MOSCOW -- The Russian language is so emphatically phonetic that if you ask someone to spell his name, he'll pronounce it slowly and distinctly. Ask again -- how do you spell it? -- and he'll pronounce it again, perhaps shouting this time because, if you haven't understood, you're obviously hard of hearing.
Russian words sound just like they're spelled. While English afflicts its speakers with rule-breaking words like "would" and "might," Russian follows its rules so devoutly that words like "obrushivshuyusya" (it means collapsed) just roll off the page -- if not the foreign tongue.
So why does Lidia Y. Zhurova, who supervises the primary education center of the Russian Education Academy, laugh so merrily when asked if there is any debate here over how to teach children to read? Wouldn't logic dictate that such a phonetically stern language demands phonics, no argument allowed?
"I think it's like a very good American detective story," Zhurova says. "Of course, we don't agree on how to teach children to read."
For more than 50 years, Americans have been going back and forth on how to teach children to read English -- by phonics, in which children learn the sounds that correspond to the letters, or by "whole language," which emphasizes learning whole words, guessing at unknown words from context and pictures, and motivating children to learn by nurturing a love of literature.
Olga Viktorovna Pronina chuckles in recognition when told about the debate in the United States. She had so much trouble finding satisfactory phonetic materials in Russian that she recently wrote and published her own beginning reader.
"Everyone is trying to work out something new and rejecting what worked," she says, talking about Russia -- although many American teachers would insist she must be talking about them.
Pronina presides over a classroom of 26 extremely well-behaved first-graders who attend Grammar School No. 1506 in the Babushkinsky region of northern Moscow. She has done so for a long, long time.
"This is my 29th year teaching," she says. "I have always worked at this school in this classroom. I've had many invitations to do other things, but school for me is something sacred."
Reverent as she is about the business of her classroom, she attacks her work with a jolliness that keeps her pupils in good humor. They sit before her -- boys in little coats and ties, girls in pigtails and great fluffy bows -- paying attention and doing what they're told.
"Why is reading important?" she asks the class.
"You can read any book," Dasha says, standing up next to her desk to answer. "You can read Pushkin."
"You can read a telegram," says Evgeny, standing up next to his desk.
Pronina has brought the letters of the alphabet to life with her drawings. She has turned the letter that looks like an e with two dots above it into a hedgehog (the dots are eyes) because that letter begins the word for hedgehog. The first letter of the word for apple has been made to look like an apple hanging from a branch. (The letter looks like a backward R and is pronounced yah.)
She begins with a game. "When you hear the sound 'zh,' clap your hands," she says. Then, "clap when you hear 'i'." Now and then, there's a dissonant clap, and everyone laughs affectionately at the mistake. But mostly the children are correct, clapping when they hear the word for caviar (ikra) or play (igra.)
Next comes dictation. "This is their favorite work," she says.
"Before you start writing, your hands should be very warm," she says, telling the children to stand up. She leads them in exercises, wiggling their fingers, pretending they are the wind blowing. Then their hands turn into feet, climbing steps in the air. They play imaginary pianos, violins and trumpets. Finally they are ready.
"Take a sheet of paper," Pronina instructs, "and a pen or marker. I'll name a letter -- and this will be serious work -- and you will write it. The first word I will spell for you. The next one you will write."
She dictates slowly, carefully enunciating each word. "Some of you work excellently," she says, "without disturbing your neighbor."
Traditionally, Russian children begin school at age 7, but today's parents are eager to have their children get an early start. Half of Pronina's class started the year at age 5, though they were close to 6. Pronina doesn't object.
"The results are best if they begin at an early age," she says.
She calls on children to read aloud. "Remember," she says, "reading is a joy."
Next, she passes out papers. "Now we're going to carry out scientific research," she says. "The first task is to find a flag. Take a blue pen. Draw a circle around the flag with blue ink and write the word flag accurately to the end of the line.
"I'll see who likes me best, who wants to please me with good work. Very beautiful, good work, thank you, very good," she says as children hold up their papers. "The first line is a present to me and the second line is a present to mama."