Theory & practice in Cambridge DELTA Module 2

Like the effect of the DELTA on an enquiring mind, this article has also raised far more questions than it has answered.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

The Cambridge DELTA (and its Trinity equivalent) are for many people the natural next step after getting the hang of the techniques you were taught on your initial TEFL course, being a relatively short (usually about 9 months part-time) way of improving your teaching while getting a taste of the theory that an MA would give you more time to examine in detail. This seemingly perfect position is also the source of its greatest conundrums, and sometimes of the greatest stresses for DELTA candidates. This is particularly so in Module 2, in which you write an essay on an area of skills or language and then teach a lesson that comes out of what you have written (although the opposite of writing the lesson and then an essay to justify it is perfectly possible!) As you could study neither all the theory nor all the practical techniques available in any area of TEFL in the time available, you have to continually struggle for a balance between the two- a line that it is often left up to you to navigate. What is more, Cambridge asks you to show “an awareness of the links between practice and underlying theory”, giving you another potentially huge and thorny problem to deal with. In fact, the hope that the Cambridge DELTA could give us some insight into what links any of us can really draw between theory and practice are exactly what made me interested in writing this article.

The attempts of Cambridge to help candidates find a balance and links between the two can lead to criticism from both sides, with some thinking there is little point reading beyond what you need to pass when there are so many practical ideas still untried and others who are frustrated by a lack of opportunity to think more deeply about the fundamental issues. Both sides are nicely reflected in this anecdote on taking the DELTA by Sara Hannam:

“…to my dismay I was told that I was using too many sources! ‘It needs to be more focused on practice’…‘but doesn’t that need to be informed by some sort of framework?’ said I… I felt uncomfortable pulling those lessons out of a magic… ELT hat…… [My] need to ask complicated question… just didn’t really have a place to be aired… I remember very well someone saying to me ‘Oh no, you don’t want to do any reading…..just one publication and then get on with the lesson planning and rationale’… Isn’t there some way of incorporating both?…perhaps less content, more time for reflection may have been a good way to go.”

(http://sjhannam.edublogs.org/2009/11/01/critical-language-research-a-waste-of-time/)

My own major question while taking the course was the opposite- whether it is possible to do anything but pull lessons “out of the hat” when few if any ELT theories are well supported by data or universally accepted. However, both cases of dissatisfaction were closely related to the topic I am writing about.

Bridging theory and practice in ELT

A recent blog post on the British Council Teaching English site asked (among other questions) “To what extent is it useful/ feasible to conceive of ‘ELT research’ as a distinct field of inquiry?” Although the fact that they have complied a 176-page directory on UK ELT Research suggests their own answer is “to quite a considerable extent”, teachers who are really interested in the theory will inevitably have to turn to books on the separate (if related) areas of SLA or applied linguistics, or even to the psychology, neuroscience, linguistics etc that lie behind them. A teacher continually asking “Why?” will quickly find themselves overwhelmed, however, with little time for actually planning their lessons. They are also likely to find little help in linking the practice and underlying theory from those areas, e.g:

“SLA research is not capable of providing teachers with recipes for successful practice. It should be treated as providing teachers with ‘insights’ which they can use to build their own explicit theory. It is on the basis of this theory- not on the basis of SLA research itself or any theory it has proposed- that teaching practice should proceed” (Rod Ellis, The Study of Second Language Acquisition 2nd Edition pg xxiv)

When I posted this quote on my blog it was met with widespread agreement, although my own views are about as ambiguous as those of “Sputnik”:

“I agree if by this is meant that we expect SLA research to furnish us with teaching theories. However, I disagree if by this is meant the option to pursue an ad hoc pedagogy. Every recipe presupposes the theory that makes it valid… A professional should at least try to be aware of the theoretical underpinnings of their mode of instruction”

and later

“As for ad hocism – I agree it’s all we appear to have at the moment, but a man can dream. The theory should inform the practice and vice versa…. I keep thinking it’s not too much to ask for but I used to think that about hover boots too…”

This is also nicely summarised by Michael J Wallace:

“…it could be argued that the most ‘scientific’ method in recent times was the ‘audio-visual’ or ‘structural drill’ method… anchored in the ‘scientific’ basis of the dominant psychological theory of the time, namely Behaviourism

Many people now claim that this led to unmotivating and irrelevant learning experiences. Yet it is interesting that the ‘revolution’ which displaced this methodology did not take place at the classroom level… but at the academic level, with the advent of Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar…” (Training Foreign Language Teachers: A Reflexive Approach, pg 11)

Possible effects of theory on teaching

The effects of theory on teaching can be negative as well as positive. If the unclear link between theory and practice is not presented carefully, it could lead to teachers concluding that the emperor has no clothes and everything you can do in the classroom is equal. This could also cause a loss of interest in theory- or even English teaching itself if it appears random. There could also be negative impacts of teachers taking theories on board- I brainstormed 23 for a blog post. Although I don’t know which might have a major impact, the comments I got, talking to other teachers and my personal experience makes me think that the danger is there. Below I will look at how Cambridge deals with these and other issues.

Cambridge ESOL’s approach to theory and practice in the DELTA Module 2

There seem to be four elements to Cambridge’s approach in this module. Cambridge asks the candidates to:

  1. Include references to at least three articles and books
  2. Evaluate those references
  3. Link between earlier and later parts of the essay, and between them and the lesson
  4. Show “awareness of the links between practice and underlying theory”

The aim seems to be to produce a candidate who will read, take a critical approach to that reading, try to apply it, and then evaluate its effects- similar to the approaches recommended in Michael Wallace’s and Rod Ellis’s books. Should it have those effects, it should deal with many of my list of negative consequences, with other points being dealt with in other parts of the course. There are several points that are not covered (e.g. losing respect for students’ theories of learning) and also a few ways in which the DELTA structure may not lead to those aims.

Potential problems related to theory and practice with the Cambridge DELTA Module 2

• The diversity of opinion, the fact that none of the references in the essay need to refer to actual research and the fact that candidates can evaluate and therefore theoretically reject all the theories mean that the candidates could quite easily plan their lesson first and then write an essay to justify it.

• Candidates could choose a selection of references without ever reading a whole book, chapter or even article, especially if they plan the lesson first or take Module 2 before the other parts.

• It seems to be possible to get a pass without evaluating the references

• At least some people never willingly read again after the DELTA

• Spending time in an essay on evaluating whether it is possible to relate theory to practice would seem to be a waste in a 2500 word piece, but we can expect it to be exactly the most reflective candidates who are likely to get hung up on this (see reaction by Sara Hannam above).

• Theory could be seen as something to pass a test rather than something you find interesting and follow in your own way.

• The best way of making CPD processes of the DELTA last beyond the course is to make candidates enjoy them. According to my (online and offline) conversations, people are less likely to enjoy the DELTA than virtually any other TEFL course. I am also not aware of anyone for who Module 2 essays was their favourite part of the DELTA.

• The process of reading theory and linking it to practice will inevitably be rushed as part of the DELTA, with successfully making your own theories even more so. Perhaps ironically, this makes the process look almost like a PPP approach to CPD.

• An infinite amount of theory that may have little connection to practice seems to lead to a time management solution of DELTA candidates avoiding more theoretical books (e.g. ones from Applied Linguistics series), because all books count equally as references and the more practical ones are likely to be easier to read and to contain practical ideas. Ditto for searching through English Teaching Professional etc whilst shunning ELTJ and its ilk. The link to theory in the more practical magazines and books is often using it as an inspiration to come up with ideas rather than as a justification for them and it is not clear whether stating this would count as showing an “awareness of the links between practice and underlying theory”

• Not having the time and rewards for following interests into more theoretical territory could make the DELTA less motivating

• A natural reaction to theory could be to agree with it theoretically while rejecting the teaching ideas that come out of it. It isn’t clear if this is acceptable to state this in the Module 2 essays.

In my case, the DELTA gave me no interest in further reading and it wasn’t until I started reviewing books that I started again. I also found that the process I developed for reflecting and effecting change was very different from the DELTA, being based more on subconscious rumination and with a much slower time frame. In fact, many insights were ones I couldn’t put into words until years later, and in some cases I feel that making them explicit too early would have been a mistake.

All the above should not exaggerate the negative effects of the DELTA, as I have no doubt that it leads to better teaching and more job satisfaction for the vast majority and the information taken on during the course can lead to practical effects long after it finishes, with positive consequences for the teachers, students, and other stakeholders. The question is whether those effects could be increased by making the CPD process one that candidates continue using (or adapting) for years to come, while giving a positive impression of CPD and of theory and its links to practice. A secondary aim would be to make candidates happier and more productive while they are actually taking the course.

Recommendations

Cambridge could:

• Explain the links between the theory of teacher training and development and practice of the DELTA course, i.e. practice what they preach. This wouldn’t be a waste of time, as many people will go on to do teacher training or supervision. The only danger is that seeing holes in the DELTA system could be demotivating.

• Make the number of references needed and the fact that non-referenced material cannot be included in the bibliography clearer

• Give more advice on what “evaluate” means

• Set a recommended minimum level of reading, e.g. by hours, words or a key reading list

• Give advice on how theoretical you need to get, e.g. advice on publications with the right level of theory and practice

• Put more emphasis on getting candidates reading well ahead of the course and give advice on how to do so for the purposes of background knowledge, finding articles for more specific knowledge, and keeping and quickly finding suitable references.

• Spend some time examining the different possible links between theory and practice and how (if at all) those links could be critiqued in DELTA Module 2 essays

• Give credit for references being more up to date and more theoretical

• Give advice on the number of words that should be taken up with references and evaluation of them in the essays

• The system seems to suggest evaluating the theory or theories and then evaluating the practical ideas, whereas a more realistic approach might be to collect together practical ideas and theories and then compare them to each other as well, e.g. “In this area of teaching there seem to be many more practical ideas than theories, and the two do not particularly match up” or “If we can say that there is a mismatch between the theory and the practical ideas available, I find myself falling more on the side of…, but unable to come up with anything original that would link the two”

Final word

Writing this article has in many ways illustrated exactly the points I have been examining. I could quite easily make looking at theory and practice in ELT my life’s work. As it is, I could have done with a lot more time to subconsciously ruminate on the matter and read apparently unrelated things that could throw surprising light on it before getting my ideas down on paper. Unfortunately, I find myself limited by time and forced to move onto the next things I have to deal with in my studies and work. Like the effect of the DELTA on an enquiring mind, this article has also raised far more questions than it has answered.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
February 2010 | Filed under Teacher Training
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.