Volume: 2, Issue: 3


Methods of Teaching Russian in the Writings of Pyotr O. Afanasyev
Телкова В.А. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: methods of teaching Russian, Pyotr Afanasyev, mother tongue, methodology, sample lessons, a scientific approach to language at large, literacy teaching, linguistic principles, teaching spelling, teaching grammar.
SYNOPSIS: The author brings to the modern reader many new and unknown facts about one of the most prominent figures in the methodology of teaching Russian and describes his main ideas. 

Methods of Teaching Russian Language
in the Works of Pyotr O. Afanasyev

Pyotr O. Afanasyev (1874-1944), Doctor of Education, is one of the most  authoritative figures in the methodology of teaching Russian, a field to which he dedicated almost fifty years of his life. For twenty-seven of these years he supervised elementary and middle school teachers, helping them via the spoken and written word to achieve outstanding results in their classrooms.

Afanasyev’s research and literary legacy is rich and diverse. His articles on pedagogy and methodology were published in educational journals such as “Vestnik Vospitaniya (Bulletin of Education),” the “Dzurnal Ministerstva Narodnovo Prosvescheniya (Journal of the Ministry of Public Education), the “Pedagogicheskiy Vestnik (Bulletin of Pedagogy),” “Rodnoi Yazik v Schkolye (The Mother Tongue in School),” etc. His book “Methodological Essays on Teaching Russian as the Mother Tongue with Sample Lesson Plans on All Aspects of Russian with Systematic  Explanations (Metodicheskie Ocherki o Prepodavanii Rodnovo Yazika s Metodicheskimi Poyacheniyami)” which appeared in 1914 was the result of his long term and painstaking research. At that time it was one of the very few works that related to the teaching of Russian as the mother tongue in elementary and middle school classes. Even after the October Revolution it attained thirteen published revisions, the last one published in 1937, and for more than twenty years it served as the main teaching resource for elementary school classes. Every revision included changes and corrections introduced by the author which were called for as the curriculum was modified. Thus, one development was the book “Russian Language Teaching in a Labor School,” and another “Russian Language Teaching Methods.” However, the basic principles of these later editions had been established in his original “Methodological Essays…” cited above.
In his day, these “Methodological Essays” became a prominent, contemporary indicator on how Russian was taught at elementary levels. With time, however, this book fell into undeserved neglect, even though it could still offer much useful advice to elementary school teachers. It should be noted that in his book we come across an approach  which was and may still be interesting and helpful today, regardless of currently fashionable educational methodology. This is explained by the fact that the author managed not only to prescribe teaching strategies, but also and more importantly to consider the circumstances under which they were applied. He provided an accurate description of the “environment” in which the pedagogical methods are applied, that is, he considered—to use contemporary language—the linguistic and psychological conditions in the classroom.

Early on in the introduction the author gives voice to his principal point of view in these words, “the teaching methods to be applied to a particular aspect of the Russian language must be used not by following a standard teaching methodology, but by studying general and specific pedagogical publications that supply sample lessons” (1,5). Pyotr Afanasyev wanted his lesson, his models, to be considered as examples, rather than models, not out of false modesty, but because he wanted teachers to concentrate on their core teaching. He writes, “Obviously the model should be imitated and copied, but any model that is imposed, even a very good one, is of little use if it kills the teacher’s creativity. The model which the teacher will occasionally have reference to cannot become a part of the teacher’s own, unique teaching methods and slavish copying will not contribute to the growth of teachers in developing their own teaching strategies” (1,6).

In that part of his book dealing with practical ways of teaching the specifics of reading, spelling, and grammar, Afanaysev first has a number of chapters dealing with linguistics because he believed that “a scientific approach to language at large and especially to one’s mother tongue is vitally necessary for teachers, not so that they can teach linguistics to them, but so that they integrate this knowledge in a living way into their teaching and thus be able to develop more effectively their students; personal abilities and intellectual outlooks” (1,15).

In the chapter “General data obtained from linguistics that are necessary for a sensible way to teach it,” Afanasyev built on the views of Alexander A. Potebnya, Vasily A. Bogoroditskiy, and other linguists when he wrote about speech and speaking, speech and listening, the interrelation between language and thinking. He paid special attention to the “living language” which is not just a series of sounds but is conveyed through the intonation and the modulation of the voice. He writes, “The only way to reveal the secrets of a language is to examine the living language. The teacher who relies on books and ignores the living language will fall into the many grammatical traps the mother tongue conceals” (1,24).
Another chapter with the title “Methods of literacy teaching based on linguistic principles,” takes up teaching methods based on sounds, syllables, and whole words. He went deeper into the sound-based system of literacy teaching. He suggested introducing sounds and syllables based on a linguistically sound basis that proceeded step by step. He was also convinced that schools needed methods of teaching literacy that would take into consideration the special characteristics of Russian articulation and phonetics. Moreover, in promoting this type of methodology for teaching literacy, he did not limit himself to merely describing them; instead, he added illustrations and special flash cards to use in presenting his sound-based method of teaching literacy.

Afanasyev’s methods of teaching spelling are also worthy of interest, especially when we consider that fact that teachers take great pains to have their students achieve if not perfect then at least a high level of orthographic accuracy. He defined the most significant factors that make up correct writing: the appearance of the written word and the hand movements involved in making them, for he believed that a student’s knowledge of the rules of spelling were not a measure of an increase in literacy level. Consequently, it is not the knowledge of grammar which in the final analysis is the measure of acquiring literacy successfully, but mostly the development of hand movements and the constant practice in writing compositions.

It is hard to agree with this approach as postulated by Afanasyev because modern Russian teaching methodology holds that in spelling classes it is most important to provide goal-based exercises which children engage in based on their knowledge of grammar and supported by their development of correct hand movements.

Yet, to ensure the progress of students in writing correctly, Afanaysev suggested various types of writing activities with a special place given to copying and dictation. His book subjects these activities to a profound psychological and linguistic analysis and describes several different variations and comments on ways to achieve them. While holding that spelling should play its proper role in the teaching of the mother tongue in schools, he also warns against overestimating its value in the over-all education of children: “We must not forget that literary level is not determined by the skill in writing artificially selected words and phrases, but by the skill to express one’s own thoughts correctly in free composition” (1,70). In other words, spelling must not take precedence over other knowledge and skills necessary for the development of accurate literacy.

All this useful information is discussed in the special chapter entitled “How to teach writing and spelling.” Here, drawing from his own experience, Afanaysev explains these extremely complicated tasks simply and practically in a way which shows his concern for the teacher’s needs, ideas, and desires. As a classroom teacher himself, Afanaysev could not ignore the problems of teaching grammar. Following curriculum guidelines, he suggested that the teacher should keep observing students’ live speech, a procedure which he thought was crucial in studying speech phenomena. The main advantage of this approach is that “…the teacher’s role is now focused not on always giving finished information to children which they could never discover themselves, but on guiding them to discover the learning matter for themselves.”

Afanaysev considered this method as the key to teaching language and literature; thus, he saw no need to impart to children grammatical terminology writing, “…it is far better to substitute grammatical terms with purposeful questions leading to logically correct answers” (1,108). Here is an illustration of Afanaysev’s method: “The teacher writes the following phrase on the blackboard, ‘The dogs are barking in the distance” and asks the children, ‘which word or phrase indicates where the dogs are barking?’ The children reply with, ‘The phrase in the distance,’ and that is it, no further grammatical discussion of the phrase ‘in the distance is necessary ‘(1,108).” This kind of meaningful and purposeful analysis, according to our author, is more valuable than grammatical knowledge and terminology because the children grasp the central concept of the idea, the “spirit and structure” of their mother tongue.

Afanaysev would later devote a separate monograph to the issues involved in grammar classes in elementary schools. His work “How to teach grammar in an elementary school,” presented a comprehensive system describing how children acquire grammatical knowledge, and contains suggestions for specific methods of dealing with sentences, substantives, and morphemes.

The final chapters of his “Methodological essays…” with the headings “On organizing analytical reading,” and “On organizing readings in Church Slavonic,” provide the interested teacher with many challenging and still relevant ideas and insights. In our opinion, these works illustrate that Afanaysev had a perfect understanding of the function of analytical reading because the teacher, instead of concentrating on separate words and their different meanings, should instead concentrate on revealing the plot of the story and its message which can then be used as the basis for analyzing its vocabulary and for written exercises. According to him, reading should be accompanied by dramatizing and acting out the story, making illustrations based on it, and tours to literary sites; all these activities, integrated with reading, will advance the development of oral and written skills.

We conclude this brief review of Afanasyev’s “Methodological essays…” by saying ht though this work was written almost a hundred years ago, it is still highly relevant to classroom teachers and researchers in the field of education because not a single aspect of the Russian language escaped his attention. Apart from the basic course of methodology that thoroughly explored the teaching of Russian, he also published a number of books and papers on the problems encountered in teaching it in different kinds of schools.

Afanaysev deserves our respect for the attention he paid during the hard times of the Soviet period to the pre-revolutionary legacy of methodologists and linguists. For example, in 1941 he compiled the “Selected papers on the history of Russian language methodology in elementary school” which included the works of such renowned methodologists and pedagogues like Konstantin D. Ushinsky, Vladimir P. Sheremetyevsky, Iosef I. Paulson, G.G. Tumim, Dmitry I. Tikhomirov, and others. In this work’s preface Afanaysev emphasizes the rich heritage from pre-revolutionary times saying, “Thorough study of this experience does not simply satisfy the desire to know history but will indeed provide the key to understanding the roots of many contemporary methodological approaches and practical teaching techniques currently used in schools. A great number of pages which contain the concepts of the past are welcome in present day teaching methodology (3,1).” It is to be regretted that it is very hard to find this book now though its contents could be extremely useful to every elementary school teacher, especially to those who are just starting their teaching careers.

A close look at the list of problems raised in Afanasyev’s works convinces that this great teacher’s contribution to the methodology of teaching Russian in elementary schools is enormous but not fully appreciated because the number of issues he dealt with at the beginning of the twentieth century are still challenging ones today.


1. Afanasyev P.O. Methodological essays on teaching Russian as the mother tongue with sample lesson plans and expert comments in all aspects of the Russian language. - Мoscow, 1914. [In Russian]
2. Afanasyev P.O. How to teach grammar in elementary school. - Мoscow, 1932. [In Russian]
3. Selected papers on the history of the Russian language methodology in elementary school / Compiled by P.O. Afanasyev. - Мoscow, 1941. [In Russian]

1 Reprinted in an abridged version upon written consent of the “Nachalnaya Shkola” (Elementary School) Journal editorial board. First published in “Nachalnaya Shkola” in 2009, #5.

2 Telkova, Valentina A. [In Russian: Валентина Алексеевна Телкова], Ph. D., Associate Professor, Department of the Contemporary Russian Language and its Teaching Methodology, Yelets State University named after Bunin, Elets, Russia.

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