VoiceThread for learning Russian

JoAnne Van Tuyl, Associate Professor of the Practice, Slavic and Eurasian Studies

JoAnne Van Tuyl was one of fourteen faculty and one graduate student who participated in a Spring 2010 CIT Fellowship for language faculty interested in exploring with colleagues the most effective and most efficient ways to increase students’ oral production in the target language, in order to increase students’ language learning.

JoAnne Van Tuyl wanted to provide more opportunities for first and second year students to speak Russian in and out of class. Her goal was to build students’ comfort and confidence with taking the “risk” of speaking Russian, and to inspire students’ sense of Russian as a real language and not just a structured game of grammar played with Cyrillic letters.

Van Tuyl focused on low risk audio and video assignments that gave students opportunities to speak Russian with a tool called VoiceThread. VoiceThread provides students with a shared online space where someone creates a new “thread” by posting a picture, video, or presentation and others can comment by posting an audio file or a video in response. In order to encourage students to take risks in these assignments and not be afraid of what grade they might get, she simply recorded “done” or “not done” for the VoiceThread assignments instead of assigning grades.

I chose to experiment with VoiceThread for out-of-class oral assignments because it appeared to provide a fun and interactive medium by which students could actively practice their Russian and communicate with other members of the class.

— JoAnne Van Tuyl

For the  first year Russian course, the students spent one course period learning how to operate VoiceThread. While the technology was not complicated, this training helped ensure that all of the class members were able to post their assignments. Each student was to post a video asking a question they selected from a stack of cards during class. Other students were then to go to VoiceThread, listen to each classmate’s question and answer each question in Russian.


The second year Russian course was a small group of 9 students. Following a unit on verbs of motion and imperatives these students posted videos to describe and show how to get from the Duke statue on East Campus to their dorm room. They created the video directly on VoiceThread or uploaded it from a FlipVideo camera or other digital file.

For another course assignment to increase cultural knowledge of Russia while improving language skills, students researched vacation destinations in Russia. On VoiceThread each student posted a video about a different destination to try and “sell” the vacation spot to classmates. Students responded to each video with an audio comment explaining why they would or wouldn’t go to that vacation destination. Students found the viedos highly entertaining and were very eager to watch each other’s videos and comment in Russian.

Reflecting on the assignments, Van Tuyl felt the second year assignments were “very successful in challenging students to use their Russian outside of class and in new ways. The assignments strengthened their mastery of Russian and made the language more a part of the students’ lives.” VoiceThread provided a structure in which students could do oral homework in a convenient and interactive way.

The video posts created variety and were a welcome break from written assignments. Van Tuyl was able to take quick notes about the assignments and provide students with informally written, detailed feedback about vocabulary choice, grammar constructions, pronunciation, etc. Using VoiceThread provided an easy, effective way to give individualized feedback to each student.

Tips for using VoiceThread in a course:

  • Training students or having some support for their use of VoiceThread is vital to their successful participation in the project. Students need to be successful in using and posting to VoiceThread to enjoy and learn from the assignments.
  • Students should post a picture or icon to identify themselves in VoiceThread.
  • Create a practice thread for an assignment to see if the assignment will work in the way you envision.
  • VoiceThread does not allow individuals to comment on comments posted by others, so in cases where a response is expected, the initial prompt should be posted as its own thread.
  • Videos allow for oral language practice and are more interesting and entertaining than audio alone. Flip cameras are an easy way to create video and upload to VoiceThread.
  • Grading for participation (instead of skill) frees everyone up to relax, be creative and take risks. It also minimizes the stress when using new technology.