logo ELT Concourse teacher training for Delta

Delta: choosing an assignment topic


This short guide is not concerned with writing an essay or planning a lesson.  It is about how to choose a topic for your assignment overall which allows three things to happen:

  1. Gives you enough scope to show a breadth of knowledge
  2. Gives you enough precision and limitation to show a depth of knowledge
  3. Allows you to select an aspect of the topic to focus on for a lesson

This is important because tutors and assessors often comment to the effect that, for example:
    The candidate's choice of topic was too amorphous to allow for sensible analysis in the essay
    The candidate attempted too much in the lesson and overloaded the learners as well as running out of time
    This was a poor choice of topic which did not permit any real depth of analysis
    In trying to focus too tightly on a particular subskill, the candidate was unable to set the skill in context
and so on.
What follows is an attempt to help you avoid such criticisms.


The rules

Cambridge have laid down some explicit rules for the teaching assignments in Module Two that you would be foolish to ignore.  In the worst cases, having the wrong mix of assignment topics will mean that you cannot pass Module Two however well you write and however excellent is your teaching.  Here's a run-down of the regulations:

  1. You must complete four Language Skills / Language Systems Assignments (hereafter LSAs).
  2. One of the assignments is wholly assessed by an external assessor appointed by Cambridge English Assessment and the other three (usually the first three) are internally assessed by your centre tutors or local mentors.
  3. Two assignment must focus on language skills and two on language systems.
  4. The two skills LSAs must be split between receptive (listening and reading) and productive (writing and speaking) skills.  This means you must focus on listening or reading for one LSA and on speaking or writing for the other skills LSA.
  5. The two systems assignments must focus on different areas of the systems of English: grammar, discourse, phonology, lexis.
    (The four areas are not, of course, confined to their own watertight compartments and you will need to show that you are aware of how, for example, discourse affects pronunciation and meaning considerations affect syntactical choices.  For more on the latter connection, see the guide to lexicogrammar, new tab.)

The implications

Your choice of what to cover in LSA 1 will affect what you can do later.

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


What is not allowed

Centres vary slightly in how they interpret the regulations and some tutors are not wholly up to speed in this respect.  It is up to you, therefore, to realise that what is not expressly allowed is forbidden.  The following topic choices are, therefore, not acceptable so do not be tempted to start with anything like these as a title:

and so on.
All these titles and many more like them focus on methodology, materials or technique / procedure and are unsuitable as a focus for any LSA.  You cannot, of course, ignore methodology, materials, procedures or techniques but the place to discuss them is in section 4 of the background essay (teaching suggestions) and in the planning of the lesson (where you also need to explain the rationale for your choice of approach and lesson design in the commentary).
The Professional Development Assignment is also a place to flex your methodological muscles, of course, and there are guides to the various parts of that linked from the Delta index.


Not too narrow, not too broad

This is the critical issue.

If you choose a topic which is too narrow:

If, on the other hand, you choose a topic which is too broad:

think Task:
Here is a selection of (real) titles chosen by Delta-course participants.
Decide what's wrong and what's right about them and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments (blue for positive, black for negative).
You may like to consider some of the good ones for your own assignments.

Title Comment
Helping C1-level learners with variations for if in mixed conditionals
eye open
Helping upper intermediate students differentiate between used to and would when expressing past habits
eye open
Helping students with sentence stress and intonation
eye open
  1. Phonology is a good topic (if you know what you are talking about).
  2. There will be good scope to design a lesson on either topic which will integrate well.
  3. The writer has identified two areas which are connected rather than being independent so linkage can be clear.
  4. This is a far too broad because it is not limited by level or communicative purpose(s) so the analysis and identification of issues for learners will either leave out important considerations or just skate over the surface without enough depth.
    The title would be better as:

    Helping upper intermediate students to understand and use prominence and intonation to mark items in utterances
Helping intermediate learners (B1/B2) with using comparative and superlative adjectives appropriately
eye open
  1. The topic (making comparisons) is useful for learners at this level so easy to justify in the introduction.
  2. The writer has narrowed the focus by level of learners.
  3. There is reference to appropriate use which will allow considerations of style, register and tone to be considered in the analysis and identification of issues.
  4. This is too narrow because the focus is only on adjectives and there is a limited amount one can say about the forms (inflexion vs. periphrastic structures is about all).
  5. Learners at this level should already know about the forms of adjectives (although they may need a little fine-tuning) so any lesson based on the area is in danger of being under-challenging.
  6. There are lots of ways to express comparison other than the use of adjectives and a better title, allowing more sophisticated analysis, would be:
    Helping B1/B2-level students with expressing comparison in English
Helping intermediate learners with multi word verbs
eye open
  1. The topic (multi-word verbs) is useful for learners at this level.
  2. The writer has narrowed the focus by level of learners.
  3. A large range of lessons can be designed that fit with this topic.
  4. This is too broad because the focus is all multi-word verbs and that will include too wide a range.  It is a technically complex area.  The analysis, in particular, is in danger of becoming too diffuse and superficial.
    The longest guide on this site is the one to multi-word verbs and runs to around 25,000 words.  You cannot satisfactorily cover the area in 2500 words.
  5. The term intermediate covers much too much ground from A2 to C1 levels and needs much better definition.
  6. A better title, allowing more sophisticated analysis, would be:
    Helping B2-level students with opaque phrasal verbs
Helping C1 (CAE) learners to develop listening for specific information.
eye open
  1. The topic (listening for specific information) is useful for learners at this level (not only in examinations).
  2. The writer has used the word develop which shows suitable modesty because there is a limit to how much can be achieved in a lesson.
  3. There is reference to level to keep the writer on track.
  4. This is too narrow because the focus is on a specific examination and the skills it tests so there may be a temptation in the essay to get bogged down in a discussion of task design.  All learners at this level need to develop listening skills, not just examination candidates.
  5. Learners at this level should already know how to listen for specific information.  What they need is to combine listening skills in real-life events.  Listening for specific information can be combined, for example, with listening for relevance (monitor listening) and listening for general gist because they are often used for the same types of purpose and text types.
  6. a better focus would be on text types, subskills and purposes.
Helping upper intermediate students deal with unknown vocabulary
eye open
  1. The topic has been limited by level.
  2. It is clear that the focus is lexis (a better term than vocabulary).
  3. The use of the term deal with makes this too vague and it is not clear what the assignment focus is on (inferring meaning, deciding what to ignore, using knowledge of affixation and so on).
  4. It is not clear if the focus is on reading or listening (and it must be made clear in the title).
  5. Learners at this level may well have been introduced to inferencing skills and practised them repeatedly – what more do they need to know?  That needs an answer when you are planning the lesson.
    A better title might be:

    Helping C1-level students to access academic texts and use inferencing strategies to decode unknown lexis and complex nominalisation
Helping B1 learners with turn-taking: interrupting politely and signalling turn-taking opportunities
eye open
  1. The topic (turn taking) is useful for learners at this level and any other.
  2. The writer has narrowed the focus by level of learners.
  3. There is reference to politeness and signalling which are appropriate terms in this area.
  4. The set of subskills is explicitly identified as interrupting and signalling and kept limited so that analysis can be at a suitable depth.
  5. There is something of an issue with the term interrupting as this is not a central turn-taking skill (rather the opposite) so taking that bit out and replacing it with, e.g., signalling the wish to take a turn and give up a turn would be advisable.
Helping higher level learners use discourse markers when telling and responding to stories
eye open
  1. The scope is defined by level (although this is too vague because higher level is relative to something else rather than precisely descriptive).
  2. The focus is too vague because there is no classification of the term discourse markers.  There are many of these and they are differently classified.  The term is so loosely used now (it should refer to how people manage conversations) that it has lost all utility.
  3. Quite how discourse markers are used when responding to stories is obscure although this may refer to backchannelling devices.  This part of the title should be deleted or the focus will blur.
  4. The term stories is too vague.  This needs to be technically defined by genre: narrative vs. recount, for example.  The suspicion is that the writer is talking about anecdote and that should be explicit in the title.
  5. There is clearly a need for some proper research before the title is refined to express exactly what sorts of cohesive devices (deixis, subordination, coordination, referencing, sequencing etc.) are the targets.
  6. It is not fully clear whether this is a skills assignment or a systems assignment.  It could be either but the focus will vary accordingly.
Helping C1-level learners organise for/against and opinion-led essays
eye open
  1. The topic (two types of essays) is useful for some learners at this level but the relevance needs to be made clear.
  2. The writer has narrowed the focus by level of learners.
  3. There is reference to organise (which is slightly vague) but is an important issue in terms of conventional information staging.
  4. This is too broad because the focus is on two forms of texts which, while they exhibit some similarities, are often confused. The focus needs to be on either Discussion (stating both sides of a case) or Exposition (arguing a point of view).


Set in stone

The range of possible topics that you may decide to focus on for your LSAs is very large but you should remember that the title of an assignment is not set in stone.  You can return to it as you do the research and start to plan and write as often as you like.
For example, if you find that the title you invented fails to give you enough scope to analyse broadly enough, you can extend the scope in the title.
On the other hand, if you find that the title leads you to having too much to analyse and comment on in terms of analysis, problems for learners and teaching suggestions, you can revisit the title and add some limitations (by level, aspect of the topic, skill use and so on) and then remove the irrelevant.
The introductory paragraph of the essay is where you explain what the title means and justify its choice with reference to your experience and your reading and research.  Be prepared to re-write that paragraph as you develop the discussion in the body of the essay.
You are in charge of the process until you hand in the completed essay and plan.


The essay and the lesson

The lesson is part of the assignment overall so needs to focus on an aspect of the area you have chosen to research.  The research area will be much wider than the focus of the lesson, naturally.

Purists might aver that you need first to settle on the overall topic of the assignment and then design an appropriate and necessary (for the learners) lesson which fits within it.  That is not necessary but it is a sensible way to approach an assignment.
On the other hand, you may have a lesson in mind which focuses on an area of systems or skills that you recognise your learners need to learn about or develop.  If you have, you can work backwards from there to the general title of the assignment in which the lesson can be embedded.
Some examples may help:

My learners need a lesson on the verb get used in a passive-voice structure
so my assignment title will be
    Helping B1 learners with the appropriate use of passive voice structures
and the essay will focus on how and why the passive voice is used and in particular on dynamic and stative passive structures in English.  This will allow me to analyse the passive voice in English and refer to the ways other languages encode the meaning as well as identifying the main causes of problems for learners (see the guide to the passive on this site for more).
My lesson on the ability to use:
    The car got damaged in the storm
    The car was damaged by his brother
    The car was damaged so he didn't want to buy it
for example, will fit well inside that overall area.
I want to research the area of how English makes negative clauses because it interests me
so I will research the area and, while doing so, look out for particular aspects of use (transferred negation, assertive and non-assertive forms etc.) which can form the aims and focus of a 60-minute lesson in the area for my B2-level learners.  My assignment title will be
    Helping B2 learners with negative formulations in English syntax
and the lesson itself will focus on sounding natural by using transferred negation in English to express opinion as in:
    I don't expect he's going to come
instead of
    I expect he won't come.
My learners have asked for more speaking practice because they feel they have trouble making small talk with native speakers
so, I want to do a lesson on how to manipulate IRF sequences by making sure that each Response turn also includes an Initiation to keep the ball rolling in interactions.  My assignment title will be
    Helping B1 learners recognise and use Initiation-Response-Follow-up sequences naturally
and the lesson on the four main types of Initiation which can be included in Response turns will fit neatly within that overall picture.
I have learners who need to access academic texts but this is a huge area
so, for an assignment, I will narrow my focus to either
    Helping C1 learners decode and produce complex nominalisation in academic writing
    Helping C1 learners identify and express angle and viewpoint through modal expressions in academic writing

Then I can plan a lesson on just one aspect of the skills / systems such as nominalised subject noun phrases or understanding the use of epistemic modal auxiliary verb forms in a piece of academic writing.

It is nowhere written that you have to proceed from topic area to lesson or vice versa.  It all depends on your setting, your knowledge and your needs (as well, of course, as those of your learners).


Things to avoid

There are a number of ways to get the focus of an assignment wrong and if you do that, the lesson and the assignment will not fit together properly or it will be inappropriate.

  1. Starting from the identification of a topic you know about.
    Just because you happen to know rather a lot about teaching reading or the tense structures of English does not mean that these are suitable topics for an assignment.  They may be but it does not always follow logically that they are.  If you do this, you may be in danger of:
    1. writing an essay in which you fail to do enough research because you are depending on your memory of the topic and setting out what you already know
    2. teaching a lesson which is inappropriate because you have started from your concerns, not those of your learners
  2. Starting by wanting to teach a lesson you are familiar with and which always seems to be successful (whatever you mean by that).  Such a lesson may be appropriate for your learners but you run the risk of:
    1. shoehorning your lesson topic into the essay and focusing too narrowly on its concerns
    2. teaching a lesson which is driven by activities which are engaging rather than those which help to develop your learners' knowledge, skills and communicative abilities
    3. over- or under-challenging your learners (there is no one-size-fits-all lesson plan)
  3. Starting from a focus which is neither a proper system nor a skill such as the multiple meanings of get or the problems learners have with so and such.  If you do this, you run the risks of:
    1. producing a scatter-shot essay which covers lots of unconnected issues to do with the item(s) you have in mind
    2. being unable to focus either in the essay or the lesson plan on something which is consistent and logically connected
    3. teaching a lesson which has only tangential appropriateness for the learners


Get started

Now you can sit down with a blank sheet of paper and decide on the topic of your assignment.
Write out the title you have in mind and then make sure that:

Once you have done that, there are four guides to consider:
How to write a background essay for the general guide to writing Delta essays
Writing your first Delta essay for the guide to how to approach assignment 1
Meeting the essay criteria for the guide to how to meet all the writing criteria at least above pass level
the essay marking criteria for a PDF document explaining what the criteria are and what they mean

all those links open in new tabs.