The 2nd part of an Interview with Frank Prescott by Martina Bednáriková
One of the secrets to become a great teacher is to never be afraid to move. If you do not lose sight of your purpose and embrace that it is not about you, you will definitely gain the best results. Our ELT Forum speaker Frank Prescott has definitely learnt to weather the storms in his classes. Will you follow his lead?
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Your workshop “The Write Stuff” aims at providing various writing activities to engage and motivate students more. What is your own attitude to writing? What do you like about teaching academic writing?
Frank Prescott (FP): I have a feeling that writing is sometimes neglected in the language classroom and I think that’s a shame because it’s such an important skill. I think that writing tends to lose out to speaking when it comes to production. When writing is done, the activities may not actually involve much writing for writing’s sake but rather just as a means of completing the task, and often the feedback on writing focuses much more on accuracy rather than on the content or organisation of the writing. I want to show that a well-designed writing task can be a highly engaging activity in the classroom, which can involve the use of the other skills as well as plenty of interaction, and so it can be fitted very well into a balanced communicative syllabus.
Perhaps part of the problem with writing is that it tends to be seen as something that’s difficult for both the learner and the teacher to do well. Actually writing can be great fun if it’s handled in the right way. It can allow students to experiment with the language and express their own thoughts and feelings about topics that they are interested in. It can be used to encourage creativity and can also involve a lot of cooperation. As I already mentioned, writing can be combined very well with the other skills so that it can be part of a whole skills approach. Of course, writing and reading have always gone together, but nowadays, with multi-media tools it’s easy to bring in listening as a stimulus for writing, and writing can be used as a way into oral activities of different kinds.
I spend a lot of time working with students doing presentations about different topics and here writing is also very important. In fact, one of the key uses of writing is in preparing for a speech or presentation. There’s no reason why this kind of activity can’t be done in the classroom at many levels. Group presentations can work very well and can be combined with fieldwork or individual work online and in the library followed by group preparation. Here writing is not the main focus but it is a necessary skill in organising the material of a presentation. Obviously, poster presentations also require some writing skills and again students of all levels find them enjoyable.
Nowadays, writing is arguably a more important skill than it’s ever been thanks to the advent of digital media. Our students are now writing all the time on social media and they will also need to be able to write effectively in many different online situations in their future. As language teachers, we have an obligation to help our students use their English for these purposes, as well, and to help them understand the differences between styles and functions. Being able to write well in English is particularly important in this regard because it is the most widespread online language.
When it comes to academic writing, many of my students find it difficult to get used to writing essays because they have not had much writing practice in school, either in English or in their first language. Even if they have had some experience writing short “compositions”, they often don’t know how to organise a piece of writing effectively. It’s a challenging job to help them adapt to a completely new set of requirements and in many cases they have to begin by learning how to write a simple paragraph and then build from there. Progress can sometimes be slow but it can also be very rewarding to see students making progress and becoming more confident in expressing their own ideas about the things they are learning. Particularly in my media classes, I very much enjoy reading the short essays that more experienced students write in which they are able to explore issues and present their own arguments about different topics.
For me, the ability to successfully communicate an idea based on well-informed supporting information and using clear, well-organised written language is a very important skill. It’s my job to help students acquire this skill, or to help them develop and improve it, and I think if they can do this in writing, they will also be able to speak more effectively.
SCET: Can you tell us more about your PhD experience? What was your thesis about? How did you like being a student again?
FP: It will not come as a great surprise that my thesis was about writing. To be more precise, it was a qualitative study of 20 first-year students learning how to write at university, and it grew out of my own questions about the difficulties my first-year academic skills students were obviously experiencing with their writing. The chance to work with students closely by observing them and interviewing them over the entire course of their first year was fascinating, and I learnt a great deal that I was able to feed back into my own teaching. However, the work involved in collecting, processing and analysing the data was immense – it took several years to complete.
Ironically, perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process was actually writing the thesis. Again, this experience of struggling to organise my thinking about the research results and communicate it clearly in writing while working to an ever more rapidly approaching deadline, also helped me to get a deeper understanding of some of my own students’ difficulties.
As for the experience of being a student again myself, I only really felt this strongly during the obligatory and elective courses at the beginning of the PhD. For these we had to do a lot of reading and then we would discuss it in class. We would also write a paper or do a presentation for each course. It was while I was doing some of these courses that I felt how good it was to be in a classroom as a student again, sharing ideas and engaging in discussion with other students about some fascinating topics. It also gave us the chance to share our worries and wonder about our sanity in trying to do a PhD at all – the kind of shared despair that comes so naturally to students in the education system at many levels. The actual writing of the thesis, though, was quite a lonely experience and much more difficult than anything I remember from my earlier days as an undergraduate. It was a far remove from the sociality of the classroom.
SCET: How does an average day of Frank Prescott look like? Where do you get energy and motivation for all that you are doing?
FP: My average day very much depends on what time of the year it is, but one thing is constant, I always get up early, and I like to start my day by walking my son to school during term time. There are only two semesters at the university, and during these my day is generally divided between preparing classes, teaching classes, and catching up with marking. At the end of each semester there are usually so many essays to mark, theses to read and reports to write that life becomes quite hectic, but most of the time it’s just busy. And of course there’s alway IATEFl-Hungary stuff to do and sometimes I have other little jobs, like proofreading or the odd private student. During the semester I work in my office at university because it’s convenient and not far from where I live, but in the summer I work more from home. I am almost always the last one up at night because I’m a night owl and I find it impossible to go to bed early unless I’m absolutely exhausted. Generally, this only happens towards the end of each semester for reasons already mentioned.
Getting energy and motivation is not usually a problem for me, although I have my “downs” occasionally, just like everyone else. What keeps me motivated is my enjoyment of teaching, of trying to do things a little better each time and experimenting with new ideas and new techniques. I think that the age we’re living in now, despite the great challenges that we face for our society and our future, is a very exciting one for teaching. The technology that we now have access to in the classroom, technology that the students themselves often bring with them, enables us to do things that previous generations of teachers could not even dream of. And precisely because of the problems that face us and our children, our job as teachers is much more than just to help our students acquire another language. We can give our learners the opportunity to see themselves in new ways and start to think about how to shape their own future. We are lucky because we can bring so many different ideas and topics into our classrooms whereas other teachers are more limited, and it’s much easier to do that than it used to be. And this way, at least for me, teaching remains an exciting and rewarding activity.
Having a wide variety of interests outside teaching is also a way of helping me maintain motivation and energy. As well as spending time with my family, I enjoy watching and sometimes even doing various sports. I am passionate about anything to do with films and film-making, and I also love the theatre, especially Shakespeare. I’m an amateur ornithologist and photographer, and in odd moments I like to work on improving my Hungarian, which I have been learning now off and on for many years (I’m not quite sure if this is exactly what the phrase “lifelong learning” is supposed to mean). All this helps me to relax and recharge my batteries, but a lot of it also feeds back into what I do in the classroom, which I guess is the same for all teachers.
Frank Prescott has lived in Hungary for the last 19 years, teaching first in private language schools and then as a lecturer in a large university in the capital. He spends most of his time teaching academic writing, applied linguistics and English in the media to undergraduates. He’s just finished a PhD in language pedagogy and for the past three years has been on the organising committee of IATEFL-Hungary.