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Concourse 2

Delta: writing your first Delta essay


This is a step-by-step guide to writing your first Delta essay.  It will take through the process this way:

writing the essay 


Choosing your topic

the choices and their implications

Remember that you have to do 4 assignments in all:

Two assignments focus on language systems.  They must be different areas.  You can choose from:
Grammar (i.e., a structure or set of allied structures)
Lexis (with the focus on systems, not reading etc.)
Phonology (with the focus on systems, not speaking skills)
Discourse (again with the focus on systems, not on reading, speaking or writing)
Two assignments focus on language skills.  There must be one of each sort and you can choose from:
Receptive skills: reading or listening
Productive skills: writing or speaking

Some centres will insist that you do one or the other for your first Language Skills / Systems Assignment (hereinafter, LSA).  Usually the choice is systems.  Other centres will give you a freer hand.

There are implications because your choice of what to cover in LSA 1 will affect what you can do later.

  • If you feel very happy writing about and teaching lexis, for example, and you choose to do that for your first assignment, it means that you can't use that area for the externally assessed assignment (usually the last of the four).
  • In the same way, if you focus on a receptive skill for one of your assignments, the second skills assignment will have to be on speaking or writing.
  • If you do two systems assignments during your course, the externally assessed assignment must be on skills and, of course, vice versa.

It is important that you think about your choice for the topic of each assignment carefully.


In most centres, you will do an unassessed diagnostic lesson before you get to LSA 1.  That is Stage 1 of Part A of the Professional Development Assignment.
There is no reason at all for you not to use the same topic for any of the assessed assignments.

You may already have something firmly in mind for your first assignment.  If you don't and are staring at a blank word-processing screen, the place to go now is the in-service training index.  There you will find well over 60 guides to different facets of the systems of English.  Choose one, work through the guide, and you have made a good start.  There are also 40 or so less technical guides in the initial plus index that you may want to follow, especially if you are choosing a less familiar area.

OK.  Now you have a topic, you need to review the advice in the guide to writing a Delta Background Essay before going on to specifics concerning each section.


The title

The title is the first important decision to make.

think write Mini-task: Why should the title of the assignment be so important?
Click here when you have made a note of something.

Most people are happier dealing with something non-slippery for the first assignment, so we are going with systems here as our example.  In particular, from here on, the example will be based around this title:

Helping learners at B1 level understand and use modality for obligation and lack of obligation.

We have done four things here:

  1. We have made it clear that we are focused on systems (structures for expressing obligation or its lack)
  2. We have limited ourselves by level (B1)
  3. We have said that we will focus on both understanding and using the structures
  4. We have implied that we won't only be looking at modal verbs

The title alone has already got us well on the road to meeting criteria 2a and 2b for the Delta Background Essay.  (Now might be a good time to download the guide to the Background Essay criteria.)

Now we have the cover page and footer for our assignment:

title page

and that makes us feel better already.


The introduction

This is the part where we meet criteria 2a, 2b and 2c at Distinction level.

We need to say:

  • What we are doing:
  • This essay will focus on helping B1-level learners use and understand deontic modality (i.e., for expressing obligation or its lack) in English.  Explicitly, the essay will cover the use of common modal verbs: have to, must, ought to and should as well as the use of modal adverbs and adjectives appropriate to the level.
    Because the focus is on B1-level learners, the essay will not look at unusual forms of modal expression for obligation such as Don't you dare do that! and the subtleties of past modal use (e.g., didn't have to vs. needn't have) are also beyond the scope.
  • Why we are doing it:
    • In my experience, learners at this level often have difficulty with English modal expressions in general and are often particularly confused by the fact that English uses a range of modal expressions to signal obligation or its lack (e.g., the distinctions between must, have to, mustn't and don't have to).
    • It is clear from my research that many languages (Korean, Greek etc.) have a much more limited range of modal verbs under which the shades of meaning in English are subsumed (Swan and Smith, 2001, passim).  It has also been asserted that "Modal verbs are, however, very variable across languages." (eltconcourse.com, emphasis in the original).
    • Expressing obligation or its lack is a key communicative need for many learners, either when referring to personal motivation or that of people around them.  Understanding distinctions between strong advice, obligation and legal, moral or logical compulsion is also important for learners who may come into contact with native or very competent speakers of English in virtually all settings and registers.

Notice that we have

  1. set out our stall clearly (and avoided accusations of leaving certain important things out)
  2. drawn on personal experience
  3. drawn on research
  4. said why being able to handle the structures is important for learners in general, not just our learners

It's looking like a distinction, already.


The analysis

You will be unsurprised that this section will not tell you exactly what to write.
The analysis is contained in the guides on this site, particularly, these guides:

The last two are not specifically focused on modality.  For that you'll need to research a bit and focus on expressions such as It's (very) important to ..., It's (absolutely) vital to ..., It's not (at all) necessary to ..., It's important not to ... / to avoid + -ing etc.)
The first thing to be sure of doing (note that modal adjective, by the way) is to define your key terms.
In this case they are modality and obligation.
The first signals the speaker's perception of events or states.
The second can be roughly paraphrased as I state that it is necessary to do something, not necessary to do something or necessary not to do something.

Now you have to get on and do the analysis:

  • Form: the positive, negative and interrogative forms of the selected modal verbs and modal adjectives and adverbs used for obligation.
  • Meaning: how meaning is expressed using the forms
  • Pronunciation: especially common contractions and stress on adjectives and adverbs

Here's an example of parts of an analysis, lifted partially from the guide on this site which is something you can do providing you credit it:

The modal verb must has no future or past forms for obligation (but it does epistemically in the sense of deduction where the perfect form is used, e.g., He must have arrived late) so the use of have to is obligatory in, e.g., I had to do it, We'll have to see etc.
Lewis suggests that English does not have a past form of must because "The intrinsic meaning of must does not admit the concept of remoteness.  This being so, no form exists to express the concept in English." (Lewis, 1986: 111).  That is arguable on two grounds.
Firstly, used epistemically (deductively here), the verb does have a past from as in, for example,
"He must have spoken good English because they understood him easily"
which is a past form of
"He must speak / be speaking good English because they are understanding him easily"
although when the verb is used deontically (for obligation, the topic of this essay) the form is not acceptable because
"He must have caught the bus"
is clearly not the past form of
"He must catch the bus"
Secondly, if one takes a related language, such as German, we find that the cognate verb müssen does, in fact, have a past tense as in, e.g., wir mussten (we had to).  It does not seem that a German speaker feels that the verb use is somehow more remote or less intrinsic simply because the past tense is used.  A similar phenomenon is observable in Dutch (we moeten vs. we moesten).
Learners may be tempted to see the perfect form here as the past of the obligation function rather than the logical deduction function.  In some languages, e.g., German, they are, in fact, parallel and imply either the obligation or the deduction functions.  We may encounter errors such as *We must have gone to school at 9 (when had to is meant).

When an adjective implying obligation is used with an intensifying adverb, it is common for either or both to be stressed as in, e.g.,
It is absolutely vital that the work is done today
or only the adjective may be stressed as in, e.g.,
It is absolutely vital that the work is done today.

and rarely, only the adverb is stressed as in, e.g.,
It is absolutely vital that the work is done today

Another issue for learners at B1 level is that of gradability in adjectives.
For example, important is gradable so we can have very important, more important etc. but imperative and vital are generally non-gradable so learners, unaware of this, may be tempted to produce, e.g., *very imperative or *very vital.  (Note, however, that in negative expressions both are gradable: less imperative, less vital etc. although this somewhat subtle point is one I would probably be unlikely to focus on unless it comes up in another context.)

Some of the above focuses on issues for learners to do with their first language(s).  That is important but you should also consider issues of style and register and much else.
For more on the levels of depth, detail and precision which are required for a systems-focused essay at this level of analysis, see the separate guide.
For more on the levels of depth, detail and precision which are required for a skills-focused essay at this level of analysis, see the separate guide.

reference materials

Note how, in the example above, it is quite clear from where the information comes.  You are not expected to start language analysis (or much else) from scratch.
It is also clear, however, that the writer is doing some critical thinking because a serious comment is made on the opinions of authority (Lewis).  If you are looking for a Distinction, you must read and write critically and not simply insert citation to prove you have read a book.

This site is, naturally, a very good place to start your research but you may like to go to the guide to reference materials for other ideas.
At Delta level, you need to look beyond grammars designed for learners, excellent though some of them are.  You need to look at reference grammars for a fuller picture and then select the parts of the analysis you present bearing your chosen level, focus or type of learners in mind.

issues and problems

Issues for learning and teaching

You might combine this with the analysis (as in the example above).  That's sometimes a good way to make sure that the issues you identify are closely tied to your analysis and you are not suddenly introducing a problem with a form or meaning you have not analysed.
You'll find information on this part in the guide to teaching modals (link above) but you must also draw extensively on your own experience.
You need to mention issues for learners and teachers with:

  • form
  • meaning
  • pronunciation

but you absolutely must (modal with an intensifying adverb, by the way) keep your eye firmly fixed on the level of the learners (in this case, B1).  Being able to pronounce have is not a problem but being able consistently to use the schwa for to, is a problem, for example.

Examples of the identification of issues for learners are given above in the integration of issues with the analysis.
You need to remember to include issues for teachers as well as learners so a look through the guide to teacher-induced error may be useful.
Note that you should follow up the identification of issues with an example of what happens when learners make errors.

teacher preparing

Suggestions for teaching

Tie these closely to your analysis and identification of issues.
For example, if you have identified that the negative of must comes in two forms (mustn't and don't have to) and that this is a real problem for, e.g., speakers of German and many other languages, then you need to tackle ways to present, practise and reinforce the concepts.

Do not introduce here teaching suggestions or materials which have no relationship to your analysis and identification of issues.  That will mean you fail under criteria 2d, 2e and 4c and you do not want to do that.

Make sure you:

  • State what issue you are targeting and refer to where you analysed it
  • Describe the procedure and or the materials well enough for the reader to understand (don't just bung them in the appendix and make the reader do the work)
  • Evaluate the idea stating positive and negative points

You need to outline and evaluate four or five ideas but make sure they attack different targets and are of different kinds (e.g., presentation, practice, consolidation, revision etc.).

For example:

I have successfully introduced and presented the role of intensifying adverbs with adjectives of obligation using the dialogue in Appendix 4.
After introducing the characters, their roles and the situation I have played the tape once for general gist understanding.  Then I have played it again asking the learners to write down only the words emphasised by the speakers (absolutely vital, very important etc.).
Together, the learners figure out inductively from the examples they now have which of the adjectives are gradable (modifiable with very) and which require intensifying adverbs such as absolutely, wholly, totally etc.).
At this stage, the learners discuss in pairs why the speakers choose to use emphasisers and how they are feeling.  I usually give them a worksheet for this stage so that we can check the answers together at the end.  It is very important that they grasp the use and meaning here.
Then the class can go on to practise the forms by ...
A logical extension is to apply the intensifiers to the modals themselves to make statements stronger as in, e.g., I absolutely have to go before six, I really must get on with some work etc. because here, too, as was noted in Section 3 of the analysis, the modifier is not stressed but the modal is and weak forms (see analysis of phonology) are not deployed.
I have noted, however, that these procedures can sometimes lead to learners overusing intensifiers unless the attitude of the speaker is made very clear from the outset.

Note that the writer draws extensively on personal, practical classroom experience.  It is very important to do that.


Help!  I'm running out of words

Do not panic.

If you find that you have bitten off more than you can chew in 2500 words you have two choices:

  • Go back to the title and introduction and re-write both to leave out some areas and further narrow your focus.  Then remove from the rest of the essay any mention of the areas and expand what you do say in the remaining ones.
  • Re-read everything you have written and cut anything that is not centrally relevant to the title and scope.  Do not remove examples because they are important but you don't need three examples of everything.

You may be able to combine those approaches.


Do I need a conclusion?

For obscure reasons, some centres insist that you have one.  If you do, keep it short and use it to sum up rather than repeat what you have said.  You do not have words to waste on it.
An example might be:

In summary, as my analysis has shown, this is an area replete with problems for students and subtleties of meaning, form and pronunciation which needs handling with care.  The central teaching issue is to make the context and the attitudes of speakers clear in any presentation (see the analysis of meaning) and to provide contextualised and personalised practice (see, especially, suggestions 2 and 4 in this respect).

Finally, you may now like to go to the guide on how to get a Distinction grade for a Delta essay.