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In a comment to a previous post, I was asked what has changed in the Russian educational system since the Soviet times. From my (perhaps limited) experience with Russian education, the things that have changed actually bring the system closer to that of the US. Four-year university degrees, multiple-choice tests, typewritten papers — you name it, these things that are quite run-of-the-mill in the US and some European countries are still sometimes seen as foreign fads in Russia. This is also reflected in unique types of school assignments, which are uncommon or unknown in other countries.
During a диктант, or dictation, the teacher will read a text for the students to write down. First, the teacher will read the text quickly for the students to get an idea of it. Then they will read it sentence by sentence, pausing to give the students time to write. A dictation is meant to test the students’ knowledge of spelling and punctuation. Unlike English, Russian has pretty hard and fast punctuation rules, so there is a right and wrong way of punctuating a sentence. The only exception is авторская пунктуация (a [well-established] author’s punctuation), or the non-standard punctuation used by writers of fiction for special emphasis, even if the rules wouldn’t normally warrant their usage.
Изложение involves “retelling” in writing of a story you are read. It is different from a summary in that students are expected to show some level of detail. Изложение is similar to the диктант in that the teacher will read the text at a normal pace at first. The teacher then reads the text one or a few more times, and the students take notes. This assignment is meant to train your memory and teach you narrative and recap techniques — along with testing your punctuation and spelling skills.
Сочинение is technically an essay, but it is often quite different in its choice of subject matter and register from its Anglo-American “cousin.” Сочинения often have a quote by a famous person as their prompt. Other times, students are asked to elaborate on a literary character, a work of fiction, or an author in their essays. Naturally, in these latter cases, the student is expected to have read certain literary works and to be familiar with literary criticism in order to address the prompt. Сочинения used to be written as part of the high school exit exams and (separately) as a university entrance exam. Nowadays, Russia is switching to a standardized test that serves as both.
The more personal writing assignment where the student draws on personal experiences and presents their point of view may also be called эссе. These are more common in grade or middle school. A stereotypical prompt for this sort of essay is “Как я провёл лето” (How I spent this summer). This title is intentionally corrupted in the title of the award-winning film “Как я провёл этим летом” (How I Ended This Summer).
I would like to emphasize that even though Russia is gradually adopting other forms of testing, these assignments are still very widely used in Russian classrooms. In fact, they are usually graded and, in many cases, fairly high-stakes. Perhaps some of the readers who studied in Russia will have written some of them. They certainly require more writing than the average American test, but I think some useful skills may be learned from these longer, (almost) uniquely Russian assignments.