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Concourse 2

How to write a Delta Background Essay


This guide will not guarantee you a Distinction grade.  The grade you get will depend on content more than form but if you follow this guide, you will almost certainly get a Pass grade.

There is no detailed gloss available from Cambridge English concerning the criteria for the assessment of the Background Essay so ELT Concourse has produced one.  You can get it by clicking here.
It will be useful to have it open in another tab or by your side as we proceed.

assessorssay What assessors sometimes say.
The following are typical assessor complaints concerning Background Essays in each of the four assessment categories.  This guide is intended to help you make sure they aren't levelled at you.
The essay is carelessly written / insufficiently proofread / littered with errors in spelling and syntax etc.
The candidate has not defined key terms.
The candidate has misunderstood some key terms.
The candidate has failed to demonstrate by exemplification that he actually understands the difference between X and Y.
Topic and coherence:
The candidate has not made mention of her own experience to justify the chosen topic and scope.
The parts of the essay are not explicitly enough linked so issues for learners include areas not analysed and suggestions for teaching do not address the issues identified.
Analysis and issues:
The systems analysis is incomplete because it excludes .... (meaning, form, use, pronunciation etc.).
The skills analysis focuses too heavily on teaching approaches and excludes a clear analysis of what the subskills involve, what their purposes are and how they are applied.
The candidate has drawn on too narrow a range of settings and learner types
The candidate has not considered issues of L1, culture, needs, purposes for learning English etc.
Teaching suggestions:
It is not possible for the reader to obtain a clear idea of the procedure / materials in practice because too little detail is provided.
The candidate has been uncritical in her evaluation of the ideas.
The candidate has simply referred the reader to appendices for the description of the ideas.
There is inadequate linkage between this section and the identification of issues for learners to see what the materials and procedures are actually targeting.
Evaluation does not clearly show how the ideas contribute to learning as they are too vague and generalised (e.g., "a nice activity to help is ...").


The mechanics


You will need to make sure that the in-text referencing and the bibliography follow a standard convention.
For details, go to a website for advice.  There’s a good guide to the Harvard referencing system produced for Anglia Ruskin University that you can access by clicking here.
Briefly, however:

For in-text references

Books and articles
At every point in the text where there is a particular reference, include the author’s surname and the year of publication with page numbers if you are quoting specific words – for example,
    In his survey of the social habits of Delta tutors, Bloggs (1998) refuted that ...
    In his survey of the social habits of Delta tutors, Bloggs (1998: 19) states that, "I can assert without fear of successful contradiction that …"
Make sure that it is 100% clear where your writing stops and a quotation begins, either by using inverted commas or indenting the citation etc.
You may not know the author’s name or date (but give them as above if you do) so this is acceptable:
    It has been suggested (Wikipedia (2013)) that …

For the bibliography

For ease of access, you may like to divide your bibliography into Books and Articles, Teaching Materials and Electronic resources.
List references in alphabetical order by the surname of the first author.  If the author is unknown you should use “Anon”
For up to three authors include all names; if there are more than three, give the first author’s surname and initials followed by et al.
Provide, in this order and format: Author surname/s and initial/s + ed. or eds. (if editor/s), Year of publication, Title in italics, Edition (if not the first edition) as ordinal number + ed., Place of publication: Publisher
For example:
    Jones, D., ed., 1995, My Teaching and Other Fiascos, 5th ed., London: Concourse publications
Include also: full journal title, volume number (issue number) and page numbers, for example,
    Bloggs, T., 1997, Developing fluency through ferret keeping, English Language Teaching Journal, 41, 3 pp. 18-83
Electronic resources
E-journals – include full URL and date of access, for example:
    Bloggs T.A., Brown G.C., 2012, Spoken English in Weston super Mare, in The Wandering Linguist [online], p. 105. Available from: http://www.wanderling.com/1111 [Accessed 23/08/2004]
Supply author/s or corporate body, date of publication / last update or copyright date, available from: URL [Accessed date], for example:
    eltconcourse.com, How to write a Delta Background Essay, available from: http://www.eltconcourse.com/this page [accessed 02/11/2014]

    Bloggs, T., (no date), Ideas for a Creating a Happy Classroom, available from http://eltconcourse.com/training/happiness.pdf [Accessed 03/07/2014]

Avoiding accusations of plagiarism

Plagiarism is a form of fraud.  It can be defined as presenting someone else's work, thoughts or words as if they were yours.  Downloading and using unacknowledged material from the internet is included, of course.

  1. You are expected to do wide reading and research on the Delta course so never be afraid to show that you have accessed a range of other people’s work – nobody is expecting you to originate all the ideas and information in your work.
  2. Read your assignments and check whether everything that is not entirely in your own words or from your own resources has been acknowledged.
  3. Make sure that you include in your bibliography anything you refer to in the text and exclude any reading to which you do not make explicit reference.  This includes materials that you put in appendices and use in lessons and plans, by the way.
  4. Don’t be tempted to think that if you have changed a few words from a source you have read that you don’t need to acknowledge it – you do.
  5. If in any doubt, reference it.

Latin abbreviations

Using the following is conventional but unimpressive if used wrongly.

means that is, being the English abbreviation of the Latin id est.  It should not be confused with e.g.
means for example, and is the abbreviation of the Latin exempli gratia.
means compare with or consult, being short for conferre.  In Latin it was an invitation to the reader to consult an alternative source to compare with what is being said.  In English, it usually simply means compare.
et al.
means and others and comes from the Latin et alia oret alii.  Use it after the first author when there are more than three authors.
is the usual abbreviation for videlicet which means namely or that is to say.  It should not be confused with i.e.
stands for quod vide, which means which see and refers to a term that should be looked up elsewhere in a document.  It is often used for cross referencing.
stands for ibidem, in the same place and is used in citations to refer to the immediately preceding citation.
op. cit.
stands for opere citato, in the work cited.  It is used to refer to any previously cited work, not just the last one.
means something like With all due respect to and is used by authors to show respect for the holder of a view with which they disagree (often disrespectfully).
means very approximately throughout or frequently and refers to an idea or concept that occurs in many places in a cited work so a particular page reference is inappropriate.



This is an academic essay so you need to maintain a certain formality.

  • Avoid non-standard abbreviations, contractions and so on.  So don't use SS when you mean learners or students, and so on.
  • Do not use slang or overly colloquial language.  So don't write mess up when you mean confuse or disorder etc.
  • Avoid the use of meaningless adjectives such as nice, lovely and so on.  They carry no sense so consider what you really mean: enjoyable, helpful, effective etc.
  • Use the first person only when you are referring directly to your own experience.  If you want to state your opinion, hedge it with something like
         It can, however be argued from my experience that ...
  • Hedge what you say in academic terms.  Using modality carefully and including hedging adverbials can be very effective in achieving a more reasoned and reasonable tone.
    This means avoiding writing, for example:
        It is obvious that we must ...
    and writing something like:
        It is clearly arguable that we should ...
    For more, see the guide to hedging and modality.
  • Use a range of reporting verbs when you cite or paraphrase authority.  Avoid always writing, e.g.:
        Jones (1990:230) states, "..."
        Jones (1990) says that ...
    and consider something more accurate and meaningful such as:
        Jones (1990:230) cautions us that "..."
        Jones, 1990, observes / notes / makes the point that ...
    For more on a range of appropriate reporting verbs, see the guide.
  • Use subheadings which actually relate to the following text.
  • Use bullet points sparingly and not as a substitute for connected prose.  Lists and tables are helpful but you must discuss their content.


Structuring the threads of the essay

Content: there are four parts to address

Part1: Identification of and justification for the choice of area

The introduction needs to set out exactly what the title of the essay means.
For example,

In this essay, the focus is on the future forms in English most needed by learners at A1 and A2 (Common European Framework) levels.  It covers the analysis of going to, the will future and the use of the present progressive tense.

Then you need to justify it with something like

This area has been selected for three reasons:
Bloggs (1999: 26) points out that these forms "are essential to any accurate use of future time forms"
(you have shown reference to research and reading).

Then you need to draw on your own experience

In my experience with learners at these levels, there is persistent confusion regarding ….
(you are drawing on your experience)
Learners need these forms in order to be able to …
(you are showing you understand the value to learners in general for the area of focus)
You can go on to discuss specific learners you have encountered but this is not the place to discuss the class you will teach – that belongs in the Commentary on the lesson plan.

Part 2: Analysis (for a systems focus)

This means what it says so it takes the form of an information report on each area of focus and each section follows this structure:

Identifying the topic
e.g., subheading: going to
General statement
e.g., This structure is very common and has two fundamental functions in the language.
Form (describe with exemplification)
Pronunciation (with exemplification and transcription)
Meaning and Use / Function (with exemplification)

Part 2: Analysis (for a skills focus)

Here you follow the same three-part structure but the focus is on analysing the subskills (not, please, ways of teaching it).  So you have:

Identifying the topic
e.g., subheading: scanning
General statement
e.g., This skill is employed when the reader is identifying a specific item in a text (such as a date or name).
The skill (what it is)
Purpose (why it is used)
Function (how it works)

Part 3: Issues for learning and Teaching

This is also an information report and follows a similar structure for each issue you identify.
(It can, therefore, be combined with the analysis like this: Analysis of form / subskill followed by the issue for learning or teaching set out as below.  This works well for some topics but needs careful handling to keep on track.  Subheadings are vital here to guide the reader.)

Identify the issue
E.g., with a subheading (e.g., Learners’ first languages differ from English).  For some information about how learners' first languages differ and may be classified, go to the guide to language typology.
For a skills-focused essay, you may need to discuss how text structures and writing conventions vary across cultures and/or how issues of politeness and deference may affect how people speak.  Try the guide to turn-taking for an example of how that may be approached.
General statement
Make a general statement about it referring to your analysis in Part 2.  E.g.:
    Learners may be tempted to draw on their first languages to understand the various concepts but languages differ in many ways.

Or, for a skills-focused essay:
    In English, the structure of a formal presentation is normally ... but in other languages and cultures such as ... the stages may be ... and learners need explicit training in the conventions or they can confuse and disorient their listeners.
Now add the detail, for example
    Learners from Italic language backgrounds will expect to find specific and recognisable tense forms to refer to the future, while those from other language backgrounds such as ...
Or, for a skills-focused essay:
    Learners whose first languages structure texts differently may produce texts whose information staging is unfamiliar to English-language speakers and difficult to access.  In reading, they may be unaware of where to look for information in texts because of a lack of familiarity with conventions.

Now exemplify what you mean.
Now say why it's a problem for learning or teaching or both with an example of the sorts of error which can occur and how they might affect communication.

Part 4: Teaching suggestions and solutions

This is not another information report.  It is a discussion because it asks you to discuss both advantages and disadvantages of ideas based on your own experience or teacherly intuitions so it has a different structure and staging.
This section must be linked back to the content you have already written, especially the content of Part 3.
This is also the place, in a skills-focused essay, to consider such things as process and product approaches.

Statement of position
something like
    To address the issue of …
Refer explicitly to the issue identified – do not require the reader to figure out what issue you are talking about.
Preview of argument
For example,
    In my experience guided discovery procedures work well because ...
Here you describe what the technique / procedure / materials are, using an appendix for detail.  Supply enough detail here to make the procedure clear, however.  For example
    This procedure involves three steps.  Firstly, ...
Then set out the staging clearly.
This is a kind of coda, saying how and why you think what you are suggesting is useful and pointing out any drawbacks.  It can come in two parts:
Arguments for with evidence: here you say what it helps with and why – draw on your experience to evaluate.  For example:
    I have found that this procedure works well to alert learners to the need for ...
Arguments against: here you state the shortcomings (if any) of the procedure / materials etc.  For example:
    Without careful preparation, however, this procedure will not evince the language target so it must be preceded by ...

And so on for the rest of the ideas.  You should have at least four and they should be of different types – presentation ideas, practice ideas, focus on form, focus on function etc.


If you need a conclusion, keep it short and to the point.  Do not repeat what you have said – sum it up.


Your essay should be free from slips and errors.  The syntax should be clear and the reader should be guided through the essay with subheadings.  Make sure the subheadings actually reflect the content of what follows.

Visualising the essay structure

Here's a diagrammatic way of seeing the structure of a good Delta essay with sections overlapping and linked together.  You could print a copy to have in front of you as you write.

essay structure image


Organising the core of the essay

The two key sections are the Analysis and the Identification of learning and teaching issues.  There are two ways to go about organising this section.  You choose, but don't mix them up.  Decide how you will do it and stick to the pattern or the reader will get confused and irritated.

Route 1: keeping the parts separate:

Route 1

Route 2: combining analysis with issues:

Route 2

Each route has advantages.

Route 1 (keeping things separate)
This is simpler but requires you to be very firm about coherence and make sure that the identification of issues only deals with things you have analysed.  Do not suddenly bring in something new here.
You need to make explicit reference from the identification back to your analysis.
Make sure you identify at least one issue in each area of analysis (meaning, form, phonology).
Route 2 (combining analysis and identification of issues)
This almost ensures that you will be coherent because each area of analysis is followed by the discussion of difficulty.
You may lose the thread if you find that there is an analysis area for which you cannot identify a problem.  You may even be tempted to invent a problem that doesn't really exist.
You still need to make reference back from the teaching suggestions to both analysis and identification of issues.


One to avoid

Do not be tempted to combine Analysis with Identification of issues and Teaching suggestions.  That way, madness lies.
The essay will become incoherent and difficult to follow because too much is intertwined.

If you do all this, you will have a properly structured Delta Background Essay which will pass (providing what you say is accurate and believable).

Related guides
the assessment criteria for a break-down of the criteria and what they mean
your first Delta essay for more examples and advice based on a systems essay
analysing systems for some advice concerning the levels of depth, detail and precision which are required to meet the criteria in section 3
analysing skills
getting a distinction how to meet all the criteria above pass level
genre in EAP for a guide to the staging and structuring academic texts
hedging in EAP for how to use modality and other academic hedging
reporting verbs in EAP for how to use a range of reporting conventions
language typology for a guide to what to look for in other languages
the in-service index for guides to language systems and skills at this level