Слава Богу! Praise be! I’ve finally passed my advanced foreign language writing exam in Russian. In this post, I lift the lid on how I did it and how you can too. If you’re planning on taking the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language Third Certficiate (that’s the TRKI 3 – Тест по русскому языку как иностранному, третий сертификационный уровень) or another of the higher TRKI exams, you’re in the right place! Below, you’ll find info on materials, the time I spent and an in-depth analysis of the three questions. If you’re sitting a intermediate or advanced langauge exam in another language check out the first part of the article about the time I put in and how I used my teachers, then you might want to skip the question analysis and jump to the general tips towars the end. Also have a look at “How to pass a foreign language exam“, a post packed with tips whatever your language or level.
If you’re a regular reader, you may recall that I’ve been here before, sort of. A year ago I had my first attempt at the full TRKI 3rd Certificate. I passed four of the five sections. My problem: writing.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been undertaking “Operation Right Russian Write“, my preparation for – and retake of – the writing paper.
To pass the TRKI-3 you need to score at least 66% in all five parts.
Last year my overall result was 73.6% which broke down as listening: 80%, speaking: 82%, grammar and vocab: 77%, reading: 72%.
However, my writing result was a “solid fail” at 57.
This time, for the writing retake, I got 71%. That gives me a final 76.4% overall pass.
71% for writing wasn’t a stunning result, but at five over the pass mark, there was a little wriggle room and I’m happy.
After all, this is a high level exam, with a tricky reputation and I’m somebody of very average linguistic abilities. It’s a test aimed mainly at language majors doing a masters in Russian philology or literature (not a first degree) and also those going on to work in a language-fouccessed field such as journalism, translation or interpreting.
As L. F. Beliakova and her co-authors noted in one of the few discussions on the exam I’ve found out there, you do need to train specially for it. It isn’t enough just to accumulate knowledge of Russian culture and experience communicating with native speakers.
If you don’t pass you can “hold” passes in four papers while you attempt one retake of one paper. But…..you can only do this once. Failing would have taken me, dispirited, back to the drawing board.
Hope I’m not putting you off the TRKI 3 before we even get started.
Just in case, here’s a bouncy, boosty motivational thought (this, after all is a “feel good” site):
- at least the TRKI 3 it isn’t half as bad as the TRKI fourth certificate! 😉
What I did – an overview.
Preparing for the retake became my main language priority in January, a full six months before the exam.
In practice there were up months and down months (I was travelling for a couple of weeks in January and April, the two least productive months).
I only really ramped things up in the six weeks or so before the exam.
Before that – travel and the usual distractions aside – I didn’t want the task to expand to fill too much time at the expense of my work on other languages. Parkinson’s law and all that.
After all, in the equivalent half-year period twelve months ago, I had the full five papers to work towards.
This year it was just writing. So, into June I kept up with work on other languages, especially Basque.
My original plan had been to do a lot more Russian grammar revision and exercises.
I hoped to use the Goldlist method to expand my vocab.
By May and June, though, my focus was almost exclusively on producing written work in the form (and within the time limits) required by the exam and having the work corrected by my teachers live via Skype (using Google Docs).
On the objective basis of last year’s results, I decided that my vocab was more than wide enough and that it was best to deal with mistakes in grammar and style as they came up in practice.
Don’t forget, though, that all the skills do hang together. As Beliakova et al note in their study, a particular problem with the writing paper is that the extreme time pressure, including the need to read and evaluate written a 450-500 word text in question one and the 300 to 350 word text which forms the basis of question two (both considered in detail below).
You need to be able to read fast and effectively in Russian to do this (and that ability is one of the things that really helped me).
INSIDER TIP > Focus on what’s going to be tested. Get objective on what you need and train other skills only so far as they help!
What specific TRKI-3 materials are available?
There are not many published materials with a specific focus on Russian for foreigners at this level. I know of just three sets of general textbooks, all from Zlatoust publishers (who also published the “official” model paper – see below):
Rogova, К.А. (и др.) Русский язык. Учебник для продвинутых (СПб, 2015)(four volumes)(each covers all four skills);
Макова, М.Н. В мире людей (СПб, 2013) (two volumes – one focusses on writing and speaking, the other on reading and listening);
Захарова, А.И. (и др.) Учебно-тренировочные тесты по русскому языку как иностранному В2-С1 (СПб, 2015) (four volumes – one focusses on writing).
Look out for my review of these materials soon on the site.
There is one official model exam paper, out there on the net (from 1999!):
Типовые тесты по русскому языку как иностранному – третий сертиыикационный уровень. Общее владение (RF Ministry of General and Professional Education, 1999).
There is also one commercially available book (also from Zlatoust) containing two more “mock” papers (all five sections):
N. P Adnriushina et al Тренировочные тесты по русскому языку как иностранному (СПб, 2012).
I’d done all three sample papers last year but had forgotten the question topics. I didn’t peek and re-did all three writing sub-tests again under “exam conditions” in the last few weeks before the exam.
Otherwise, I had to make up a lot of essay topics and select texts myself from my other advanced Russian textbooks for the “informal letter” and “fax” questions (more on all three below).
I logged all the topics in my earlier Operation Write Russian Right update.
INSIDER TIP > Train yourself under timed “exam conditions” Use model or past papers if they are available. If not, use your creativity and create your own materials.
Preparation in figures
Between the beginning of the year and the exam (second weekend in July), I spent a total of eighty-nine hours working towards it. This was focussed study, writing practice and lessons, “quality time”.
It excludes passive reading, viewing and listening.
This was on top of the 177 hours 10 mins I put in from early January to end June last year.
Last year the time went not just on prep writing but also for the sub-tests of grammar/vocab, reading, speaking and listening.
The Russian Ministry of Education guidelines (at the front of the 1999 model paper) say that 280 additional study hours are required to reach the 3rd Certificate level when you’re already at Second Certificate level. They say the grand total would be approximately 1300 hours of study from zero knowledge of Russian.
266 hours is my total for B2 to C1 over two six-month periods (separated by half a year focussed on other things).
The powers that be have to set some sort of guideline.
I suppose it does help the “I’m starting a language this Easter and I’m aiming to be C2 by Christmas” brigade get real.
That said, I’m not otherwise sure that the figures help much, unless you’re on a full time intensive course (such as those that professional diplomats get sent on),
So much depends on how efficiently you’re learning. For most of us, figures for total hours are of limited practical use.
If you’re at the higher levels, you have often been studying and living the language on and off for years, making accurate “nought to sixty” calculations neigh on impossible.
Be that as it may, this is how my total active study time looked over the six or so months (ignoring extensive passive radio/video exposure):
January – 1 hour, 15 minutes
February – 6 hours, 40 minutes
March – 19 hours
April – 4 hours, 45 minutes
May – 15 hours, 5 minutes
June – 30 hours, 40 minutes
July – 14 hours
The total included thirty-four hours of one-to-one lessons, booked with three teachers on italki.
The default was roughly two lessons a week.
Andrei – 23 one hour lessons
Vsevolod – 10 half hour lessons
Mikhail – 2 one hour lessons, 8 half hour lessons
Almost all the lessons in the last two months involved my teachers correcting practice answers I’d written in advance.
We used google docs for this. I wrote my answers by hand. Then I typed them up. Then I gave the teacher access and he did the corrections in a different colour.
The one downside to that was that quite a lot of the total time I spent – certainly a quarter – was typing up the written work I’d already done by hand.
It would have saved time to write the answers straight off in electronic form. I chose not to do that because you have to write by hand in the exam, so you need to practice that.
Given the strict word limits for all three questions, you also need to get used to how 150 or 200 words looks and feels when you churn it out by hand.
The additional “typing up” stage did, at least, expose me to the language an extra time.
That meant that I was able to weed out errors, though it also made it all the more frustrating when, in the lessons, various howlers and more serious mistakes kept cropping up.
Me feeling was that I just had to make all the mistakes in the book several times.
My aim was to have made enough of them, often enough, before exam day.
INSIDER TIP > Mastery is often about removing mistakes.
INSIDER TIP > The key to success is practice with feedback, repeat, repeat.
Tips on individual questions
The tips below are based on my own experience and on my reading of the notes to the “official” past paper (which also includes some guidelines on marking).
This will only be directly relevant if you’re doing this exam. All the same, whatever your language, you should be doing the same analysis of your target exam at the beginning.
Check you’re up-to-date. Don’t assume that your teacher will be. Most of a teacher’s students are likely to be at beginner or intermediate level. Teachers may not be so familiar with the requirements at this level.
It’s your responsibility.
At the time of writing (August 2017), I’m afraid to say, though, that I haven’t been able to find any official sources of information out there.
Hit google when your time comes but be prepared for surprises (as I had to be – read on).
Let’s not beat about the bush: the lack of transparency around the TRKI exams is a poor show by the Russian authorities. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. Guys: look what the Goethe Institute, Institute Français or the British Council do and GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!
End of rant. Back to the format:
There are three questions, to be completed in 1 hour fifteen minutes.
Each question carries the same number of marks. According to the 1999 paper (pp. 63, 66) you can score up to thirty marks per question. So, it seems, three times thirty adds up to 100 (I kid you not!).
Question 1 – the informal letter
Task: write an informal letter to a Russian acquaintance.
Length: 200 to 250 words based on a 400 to 450 word text (often in the style of a serious newspaper or magazine report).
Time: examiners’ recommendation – 25 minutes for this question (five minutes of which would be for reading the text).
You obviously don’t know what the text will be in advance but the teacher notes to the 1999 paper do say that it will be a text “dealing with a topical problem in the socio-cultural sphere”. [In the official mock topic is *****]. Mine on the day was about effects of television and its future.
For question 1 the thirty marks are awarded (from nought to five) across six areas. The guidelines are rather nebulous but here they are:
- 1. The ability to present present information concisely and in accordance with the requirements of the task.
- 2. The ability to classify and analyse the information presented.
Purpose/argument (? = интенция)
- 3. The ability to evaluate the points of view presented.
Form and structure
- 4. The ability to produce a coherent text consisting of setting out events, facts; indicating the source of the information, the arguments presented, points of view etc.
- 5. The ability to use linking words.
- 6. Conformity of the language used with the norms of contemporary Russian.
You are given a sold framework for your letter in the form of the areas you are required to cover: the source, summarise the main points (maybe key changes in an area over a period of time), list the main explanations for them, explore the perspectives or opinions presented (maybe the views of specialists), give an outlook for the future and your own opinion on the topic.
That’s quite a lot to remember.
What I do is to number these points one to six and underline relevant parts of the text as I read, putting the applicable number in the margin. Then I know exactly where to pluck the points from as I write the letter. The structure of the piece broadly follows the same list.
You should be aiming for a relatively informal style of standard Russian.
You will not have the space or time to copy vast chunks of the text. You need to paraphrase intelligently. Don’t go in for radical acrobatics unless you’re confident you’ll land on your feet.
There is no explicit guidance on the letter format. I did not add recipient or sender addresses at the top on the grounds that if the examiners wanted this, they would ask for it (as they do for the “fax” or “email” (question 2 – see below)).
I topped and tailed the letter with some sentences I had learned by heart in advance. Here’s the opening:
Ты мне недавно рассказал, что тебя интересуют проблемы [воспитания детей в России] и я, как раз, прочёл статью [по материалам радиостанции “Эхо Москвы”] именно по этой теме.
All I had to do was to fill in the relevant details in the slots I’ve bracketed above.
And here’s my stock ending:
А ты как думаешь? Напиши мне об этом и обо всех своих новостях!
С наилучшими пожеланиями, Гарет
My teachers corrected 14 of my practice letters in the months before the exam.
Question 2 – the fax/email
Task: is to write a business-style fax or email to an imaginary person who has requested information about the topic covered in the text
Length: fifty to seventy words on the basis of a 300 to 350 word text.
Time: examiners’ recommendation – twenty minutes (five recommended for reading the text).
In the official mock, for example, the text is based on an fictional interview with the dean of the Special Philological Faculty of Saint Petersburg State University. You are asked to write to somebody who has enquired about doing a post-graduate course in interpreting (so, presumably, you could be an employee of the admissions office).
Mine on the day was about avoiding problems such as obesity and heart disease associated with an unhealthy lifestyle.
The marking scheme is the same as for question one, apart from requirements three and four, which I’ll snappily translate as follows (that was irony):
- Ability to present information in accordance with the effect required by the question.
Form and structure
- The adequacy of the forms and structures of the exposition to the content and purpose of the text produced.
Your writing should thus be in a more impersonal, official style than the letter to an acquaintance of question 1 (the latter typically being more of a journalistic-style report). You’d use the formal second person pronoun “вы” rather than the informal “ты”.
The text provided is only three quarters of the length of the text for question one, so you should be able to read it more quickly.
The instructions in the official mock paper say that you should “abbreviate the number of phrases in the text and the phrases themselves.”.
In order to get down from 300-350 words to 50 to 70, you are probably going to have to do more than this.
You will have to cut the detail quite radically and just convey the essence of the text.
The short length of the final text is a potential blessing (see the section on timing/answer order, below), but, in my experience, it took a lot of practice and discipline to be able to produce something short enough, quickly.
Another problem is the inadequate guidance as to what is required in two aspects.
First, it is not clear from the instructions whether the word limit includes the address (less of an issue if the format is email – see below). For this reason alone, it is worth erring towards the bottom of the word limit, just in case you get a fax and the address is included.
Second, there is the mysterious instruction is to “use generally accepted abbreviations of words…”.
My teachers were non-plussed as to what exactly was required here.
Does it just mean common abbreviations such as т.е. (то есть); и др. (и другие); см. (смотри); г. (год; город); проф. (профессор)?
Would this be extended to the use of acronyms: Филфак СПбГУ (Филолопгческий факультет Санкт-Петербургского государственного университета); РАН (Российская академия наук)?
Other types of abbreviation might include knocking the endings off words: авт. (автор); напр. (например).
Should you consistently reduce those long, multi-syllable Russian adjectives derived from nouns: геогр. (географический); европ. (европейский); искусств. (искусственный)?
Another form of abbreviation is to “gut” a word from inside: гос-во (государство); фак-т (факультет); г-н (господин); кол-во (количество), in which case you would normally add case endings as required (в гос-ве; на фак-тах).
At the moment, I’m afraid, quite what is required is anybody’s guess!
The topic is half-heartedly touched on in Rogova (reference above – vol 2. p. 161).
The best brief coverage of the general rules and conventions is in Zakharova (see above – pp. 16-17).
Neither of these gives clear guidance of how much abbreviation is required in the context of the exam question, however.
There is also a useful abbreviations guide (24-page .pdf) on the net intended for use by scholars/archivists/librarians when putting together bibliograhpies:
Сокращение слов и словосочетаний на русском языке. Общие требования и правила (Федеральное агенство по техническому регулированию и метрологии)(ГОСТ Р 7.0.12-2011)(М. 2012).
This has a good two-and-a-half page overview of general rules of abbreviation (similar to the one in Zakharova), followed by a nineteen page alphabetical list of individual words with their accepted abbreviations.
My suggestion (on no other authority than that it’s what I tried to do) would be this:
- use the type of high-frequency abbreviations you will be already familiar with (such as гг. см.);
- use any relevant acronyms for institutions mentioned from the text and a few additional abbreviations, used consistently (i.e. don’t use геогр. at one point and then write географический in full a couple of sentences later);
- be sure to follow the generally accepted rules (see the intro to the 2012 guide and Zakharova);
- don’t forget to decline endings (see the 2012 guide and Zakharova, again). For example, на факультетах would be gutted and declined as на фак-тах (or, if you are uncertain, only use abbreviations in positions where they are in the nominative).
You are also told in the rubric of the official model paper to “formulate the address and indicate the addressee in a generally accepted form for transmission by fax”.
The official model paper (and hence the Zlatoust mock papers – see reference earlier in this article) only talk about a fax and last year, I got a fax.
This year, however, the paper demanded an email.
This change was not entirely unexpected. My teachers had expressed scepticism that the examiners would still want a fax, given that faxes are nowadays hardly ever used.
Volume Two of Rogova’s third certificate textbook hedges as follows (at p. 162):
“Attention! At the current time this type of written communication [i.e. fax] is becoming a thing of the past. However, the situation with educational tests does not change so fast….If the situation has changed, in all the exercises below write a business letter to be sent as an email”.
Still, given that there is no other information out there, I worked on the assumption that a fax would still be required, as I had been my experience last year.
If I were to take the exam again, I’d go in prepared to produce either a fax or an email and, until more information emerges, I’d encourage you to do the same.
But hey, let’s just stop to take this in: the format of a state-sanctioned Russian public exam changes but there is no official published announcement for candidates. It’s a disgrace.
Hey ho. Welcome to Russia the country that really respects people who want to get good at its language. Or not?
As luck would have it, the changes you to make to recast a fax as an email are minimal.
You can see how I formulated for fax in the samples I posted in my earlier progress update (address of sender and recipient at the top, with made up fax/phone numbers).
On the day, I just added a rubric on the top to simulate an email. It went something like:
Тема: Статья о здоровье.
I then opened the letter with my pre-prepared spiel:
Уважаемый Иван Иванович!
В ответ на Вашу просьбу о том, [как получить проф. переводчика как 2-ое высш. образ.,] сообщаю Вам, что….
I had a stock ending:
“Если у Вас будет дополнительные вопросы, я рад буду на них ответить.
But, shortly before the exam, I realised that there is simply not space to throw away twelve words when the limit is fifty to seventy. I just ended abruptly with “С уважением,”
In the months running up to the exam, I wrote eleven practise faxes for correction with my teachers.
Question 3 – the essay
Task: write an essay on a given topic on a general problem facing humanity or society.
Length: 150 to 200 words.
Time: examiners’ recommendation – thirty minutes.
In another unexpected development compared to the published format and to my exam this year, there were two topics to choose from.
Please suggest any explanations for this sudden burst of generosity from the examiners in the comments section 🙂
You are given relatively clear guidance on content. The rubric states that your answer should determine:
- what the problem is;
- the objective and subjective causes of the problem;
- ways to solve the problem.
Identifying the problem should not be difficult (usually paraphrasing the question should do it). The references to “objective” and “subjective” causes will be familiar to anybody who knows the Soviet social sciences.
In essence, I take “objective” to mean aspects which can be seen as existing independently of people’s attitudes (as in the immutable laws of historical development à la Karl Marx) and subjective as being those attitudes (as in the class consciousness – or false consciousness – of the proletariat).
For example, in an article on the problem of global warming, objective causes could be the build up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels. A subjective cause could be the desire of people in developing countries to have a first world lifestyle or the unwillingness of the richest countries to change their conception of the “good life” so that it no longer involves rampant consumerism.
Then come your suggested solutions. Nobody expects yours to be the last word. Just make it an arguable proposition.
Given the lack of space, my aim was to give just two objective causes, two subjective and two or three solutions. The temptation is to go too deeply into each areas and run out of time and permitted words.
You are also told that you should evaluate:
- “the degree to which society is aware of the problem; and
- the “character of your own involvement in solving the problem.”
I aimed for a sentence or two on societal awareness (e.g. it is frequently discussed in the press so there is a basic level of awareness/only a superficial awareness).
It’s good to deal with this just before your solutions (you can then go on to have raising awareness as one of your solutions, e.g. through a government advertising campaign or change in the school syllabus)
The classic, hackneyed structure of an essay is beginning/middle/end (tell them what your going to say, say it and tell them what you’ve said).
You don’t have space for this.
Instead of a conclusion, I used the final sentence or two to deal with the requirement to comment on the “character of my own involvement”, but clearly flagged this up as a concluding comment, maybe finishing off instead of a conclusion, but flagged clearly as a concluding statement.
Once again, I had some standard phrases around which I could structure the essay:
“В этом сочинении обсуждается демографическое старение населения в развитых странах.”
“В этом сочинении обсуждается вопрос возможна ли интеграция мигрантов в современном обществе.”
Stating the problem –
“Проблема состоит в том, что,”
“Главной объективной причиной данной проблемы является, с одной стороны, ….., с другой, …..”
“Главной объективной причиной данного положения является тот факт, что…”
“Субъективных причин этой проблемы несколько. Во-первых,…. Во-вторых,…..”.
“Переходя к обсуждению путей решения проблемы,….”
Level of social awareness:
Тема обсуждается в СМИ, что свидетельствует о высоком уровне осознания проблемы обществом. Тем не менее, народ срочно нуждается в ещё большем образовании в этой сфере…”.
“Отчасти, такие взгляды просто отражают тон обсуждения в СМИ, где журналисты говорят о проблеме, что свидетельствует об осознании её обществом, но редко излагают убедительные способы решить её.”
My personal involvement (flagged as conclusion):
“Что касается моего личного участия в решении проблемы, хочу сказать, в заключение, что я…”
For question 1 they are awarded (from nought to five) across six areas (again, similar to the previous two questions):
- 1. The ability to determine what the problem is.
- 2. The ability to characterise the problem (its social significance and what it means for the exam candidate).
- 3. The ability to express candidate’s own relationship to the problem.
- 4. The ability to suggest candidate’s own solution.
Form and structure
- 5. The adequacy of the forms and structures of the exposition to the content and of text produced.
- 6. The adequacy of the forms and structures of the exposition to the argument of the text produced.
- 7. Ability to use linking words.
- 8. Conformity of the language used with the norms of contemporary Russian.
My teachers corrected twenty essays with me before the exam.
Two general tips in brief
I’ll write a separate post on tactics for intermediate/advanced writing exams soon. It will offer more general advice based on my experience of passing the TRKI 2nd and 3rd Certificates and the Goethe C1 German exam. [Update: here’s the post: “How to pass a foreign language exam” – it’s packed with tips whatever your language or level.]
I just wanted to pull forward two points from that, because they were so important in my TRKI 3 experience this year:
First, don’t be afraid to vary the question order if it makes tactical sense. Last year I did the questions in numerical order, finishing with the essay (Q3). This year I did the essay first. It’s the question with the least in the way of structure to cling onto when you’re under extreme time pressure as I was by the end both last year and this.
This time I left the fax/email to last. At 50 to 70 words, it’s by far the shortest piece.
You can do quickly, provided you have practised and provided you can speed read, slice and dice the 300 to 350 word text very quickly.
I also had to think on my feet and deal as best I could with the change of format from fax to email, but you are forewarned.
It was vital to finish the question because, in this exam, each question carries a third of the marks. That pesky email was worth as much as the essay.
Second, check your work through!
I only had time to re-read my first answer, the essay, thoroughly but I did scan the other two answers as best I could. In all three I caught various slips. If I hadn’t picked up on them, I might not have passed.
A new staging post on your Russian journey.
So that was Project Write Russian Right. The exam is passed. Needless to say, I still can’t really “write Russian right”.
There’s so much still to learn. What I can do is write Russian quite a bit better than when I started.
And I’m much more aware of the types of mistakes I’m still making, even at this level. I’ll be covering those in detail in another article soon.
How do I now fill the void in my life now I have the TRKI-3 under my belt?
One of my teacher joked that next it was time for the TRKI-4. Mmmmm. I’d love to shoot for the fourth at some point, but I think I’d need an extended period training in Russia for it. I hope it will happen on day, but it’s not on the immediate horizon.
My Russian journey is about more than collecting certificates.
If it wasn’t, it’s very unlikely I’d have got this far.
If you’re planning on doing the TRKI 3 or another TRKI exam, or taking a test in a different language. I hope this in-depth report will have helped you on your way with the writing tasks. Don’t forgot to share your experiences or ask any questions in the comments section below.