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Concourse 2

Module Two: analysing language systems in the background essay


This guide concerns meeting the criteria for a Delta essay in section 3.  The two criteria are:

Successful candidates can effectively demonstrate an understanding of the specific area by:

  1. analysing the specific area with accuracy, identifying key points
  2. showing awareness of a range of learning and teaching problems occurring in a range of learning contexts

This is a guide with examples, not a model.
There are a number of reasons why it is not possible to provide a model analysis:

  1. When you select your topic area for a Language Systems Assignment, you will, naturally, focus on an area which your class needs to master.  What that might be for you in your setting is unpredictable and any model analysis will almost certainly not be relevant in whole or in part.
  2. Once you have decided on your topic area, you will have to narrow down your focus by the level of learners you have in mind or by excluding some areas so that your analysis will be in adequate depth and not a low-level, superficial survey of the whole area.  How you will do that is, again, not predictable, because it will depend on the nature of your students (past or present) and the focus of the lesson which you have in mind.
  3. No analysis, here or anywhere else, can be a complete model because the word count for Delta essays is severely limited to 2500 words overall and the analysis part of your essay is probably going to around 1000 to 1500 words to allow you space to address all the other issues in the essay (definitions, teaching suggestions etc.).  This means that you will, perforce, have to leave out some interesting areas of the analysis which others might decide to include.  What follows is, therefore, deliberately selective and incomplete but serves to demonstrate the level of depth and precision which is needed for Delta.
  4. It is a matter, often, of personal preference whether you:
    • address the criteria individually by doing the analysis in a dedicated section and then linking the discussion to the difficulties learners and teachers have with the topic in a following section or
    • combine the analysis with the discussion of learning and teaching problems as you go along.  What follows takes a separated approach for the sake of clarity and cannot, therefore, stand as any kind of model for a combined approach.
  5. In this guide, we will be presenting models of analysis drawn from a range of disparate language system areas so there will be little sense, if any, of a coherent and cohesive discussion.  We will, whenever it seems relevant, give examples of grammar areas, lexical system areas and functional areas.
    You, naturally, will make every effort to keep your analysis and discussion of problems consistently relevant to your essay title and to the limitations of the scope that you set out in the introduction.
  6. Finally, this site takes a dim view of plagiarism, as does Cambridge English and all Delta centres.  There is no intention here, then, to produce an analysis which can simple be copied and pasted into an essay.  Try that and you will be found out.


The three strands of the analysis

For any systems background essay analysis, you need to consider three important, connected areas:

  1. Form:
    The formal characteristics of the structure / grammar that you are analysing.  For this part of the analysis, you will need to go beyond references intended for learners, of course, or your discussion will lack depth, comprehensiveness and detail.
  2. Meaning and Use:
    The previous section is where you are discussing usage with a focus on form.  Here, you need to focus on what the system does in terms of communication.
  3. Pronunciation:
    This may be the central focus of your assignment.  In that case, it becomes number 1 on this list.  For most essays, however, this is the third strand to the analysis.
    This area may not be relevant at all if you are focused on the comprehension or production of written texts only.  If that is your sole concern:
    • make sure you have justified not considering pronunciation in the introduction (perhaps because the system is almost wholly confined to written texts, for example, or because you are focusing only on learners' needs to comprehend and / or produce written texts)
    • be careful to keep your focus on a system and do not stray into analysing listening or writing skills.  That will mean you lose relevance and the reader patience.



structure and lexis

This is, of course, the central starting point for any analysis of structure.  If your focus is phonological, then pronunciation will be the first strand of the analysis to consider.  It is, in other words, the form.
Here, there are the matters of depth and detail to consider.  At Delta level, you need more of both than you may be accustomed to considering on whatever pre-service course you have taken.
Here are two examples, one of inadequate depth but superficially accurate analysis, the other of more depth and detail.  It's not too hard to pick which is which.

Accurate but inadequate:

The -ing form of a verb can function in three ways in English:

  1. as part of a continuous tense form, for example,
    She is taking the train
  2. as a gerund, for example,
    She likes reading
  3. as an adjective, for example,
    She thinks he is interesting

In a bit more depth with more detail:

The non-finite -ing form of a verb can function in three ways in English:

  1. as part of a continuous tense form, for example,
    She is taking the train
    In this case, the aspect can be continuous, progressive or iterative.  For example:
    Shh! She's sleeping.
    is progressive, denoting something currently in progress
    I'm taking the train to work these days
    is continuous because it refers to a background action which may not, in fact, currently be happening (the speaker may not be on the train)
    Someone has been stealing food from the kitchen
    indicates a repeated action which has been occurring for some time and is affecting the present.
  2. as a gerund, for example, She likes reading
    This is a traditional analysis but, in fact, there is a cline from purely verbal uses such as:
    I watched him painting the picture
    through semi-verbal, non-finite uses such as:
    Describing the events was difficult for her
    to purely nominal uses such as:
    She enjoys horse-riding
  3. as an adjective, for example, She thinks he is interesting.
    The difficulty here is that adjectival uses are sometimes difficult to distinguish from purely verbal uses.  An adjectival use, e.g.:
    The film was exciting
    with the copular be linking the subject and the adjective is clear.
    But, semi-verbal, non-finite uses such as:
    The flight was frightening
    may be analysed as a verb and could be re-phrased as
    People were frightened by the flight
    or as an adjective because it can be modified by an amplifying adverb as in
    The flight was extremely frightening
    In some cases, not verb is actually available so only an adjective can be the analysis, e.g.,
    The book was uninspiring
    Adding an object noun phrase results in only the verbal use being considered as in, e.g.,
    The film was frightening the children
    in which no amplifying adverbial is allowable:
    *The film was very frightening the children.
  4. Care also needs to be taken, especially at lower levels, to distinguish between the communicative function of -ing adjectives formed from verbs and -ed adjectives formed in the same way.
    Thus, the rule needs to be consolidated that:
    -ing adjectives refer to what a thing or a person is and -ed adjectives refer to how someone feels.
    We can refer to what something was (the flight was frightening) or to how someone felt (I was frightened).
    Considerations of the real difficulty in distinguishing between verbal uses of the -ed ending and non-verbal adjectival uses are beyond the scope of this analysis.

Nothing in the first example is actually wrong but the analysis is at the level of a grammar book for learners and leaves out far too much.
In the second example, there is greater use of terminology (to be precise), greater depth of analysis (to point out the grey areas) and better exemplification (to add detail).

The moral for Delta essays is:

  1. Use terminology accurately and appropriately and do not be satisfied with calling something simply an -ing form or whatever but notify the reader that you can handle concepts such as non-finite forms.  This allows the analysis to be precise.
  2. Strive for more depth so it is clear to the reader that you are aware of the issues in the analysis and have researched beyond the level of pedagogic grammars.  This will contribute to a sense of your having done proper research.
  3. Exemplify what you say clearly and comment on your examples to make it clear to the reader that you understand what you are saying.  This contributes to the amount of detail you can provide.

Here are two more examples focusing on a lexical systems issue to see how the addition of precision, depth and detail is achieved.  The first paragraph is accurate but lacks adequate depth, precision and detail.  What follows exemplifies what is required at Delta level.

Collocation refers to the greater-than-chance occurrences of words in certain combinations.  For example, a noun such as rain will collocate with a range of adjectives including light, heavy, unpleasant, thin and so on but not with other common adjectives such as strong or narrow which are superficially synonymous with some of those which do collocate with rain.

Two-part adjective-noun collocations in English are exceptionally frequent (reference here).  They vary, however, in opacity, fixedness and strength.  We can have, therefore,

  1. Strong but transparent and not fixed.
    winding road
    precipitous cliffs

    which are examples of reasonably strong collocations although a number of other adjectives and nouns can be inserted into the slots to get, e.g.:
    twisting / curving road
    winding path / lane
    sheer / steep cliffs
    precipitous mountainside / drop

    While these combinations are quite flexible, the number of nouns and adjectives which can be inserted is limited in a way that combinations with adjectives such as
    heavy or interesting or with nouns such as table or house is not.
  2. Semi-fixed, semi-transparent strong collocations.
    breathtaking stupidity
    deafening silence

    which are semi-fixed collocations with a metaphorical and extended use of the meaning of breathtaking and deafening.
    In these cases, no other combination is possible if the meaning is to be retained.  So, while:
    heart-stopping stupidity
    stunning stupidity

    are both possible and
    total silence
    utter silence

    are also possible, none carries the same sense as the original cliché.  Neither of these combinations is purely transparent in meaning even if the items themselves are known because the adjectives are used metaphorically.
  3. Fixed, opaque collocations.
    Many of these are fixed expressions in English and have elements which occur only in this combination.  They can be idioms, bi- or tri-nomials and a range of other chunks.
    to and fro
    hook, line and sinker
    the black sheep (of the family)
    a whale of a time

    These sorts of collocation exhibit true non-compositionality because they cannot be understood by knowing the meaning of the items which make them up.


Meaning and Use (not usage)

the present perfect simple

This is the second strand of the analysis, whatever your focus.  It is here that you demonstrate that you understand the difference between use (which focuses on the value of the language) and usage (which focuses only on its significance).
Here, again, are two examples, the first drawing on pedagogical grammars and the other, better one, drawing on more sophisticated resources.

The present perfect simple has three common uses:

  1. It expresses the experience (or not) of the speaker and implies 'at some point in my life'.  For example:
    I have been to America
    Have you seen the film?
    I haven't ever spoken to her
  2. It refers to an action (or its absence) in the recent past.  For example:
    I have only just arrived
    Have you really finished?
    She hasn't spoken yet
  3. It refers to an action or event (or its absence) which continues into the present and may continue into the future.  For example:
    I have lived here for 10 years
    Have you worked there long?
    He hasn't lived in the new house yet

There's not much wrong with this analysis, so far as it goes but at Delta level, we need more precision and to demonstrate more awareness.  Here's what's meant:

The present perfect simple tense can (following Lock et al) be described as a relational rather than an absolute tense.  In this respect, for example, the difference between:
    I ate the fish
    I have eaten the fish
can be explained by the first having the capacity to be referenced to an explicit past time so we can also have:
    I ate the fish at none o'clock / last month / in the restaurant yesterday
A tense in the perfect aspect, however, relates one time to another and does not refer to an absolute time but links two times together so we can have:
    I have eaten the fish (before now) and don't recommend it (now)
but not
    *I have eaten the fish last week.
The present perfect can refer to the perfective and imperfective state of actions, states and events so we can have:
    I have given up sugar (so please don't give me any)
which refers to a perfective action that is completed but still related to the present
and we can have, e.g.:
    I have lived here for years (so I know my way around)
which refers to an imperfective state that is not complete but still relates the state to the present.
The present perfect always carries the sense of a past event, state or action having consequences for the present and should properly be described as a present tense, making reference to the past, rather than a past tense making reference to the present, therefore, hence its name.
The two phenomena, that the form is relational in meaning and that it can apply to perfective and imperfective conditions explain the three main uses which are often taught as separate and discrete.

And this analysis is far better in terms of precision, depth and detail.  It draws on reading and research, is above the level of a pedagogic grammar or other texts and shows awareness of subtleties of use.



connected speech: assimilation

Unless you are focused only on written forms of the language and have justified this limitation carefully in your introduction, this is the third strand of your analysis.
At this level, you will be expected to use the phonemic script and to have developed some system for representing intonation contours and stress.  For individual sounds and features of connected speech, there is a clear, conventional system (although details may vary) and you should use it.  For intonation and stress, there are no profession-wide conventions so you need to develop something you are comfortable using and which enables you to analyse and exemplify what you are describing.

This site uses a variety and elsewhere in the relevant sections, you will find, for example:
which shows the intonation contour on a non-defining relative clause.
which show three ways to highlight word stress.
which show the six frequently identified intonation patterns in English.
And so on.

Again, we'll contrast a pre-Delta level example with what you need to do at this level.

At the borders between words a number of things can happen:

  • sounds can change.  For example:
  • if you say when possible quickly, the 'n' at the end of when can sound like a 'm' because your lips are already moving to make the sound of 'p'.
  • sounds can move.  For example:
  • when you say an apple quickly, it can sound like a napple.
  • sounds can disappear.  For example:
    • when you say a clothes line quickly, it usually sounds like a close line.
  • sounds can appear.  For example:
  • when you say law and order quickly, it sounds like there is a 'r' sound before the word and.

Again, there is nothing in the above which is actually wrong.  It lacks, however, very much rigour and is non-technical.  The analysis at Delta level would probably only be focusing on one or two of these phenomena, your selection having been made and justified in terms of key aspects of the form you have been analysing up to now.
If, however, your focus is connected speech features in English, then you will certainly need to cover all these phenomena and more.  Here's how it might be done with a bit more academic credibility at Delta level (taken mostly from the in-service guide to features of connected speech).  We will only consider the first of the points above (assimilation) but the principle and the depth of analysis will be the same at Delta level for the other three.


This occurs when a sound is altered because the speaker is anticipating the following sound or influenced by a previous one (or both).
There are three possibilities:

  1. Regressive or anticipatory assimilation:
    For example,
    ten bottles (which is transcribed as /ten ˈbɒt.əlz/ in careful or citation forms)
    sounds like
    tem bottles (which is transcribed as /tem ˈbɒt.əlz/
    because the speaker is anticipating the bilabial voiced consonant /b/ and changes the alveolar nasal /n/ to the bilabial /m/ to make pronouncing the /b/ sound easier.
    And in, for example:
    his son and his daughter
    the phrase, when spoken quickly is transcribed as
    /hɪz sʌn ndɪs ˈdɔː.tə/
    because the 's' in his daughter is not voiced as it is in his son.
    Within this example, too, is a case of elision of the /h/ on the second occurrence of his.
  2. Progressive assimilation:
    Sounds may change because the speaker is influenced by the preceding sound.  For example,
    There's not much cider left
    said quickly.
    Normally, the 'c' in cider is pronounced /s/ in careful or citation form (/ˈsaɪ.də/).
    However, in this environment, the influence of the /tʃ/ at the end of much means that the 'c' in cider is pronounced as /ʃ/.
  3. Reciprocal or coalescent assimilation:
    Here, sounds influence each other and may fuse together.  For example,
    Won't you come with us?
    When this clause is spoken quickly, won't you is not pronounced as /wəʊnt ju/ as it would be in slow careful speech but is pronounced /wəʊntʃu/.
    The /t/ and /j/ sounds have coalesced to make the /tʃ/ sound.

Assimilation also explains the tendency in English to change prefixes, using 'im-' before words beginning with bilabials (so we have impossible, impolite, immobile etc. rather than *inpossible, *inpolite, *inmobile).


Learning and teaching problems

You may, as was noted above, choose to consider problems for learning and teaching simultaneously with the analysis and that is a legitimate approach.  For clarity's sake here, however, we shall consider them separately but use some of the same examples that we have used so far for analysis.
When you come to discuss learning and teaching problems, you need to do three connected things:

  1. Consider your own setting and then
  2. Think outside your own setting to show that you are aware of other possibilities
  3. Know how a range of languages work both in terms of systems and skills. Do not only focus on the 1st languages of your own students.

Additionally, if you have restricted your focus by level of learners, you need constantly to refer to this restriction and make sure that you don't stray into areas which are clearly too difficult or too easy.
Here are some examples and, again, they are just that, not models for all the reasons explained above.


Problems with form

the -ing forms

  1. Positively, there are in English no irregular forms of the -ing verb so learners have little difficulty with the mechanics of the structure once the issue of 'e'-dropping (shave > shaving) has been mastered.  It can, indeed, lead to its overuse (see below).
  2. I have noted that problems with the -ing form used as a noun occur regular at lower levels in particular because many languages do not have equivalent forms of use the forms differently.  Compounding the problem is the fact that English has an identical form for all three grammatical functions (progressive aspect, noun and adjective).  For example:
    1. while German has a gerund form it is much more rarely used so, for example,
      I like walking
      would usually be expressed verbally rather than with a noun as
      ich laufe gern [literally, I walk willingly]
      This can lead to errors such as:
      *I enjoy walk
    2. French-speaking learners and others with Italic first languages also encounter difficulties with the form because the infinitive form of the verb is used to perform the nominal function so learners will often be tempted to produce
      I enjoy to walk
      I enjoy walk
      by analogy with, e.g., the French form
      J'aime marcher
    3. Italian or Greek speakers may occasionally produce
      Walk pleases me
      by analogy with:
      Mi piace camminare
      Μου αρέσει το περπάτημα [mou aresi to perpatisma]
      both of which translate as something akin to
      It pleases me the walking
  3. These issues carry over into the use of the form as a progressive, which is something many languages do not exhibit, using the same form of the verb to express both simple and progressive aspect.  This can lead to avoidance of the form altogether and errors such as
    *I travel to work by bus this week
    *I watched TV when he called

    Speakers from a range of languages both European and East Asian will have difficulties knowing when to use the -ing form for background, continuous, iterative or progressive events.
  4. Because the form is regular and simple in English some learners may be tempted to overuse it.  Its use avoids forming an irregular past of which, at lower levels, they may not be sure.  This can lead to errors such as:
    *I was eating lunch in the canteen when I was at school
  5. Distinguishing between adjectival and verbal uses of the form is often not necessary (even when it can be definitively achieved) but at times the distinction needs to be clear of errors such as the use of a dynamic verb form with a modifier can occur, such as:
    *She is very explaining
    *She is extremely helping
    by analogy with
    She is very boring

Problems with meaning and use

the present perfect simple

  1. The primary problem with the form in terms of meaning and use stems from the fact that very few languages make the aspectual distinctions that English does or, if they do distinguish perfect vs. simple aspects, do so in a way that is clearly not paralleled in English.  For example:
    1. Languages with parallel forms such as German and Dutch do not make a difference in meaning so, for example:
      I have loved
      can be translated as either
      ich liebte
      ich habe geliebt
      with no real distinction in meaning.
      Speakers of other European Germanic languages (including Scandinavian languages) may therefore produce almost random errors such as:
      *I have eaten lunch at one o'clock
      *I didn't go to university yet

    2. Greek, too, has a parallel structure with an emphasis on the immediate effect of a previous action (like English) so the implication of, e.g.:
      I have booked
      that I now want to claim my room
      will not be difficult.
      However, the language does not use this form for the sense of 'in my life up to now' when a simple form is preferred so Greek speakers may produce errors such as:
      I spent the money already.
    3. Speakers of Italic languages such as French may make similar errors because the translation of both
      I spent
      I have spent
      will often be simply
      J'ai dépensé
  2. Error can also be produced by materials which emphasise the forms of time adjuncts which are used with simple and perfect aspects rather than concept of the tense form itself so a learners who has been told, e.g., that "We use for + a time period with the present perfect simple" may, understandably, produce:
    *I have lived in Germany for two years and then I have moved to England
    in which the simple form of the tense would be more appropriate.
    In teaching, therefore, it is important to tackle the issue from the point of view that it is the meaning of the form which determines the appropriate time adjuncts to use and not the other way around.
  3. The fact that the present impact of the event or state being described is the paramount consideration may also be lost on learners who have been trained in using the form purely for the three uses analysed above.  The key issue here is to make it clear in the teaching process that there is a distinction in English between an absolute tense, such as the past simple, and a relative tense such as the past, present and future perfect forms.
  4. In terms of teaching problems, the provision of a clear context is not too challenging but it is much more challenging to impress on learners that the perfect form implies that the speaker sees an event as currently significant even when it is clearly perfective in nature and completed.  This is especially true for learners who have been told that the tense form solely expresses the idea of 'up to now'.  This can lead to error comprehending and producing the difference for example, between:
    I have learned French (so can speak some)
    I learnt French at school (but have forgotten it)

Problems with pronunciation


This is an area where it makes eminent sense to consider learning and teaching problems in tandem with each section of the analysis because reference back to the analysis is less easy to achieve clearly.  Here are some examples of the sorts of things that should be considered in these inserted points.

Two types of problem arise in terms of pronunciation:

  1. Problems of comprehension
    1. Learners who have been taught the pronunciation of items in isolation may well not recognise the forms when they are spoken rapidly.
      Progressive assimilation, in particular can cause learners to misinterpret or simply not recognise that, e.g.:
      The captain will be here later
      when it is pronounced as
      /ðə ˈkæp.m wl bi hɪə ˈleɪ.tə/
      rather than as
      /ðə ˈkæp.tɪn wəl bi hɪə ˈleɪ.tə/
    2. Coalescent assimilation will often result in non-comprehension, especially at lower levels because, as we saw, won't you can often be rendered as /wəʊntʃu/.
  2. Problems of production
    In this area there is little chance that learners will be misunderstood by even an intolerant native speaker.  However, the non-production of assimilating sounds will frequently make a learner sound unnaturally formal and careful in speech as well as having the effect of slowing his or her production, often to an unacceptable extent.  Producing, for example, for the phrase bad beer:
    /bæd ˈbɪə/
    instead of
    /bæb ˈbɪə/
    not only takes longer and is more difficult, it makes the speaker sound unnatural.

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