Thinking back to the time when I was studying German as a foreign language in high school and later English as a foreign language in college, both in Russia, I don’t recall writing to be a visible part of these courses, and when writing components were implemented in the lessons/homework assignments, they were limited to simple tasks that were supposed “to reinforce the orthography, grammar, and vocabulary” (Reichelt et al., 2012, p. 35) rather than help us develop critical thinking and the ability to express ourselves in a written form.
The only more or less substantial writing experience that we received was at the end of the 11th grade of high school: as part of the German proficiency final exam, we had to prepare a short presentation on a given topic (the topics were distributed in advance). Because none of us, of course, wanted to take the risk of giving an impromptu speech, we first composed our speeches and then merely memorized them sentence by sentence, prior to taking the exam. As there were about 10 or 15 topics (or more), I remember doing lots of writing preparing for this exam!
Writing instruction in college was slightly more sophisticated, but only because I chose German as my major. The teaching of English, which was my second foreign language (the knowledge of two foreign languages was mandatory for all linguistics major students), exhibited similar patterns of writing instruction—sentence-combining exercises, short reaction papers, and responses to reading comprehension questions. Frankly, I did more writing in a computer room, where I went every day after the classes were over in order to chat with friends online and write emails.
At that time, the Internet was introduced to our country and it started to become very popular (I became acquainted with the Internet in my sophomore year), and the online world seemed to attract many of us, opening up numerous exciting possibilities, including social interactions. I quickly made several German- and English-speaking friends in online chat rooms, and communicating with them helped me improve my language skills.
Reichelt et al. (2012) mention “survival activities” a part of foreign language writing instruction (p. 36): writing e-mails, notes to landlords, postcards, letters, voicemail, written instructions, shopping lists, letters of application, and dialogue journals. Somehow, they were never implemented in my foreign language courses. So, when I got a job as a manager of international logistics shortly after my graduation, I had to learn the conventions of business email communication all by myself, wondering why we had not received any training in that area in college foreign language courses.
Nevertheless, if one considers the role of English in Russia at that time, the lack of emphasis on writing skills in language instruction appears to be quite understandable and perhaps even justifiable. During my undergraduate years (1997–2001), the English language started to play a more prominent role in economics, business, and tourism. More and more people were able to afford a vacation to Europe or other countries where English was the language of social interaction. Being able to speak English was considered a sign of prestige and a higher status in society. In other words, if you knew English, you had more doors open for you.
Because of the increasing amount of international relations in business, the need for qualified interpreters increased tremendously. Many students in foreign language departments desired to obtain an interpreter certificate (both for the social status and for financial reasons). Oral communication skills were highly valued in business, communication, economics, and even everyday social interaction. (If you could fluently chat with a foreigner in English, in the eyes of your peers you would be a respectable individual.) Thus to react to the sociopolitical needs, English language instruction focused on helping learners develop oral communication skills, increase spoken vocabulary, and improve pronunciation.
The situation has been changing. Slowly. Because of the increasing role of written business communication and the growing popularity of studying abroad (which requires a passing score on the TOEFL), I would expect to see a shift from the absolute focus on oral communication toward the development of communicative competence both in speaking and writing.
Reichelt, M., Lefkowitz, N., Rinnert, C., & Schultz, J. M. (2012). Key issues in foreign language writing. Foreign Language Annals, 45(1), 22–41.