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages spoke about the necessity to abandon the traditional teacher-centered approach. She advocated the humanization and individualization of the educational enterprise. This vision was shared by American colleagues who spoke in Kiev in 1993, at the American-Ukrainian Symposium on Curriculum Reform in Education. Nevertheless, things did not change overnight. Although today almost all our teachers use some role playing, panel discussion, and similar techniques in the classroom, the old traditions are still very strong. Students have also had to make adjustments to new ways of teaching: sometimes they say they would rather "be taught" than "play games," indicating their feeling that the new approaches do not seem like work, so they must not really be learning.
Deficiencies in the Typical Classroom
In a typical English classroom in Ukraine, teaching is organized by topics, such as education, art, sports, etc. Students read adapted texts on these topics in the first year, and authentic ones in years 2--5. Each text is followed by drills and communicative tasks. The classroom techniques used in Ukraine vary from static grammar and vocabulary drills, to pseudo-communicative tasks (e.g., dramatization of take-home dialogs and text interpretation), to communicative activities (group work, role playing, panel discussions). The materials used are for the most part authentic; the tasks assigned engage students in vocabulary drills and textual interpretation, in using the text as a source of information, and in target language communication. However, the "communicative" situations are preset, student roles are preordained, the vocabulary is obligatory, and the information provided by the textbook is sometimes not sufficient to perform some of the tasks required. This approach is not effective in developing communicative skills, as the emphasis is placed on pedagogical tasks. There is no need for communicative use of the target language, because no problems are posed and no real information is exchanged.
As an alternative to the traditional method, Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) appealed to me and my colleagues in Ukraine. TBLT advocates self-motivated change, where \students and teachers themselves propose solutions to problems. Language instruction is not organized around grammatical structures, but instead around problems to be solved (Markee 1997). The basic idea in TBLT is that communication occurs when there is a gap in the information that is available to the participants in a conversation: one participant must obtain missing information from another. The absence of an information gap (as in "act-out-a-dialog" tasks) leads to pseudo - communication, using the language to demonstrate one's ability to do so and not for real communication.
A Modest Proposal: Suggested Themes for the "Alternative Textbook"
In 1996, when I first proposed to my class of fifteen undergraduate advanced English students that we write an Alternative Textbook, they were not enthusiastic. Most considered this project just another assignment that would make their lives miserable. Despite their discouraging behavior, I decided to give them a free hand in choosing themes, texts, issues for discussion. All the creative work would be theirs, and I would just be the administrator. Something amazing happened when I said, "Don't pick topics for teachers--you are going to write this textbook for yourselves and for the next few generations of students." My inert students started naming issues I had never suspected they were interested in. Their list was long, more than I had expected and far more than they could complete in a year. They voted for the best of all the themes named and arrived at the following final list:
1. The Individual and Society
a. Alcoholism, Smoking, Drug Abuse
2. People's Values
3. Human Rights
4. The World after World War II
6. Man and Nature
7. Youth Culture
8. Women and Society
9. The Art of Love
Unit Structure Using a few American textbooks as models, I chose two students to assist me in designing a unit structure that would emphasize communicative tasks. We presented our schema for class discussion; it was adopted after some revision. The 1997--98 class continued working on the unit structure, a modified version of which appears below:
2. Facts and Figures
3. Conversational English
4. Text work
4.2. Vocabulary items
4.3. Words and definitions
4.4. True/false statements
4.5. Matching ideas
4.6. Translation drills
4.7. Literary translation
5. Communication Activities
5.2. What's the difference?
5.3. Role playing
5.4. Essay writing
Next, the class split into smaller teams of two to four students, each working on one or two of the themes. The choice of partners and themes was voluntary. I was proud of my students: they showed a maturity of thought and seriousness of intent that we teachers sometimes deny they have. Ten or fifteen years ago, Ukrainian students would not have selected such topics (The Art of Love, Drug Abuse) in a teacher's presence; they would have been less open-minded (AIDS, Women and Society), less concerned about problems of individuals (Human Rights), less pragmatic (Careers) and less imaginative.
Below are excerpts from a sample unit of the Alternative Textbook we created. All the texts used are authentic, and a unit's authors can change the basic structure shown above. Some of the tasks in the unit are communicative and involve exchange of information or ideas; others are purely academic. But even in the latter, we encourage students to check with a partner, to report results, to team up in groups and compare answers. The Alternative Textbook is built on a student-student, not teacher-student interaction. Our work is a self-educating project. When a unit is ready, the team of authors (i.e., students) introduces it to the class and performs as teachers. The authors know their texts; they feel at home with their translations, role playing and other tasks. The students are the suppliers of new teaching materials, the implementers of innovation, and the clients of the project.
Excerpts from a Sample Unit on AIDS:
(Team of authors: Ira Ustenko, Vika Lysenko, Ivanna Dvoliatyk and Oksana Mytskan,all members of the graduating class of 1997.)
Ryan White is one of those kids who became a victim of AIDS. In December 1984, he was infected through a blood transfusion. The doctors said that it would be his last Christmas. Later he felt better and wanted to go back to school. But he wasn't allowed to, because he was considered dangerous. His classmates' parents held a meeting and demanded his isolation. Imagine that an AIDS-infected person came to study in your class. How would you treat him((her)? Explain and justify your choice.
A. You would try to support him, though AIDS is dangerous.
B. You would avoid contact with him because AIDS is dangerous.
C. You would demand his isolation because AIDS presents a serious threat to the community.
The Dilemma section is a brainstorming activity, a story posing a problem--the question is to be discussed rather than answered. "Dilemma is useful and important," noted one student, Liuba Ziniuk: "The short text catches the reader's attention, evokes her curiosity and make her want to read more." Mariana Gresko added, "Dilemma gives you the key to understanding the whole unit."
2. Facts and Figures.
Use the following facts to ask your partner what he or she thinks about AIDS. What do you know about AIDS/HIV? Is the problem worth your attention? Why? Does it concern you? Is the disease less threatening for people living in Europe?
--Almost 111,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the disease, and no one has yet been cured....
--AIDS cases are heavily concentrated in major cities. Ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented: among white adults, the incidence of AIDS cases is 189 per million population, for Afro-Americans it is 578 per million, and for Latinos, 564 per million....
--0ne out of every five AIDS patients has no insurance at all.
-- People's Daily World, Nov. 30, 1989
"Facts and Figures" supplies snapshot information for comment on the topic at hand; students find additional facts from other sources for class. Every student suggests a question related to Facts and Figures and presents it for further discussion. Ira Kutsii, one of the authors of the unit "Alcoholism, Smoking and Drug Abuse," said, "I was shocked by the figures, because I had no idea how many people in the world have a drinking problem. These figures make us think about what we are doing with our lives.
3. Conversational English.
Study the following expressions. Advise someone who is worried and unhappy not to panic, to see a doctor, to have a blood test. Suggest other situations for expressions above. Role-play a talk between Ryan White's classmates.
Why don't you...?
If I were you, I'd...
I think you should...
I don't think you should....
What's the matter?
What's the problem? ...
I am worried.
I'm rather/ very/ terribly/ dreadfully worried.
I've got a lot of problems....
The Conversational English section is meant for self-education. It is a take-home task: students memorize the idioms and use them in improvised situations or in a conversation. This is quite a traditional technique in my country, as English is a foreign, not a second language for us. Some of my students find this task difficult: "We just skipped it, because we could not think of appropriate conversational patterns related to the subject" (Natasha Shaturma).
4. Text Work.
A. Read the following text carefully: Give a brief summary
of the text. What is the author's point? Do you consider the information useful?
How can it help fighting AIDS? Is it worth knowing the history of disease
if it is incurable? In groups, compare your answer with those of your partners.
Did you have the same ideas? AIDS is the final, life-threatening stage of
infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). AIDS stands for acquired
immunodeficiency syndrome. The name refers to the fact that HIV severely damages
the patient's disease-fighting immune system. Cases of AIDS were first identified
in 1981 in the U.S.... Although HIV is primarily transmitted through sexual
intercourse, it can also be transmitted through infected blood.... There is
no vaccine against HIV, and we have no effective treatment of AIDS once it
- The World Book Encyclopedia, 1993.
Reading texts aloud is very popular with our students and teachers, though it is not a communicative activity. We teach our students expressive reading just as students in other countries might study drama. And reading for comprehension is "the most important part of every unit. The text is its backbone" (Mariana Havrylovych). Another student noted: "We looked through tons of books and magazines, trying to find the best text for our unit. As a result, we know much more now!" (Yuri Dranchuk).
Reproduce the following vocabulary items in context. Give their Ukrainian equivalents. Report the results. In class, choose the best variants.
to transmit the virus...
to slow the progress of disease
to damage the immune system
Memorizing vocabulary is less enjoyable than reading for comprehension or discussion; providing Ukrainian equivalents is more creative. Only three students did Not think we should study the text's vocabulary. Mila Telegina notes: "Learning vocabulary items is of great importance, as every text has an abundance of new words and phrases. Some of them name things which we don't have in our culture, which are impossible to understand out of context. It is also impossible to understand a text if we don't know them.
The exercises in the following section go with Text B, "AIDS and Our Health Crisis," by Chuck Johnson People's Daily World, 1992), which is not presented here.
1. to jeopardize
A. to stop or hinder
2. to assault
B. to kill or destroy
3. to decimate
C. to make an attack
4. to expose
D. to imperil, expose, venture
5. to prevent
E. to leave uncovered, unprotected
Explain these words:
Compare your definitions with your partner's.
As for providing words with definitions, some students find it "new and interesting" (Ivanna Dvoliatyk), or "difficult, because sometimes you think you know a word, but cannot explain what exactly it means" (Natalka Duma). Others consider this task "too simple for advanced students; it does not help one to memorize the words" (Liuba Ziniuk).
The exercises in the following two sections accompany Text C, "An Epidemic of Inaction," by Andreas E. Laras, People's Daily World, 1989, which is not presented here:
4.4. Which of these sentences about Text C are true and which are false?
--Governmental structures are able to provide immediate and
adequate response to the AIDS crisis.
--AIDS poses no real threat to society.
--The law does not prohibit employment of people with AIDS.
My students think that true/false statements are important. They consider them difficult because such tasks were very seldom given in the old educational system.
4.5. Find the ideas in Text C that match each statement below:
--Grassroots organizations are the only ones conducting
--Discussions about human relations and sexuality were previously considered taboo....
Matching ideas aims at developing the ability to grasp essential information. Student opinions differed as to the usefulness of the match-the-ideas task. It was called "vague," "incomprehensible," "original," "challenging," and "tricky." Mariana Pshehotska thinks "it helps you to learn how to concentrate on the main points of the text."
4.6. Translate the following sentences from Ukrainian into English, using the vocabulary of Texts A, B and C. [The Ukrainian sentences were omitted here.] Team up with two more students and compare your translations. Choose the best variant.
The Old Versus the New
We had the most heated arguments about this translation task. One of the students, Ira Gula, opposed it so resolutely that the rest nearly gave in. As a participant in the 1,000/1,000 Program established in 1992 by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, she spent a year studying English at Illinois College in Jacksonville in 1995/96, and this had given her new ideas and priorities. She said: "Drills are effective during the first two years of foreign language study. For advanced students, the main task is to study how to learn and develop, not to memorize or accumulate knowledge." The opinion of the majority was expressed by Ira Ustenko: "Some think that drills and translation exercises are not necessary, but drills help me. We don't have many native speakers around, and we don't have computer-assisted English classes. So I think we need the translation tasks and drills.
I also expressed my view during the translation debate: I am in favor of including translation in the Alternative Textbook. Translation is a high-level technical skill, without which the majority of our graduates will never find a job in Ukraine. Many will work as translators and interpreters for private firms, joint ventures, the state administration or publishing houses. They have to know exact Ukrainian equivalents for English words. The translation of fiction and scientific texts, vocabulary translation and grammar translation tasks were and still are required in our university foreign language curriculum. In the textbook currently used, they constitute about 10% of all exercises, and our students are given translation tests once a month. I am glad that my students voted to keep a reasonable amount of traditional work in the Alternative Textbook. This was a conscious decision on their part to preserve what was useful in the old system and what may be important for their future careers.
4.7. Translate Text C into Ukrainian. In groups, compare your translations and work on the final version.
This type of translation task really appeals to my students. Ira Dubynska said: "When I translate a text I feel like a co-author. Each language has its own laws, and my task is to render the author's message using a different language, and to make my text look and sound both right and beautiful." The students enjoyed collaborating on a final version.
5. Communication Activities.
Work in groups to name the issues highlighted in the texts. What do you know about the AIDS problem now?... Can you produce examples--stories, facts, etc.--to illustrate each issue of your discussion? Some ways of fighting AIDS are: sex education, anti- drug campaigns.... Suggest other possible ways of solving the problem.
5.2. What's the difference?
In small groups, compare the AIDS situation in the USA with that in your country. Points of comparison: attitude toward HIV-infected people, ways of preventing the spread of infection, difficulties in preventing AIDS. Suggest some other aspects for comparison and discuss them.
Sections 5.1 and 5.2 are among my students' favorites, because they can speak their minds. "When discussing a problem, I feel at ease and communicate my ideas freely" (Natasha Shaturma); "Discussion involves creative thinking" (Ira Kutsii).
5.3. Role Playing.
Imagine that you are a reporter interviewing people on their attitude toward AIDS-infected persons. Improvise three interviews. Think of some more situations and problems to act out.
Role playing is not quite a success with us so far. We are more familiar with "dramatizations," when students first make up a dialog, memorize their parts and then present it in class. There is no improvisation, the words are carefully thought out, the grammar is checked. When speaking impromptu in a role play, my students sometimes feel short on words and ideas. "It is quite different from discussion where one does not have to be amusing or lively. Though it is new for us, I think we should do it, because role play does develop our speaking and performing skills" (Mariana Gresko). Exactly because students do not feel confident in this kind of activity, role playing (is included in the Alternative Textbook).
5.4. Essay Writing.
Write an essay on one of these or other issues suggested in the texts and/or discussed in class: your attitude toward HIV/AIDS victims; AIDS in Ukraine; should sex education be introduced in high schools in Ukraine? Present your essay for comments, questions and further discussion.
Essay writing presents many difficulties. Following East Slavic traditions of organizing information, my students tend to present the message in the last third of their paper. Their syntax and phraseology are not always correct, they have problems with the logical sequencing of main and supporting ideas. "We learned to enjoy essay writing only by the end of the academic year. It shows one's ability to sum up the information, to present it in a logical way. It is important to have one's own ideas and vision" (Tanya Smirnova). Essays are usually presented in class, then the author is open to friendly criticism, praise, advice and comments, both on the content and the structure of the essay.
The success of the Alternative Textbook project is amazing, given that writing their own materials is an extracurricular activity for my students, since the State's predesigned curriculum cannot be ignored. Creating materials requires time and energy; yet this is how they feel about it:
The textbook we are using now is not bad, but it was written long ago. Its
themes, texts and language are out-of-date. Language is a living thing, its
vocabulary and grammar are changing constantly, and we must take these changes
Working on the Alternative Textbook gives us the opportunity to choose themes
which are more important and useful than those in the textbook. Besides, it
makes us read a lot of authentic texts.
Writing our own materials is great. It is creative work; we feel responsible
for it and try to do our best.
What we need in Ukraine now are new pedagogical materials, new approaches and values. A change in pedagogical values will lead to changes in approach and materials. It makes me proud and happy to observe how the philosophy of both teachers and students is gradually changing. The students have ceased to be "passive objects" and are becoming the center of the educational process. Now we must work on a new methodology that will help educators develop students' creative thinking and ability to acquire knowledge on their own. We must convince educators that there is an alternative to feeding students with facts.
Markee, Numa. 1997. Managing Curricular Innovation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Editor's note: Readers can write to Dr. Kulchytska at:
Shevchenko St. 57
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