Showing posts with label delta_module_one. Show all posts
Showing posts with label delta_module_one. Show all posts

Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on Delta: a more general approach

First, I'm sorry for the boring title.

Secondly, I've been toying with the idea of starting an ELT blog, separate from Lao Ren Cha (but obviously with lots of links between the two). I haven't decided to commit to it just yet, and I'm curious about outside opinions - a good way to go, or just keep my ELT commentary to Lao Ren Cha, even though it's not quite the focus of this blog? The argument for a new blog is obvious - it would be more targeted. The argument against is that I have enough trouble finding the time to maintain this blog and I'm not sure I have time at all for another.

Anyway, here are some reflections on doing Delta in a more general sense, contrasted to my previous post on doing the Delta specifically in Taiwan.

The good:

I was impressed with the level and methods of assessment on Delta - basically all three modules taken together assess you in three distinct ways: a task-based exam (Module One), a portfolio (Module Two) and a paper (Module 3). In my opinion (and according to good testing practice) this gives you a full, accurate look at what a teacher is capable of in a variety of situations, from theory to teaching to syllabus design, and how much they've progressed. I liked that no one method was used, which also ensures that someone who is, say, not particularly good at tests, or papers, or what have you, still has a chance to shine in another module with some other assessment method. I especially liked this as, although I have always thought of myself as a good test-taker, I flamed out on the Module One exam and while I did pass, I didn't get the Merit or Distinction I had been gunning for, which I do think I was capable of earning. It was a relief to have other ways to prove myself in later modules.

I also learned a hell of a lot. It's fairly common to hear folks, most of whom have never attempted Delta, to slam it as empty credentialism, a money-making scheme for Cambridge. It's no surprise - they do the same thing for CELTA, and often claim "all you need to know" you can pick up from experience. I reject this notion on its face - yes, experience is valuable, but input from people more experienced and knowledgeable than you as you gain that experience is what makes it truly worthwhile. If you spend 5 years teaching, with no input or feedback beyond what's in your head, the experience is still great but it is simply not going to be worth as much as if you spend 5 years teaching, and throughout those years are observed, get feedback, are assessed, attend input sessions, gain a strong theoretical background via training (so you'll know why good strategies work, not just "weird tricks". Teaching isn't a diet fad) and attempt higher-level teaching accomplishments such as good syllabus design with guidance rather than with a slapdash "let's see what works" approach.

So, I'm just not on board with that side of the debate, and as I see it the proof is really in the papers: I know more after Delta - significantly more - than I did before. Period. Though a lot of CELTA was pretty common-sense (though not necessarily easy for everyone to implement in practice), a lot of the theory and practice in Delta is not always, or particularly, intuitive and by Module Two - at least if you are trying to write the best possible language skills/systems assignments (LSAs) - you are delving past the introductory textbooks and deep into some fairly technical research papers and journal articles. Sometimes you're just looking for citable confirmation of things you know to be true (also a valid thing!) but at other times you're coming across completely new ideas. For example, when I did my LSA on helping pre-intermediate learners use the definite article, I was already aware of the idea of "the-flooding", but what I didn't know was the extent to which it had been studied and documented. But when I did my final LSA on discourse (hedging for intermediate learners in a business e-mail writing class), I was quite surprised to learn that the concept of hedging was far broader than I'd originally thought, and it was challenging to narrow my focus enough to write a solid essay and plan a focused class on a sub-topic of same.

I appreciated that it is carefully delineated into sections with distinct learning goals that, while they don't have to be taken in order per se, build on each other.

Module One: If you do Module One first - which I recommend you do - you get the theoretical foundation you need to do well in the other two modules (which can then be taken in any order). The exam seems daunting when you begin, but by the end you'll look back on it as the easiest part of the Delta. If you take a step back and look at what the exam aims to accomplish, if you study well you'll gain:
- A fairly solid background in terminology (if concepts can only be fully understood through having language to describe them, which I do believe to be true, then this is worthwhile)
- An overview of systems - all of them, as you won't know which will appear on the exam
- An overview of basic concepts in testing and assessment
- The chance to look more deeply at the assumptions that underlie language teaching materials, and which materials are appropriate for learners at what point and different ways of approaching different learning targets
- An overview of, with the chance to interact and think about beliefs about teaching
- The ability to apply these concepts to feedback on actual learner work

Module Two: Module Two helps you dive into your actual classroom practice and re-examine your habits and norms, thinking more deeply about what you do in class, why, and how it affects learners, while giving you the chance to learn in fairly great detail about four (out of a possible eight) skills/systems areas. You choose two skills from reading, listening, speaking and writing - one choice must be receptive, the other productive - and two systems from discourse, phonology, lexis and grammar. Then you narrow down your focus to look at one area within your selected skill or system - for example, when I did an assignment on listening I chose connected speech in authentic listening - to learn and write about it in some depth before teaching a class on that topic (as a result your choices ought to reflect what your learners need at the time) and getting detailed feedback on it. The classes themselves are a bit fake-feeling, I mean, the learners are learning something useful but in real life teaching is never so carefully compartmentalized into 40-60 minute increments. If you look at it another way, though, that narrow time focus also allows you to examine, almost microscopically, your habits and practices and how they affect learners. When you go back to teaching "normally", you'll be more inclined to think deeply about what you are doing, why, and what learners are getting from it.

Module Three then takes a step back and has you working with syllabus design and course planning, including needs analysis and assessment - all things any well-trained teacher would do well to get outside their own head and their own coping strategies to learn about. You also have the chance to "specialize" - to choose one area of ELT to focus on - which looks good on a CV (all of the very best teaching jobs, at least in the private sector, like to see some form of specialization). What dedicated teacher wouldn't want a chance to learn about the principles of syllabus design, and then apply those principles to designing a syllabus for a real group of learners, getting feedback on your work as you go? What teacher wouldn't be well-served by reading more of what experts say on testing?

So, let's say you do Module One, and to improve your chances of getting full points on the systems task (it used to be Paper One Task Four but that may have changed), you do the work in About Language. You learn about phonology, the basics of grammar and the basics of lexis (semantics, morphology), and perhaps you bone up on these latter points though an introductory Linguistics textbook. To make sure you are best able to look at class materials, textbook materials and student work - and get maximum points in those areas - you get a crash course in discourse fundamentals via Beyond The Sentence. Later, when you do Module Two and it's time to choose a skill or system, you have a reasonably strong foundation from which to do so, and you can build on that by looking more in-depth at a more narrowly-focused topic. With that knowledge you dive into how to sequence individual classes, and what to plan in them, in Module Three, and your Module One background in testing and assessment helps you in that paper, as well.

Think about that - does it sound like "meaningless credentialism" to you? Then consider what all of the anti-training types are really saying - I don't want a fundamental knowledge of theory and systems! My coping strategies are good enough! It's not necessary for me to be observed on my teaching and I don't need any feedback! I don't need to know the basics of syllabus design or testing. It is not important for me to have read up on what people before me, who have a wealth of expertise, research findings and knowledge, have to say about teaching certain skills or systems. I do not need external feedback on my self-reflection at any point - everything I need I can come up with in my own head because I'm a super genius, or something, able to duplicate in moments the work of years of others' dedicated research, and fabricate brilliant new teaching ideas without any contact with other ideas or professionals! Or alternatively, teaching isn't a real profession, any idiot could do it and there is nothing more to it than throwing out some vocabulary and grammar and doing some drills, perhaps with a game. It is not necessary to think about it any more deeply than that. 

Does anyone with either attitude sound like someone you'd want on your team?

I also like that doing these three modules pushed me to do what I might not have otherwise done - or otherwise done as well, sans feedback - such as reading up on the practice of Business English teaching or gaining a fundamental knowledge of assessment. It gave me the chance to work with ideas I might not have otherwise gotten the chance to work with, such as syllabus design, as it's surprising how few schools require any sort of syllabus from teachers.

Finally, I like that I was able to do the whole thing at a distance, without leaving Taiwan, and more cheaply than a regular postgraduate degree. This can be done through The Distance Delta or Bell. They are more or less the same, the only difference being that The Distance Delta wants you to do an orientation abroad for Module Two, which is not required at Bell. The Distance Delta, however, gives you access to International House's online library, which Bell does not. I like that, while many countries and institutions don't necessarily recognize it as such, the Delta is recognized in Europe as equal in level to a Master's degree (they're both rated Level 7 by Ofqual), and when you finish you do come out feeling like you have a Master's worth of knowledge, or nearly so, along with something most Master's programs don't provide - in-class practicums with assessment and feedback. And when I do get a Master's, I like that it will likely entitle me to an exemption from some courses or modules.

In fact, you could say I appreciate that the way I did it is not the only way. You can do the modules separately as you are able, you can do them online, you can do them face-to-face (though it's hard at times to find a center that will deliver a single module face-to-face), you can do them part-time or full-time, you can do them in one go in an intensive course, or as part of a Master's in at least one case.

But of course, with all of that good stuff, there's also bad:

I hate to harp on price, because while a lot of people will accuse Delta of being nothing more than a moneymaker for Cambridge, I actually get the feeling it doesn't turn a huge profit. Remember your tuition has to cover tutors, assessors, overseers (the folks who consistently review the Delta requirements and tweak them as needed), office space, assessment development, writing and handbook updates, IT, certification creation and printing, administration, accounting and more. And a lot of the fees charged are so that the centers offering the courses can turn a profit, only some (if any?) of it actually goes back to Cambridge. For a few hundred pounds for Modules 1 and 3, and a few thousand for Module 2 (a chunk of which goes to your local tutor), I doubt this is the cash cow that some people think it is.

But, having taken all of that into consideration, honestly, Module Two especially is quite financially burdensome for English teachers. We are not rich, generally. We don't make heaps of money. I get that education costs money and somebody's gotta pay, and perhaps if you have a fantastic salary in South Korea (where pay is better than Taiwan relative to cost-of-living, though I've heard it has not gone up in correlation with the increased standard, and cost, of living there in recent years) it's no big deal, however, there is a point at which I question how fair it is to make good, justifiable CPD (continuing professional development) something that is a financial strain for a career teacher.

With this in mind, another issue isn't with Delta itself but with the industry. In any other professional industry not only would qualified people get priority in hiring, but CPD directly related to one's work would be sponsored in part by the company. British Council does offer this, but basically nobody else does.

Another flaw is with some of the assessment methods. I know I praised them above, but that doesn't make them perfect. For instance, while I understand why the exam is timed (you can't have people writing pages and pages of stuff just to try to squeeze more points out of inefficient or off-the-mark writing), the time given is just an eensy bit too short to be reasonable. An extra 15-30 minutes for each paper would set a limit on how much could possibly be written while offering a reasonable amount of time in which to do the test, which raises its validity. Right now, part of what you're tested on is how fast you can write, and that's not really the assessment criteria that counts. Creating a computer-based test where answers can be typed would also be a help in the modern world. And I'm not just saying this because I used up most of my Paper One time on the old Task 4 (a massive systems task) and didn't even get to Task 3 (yet I still passed) - even if I'd gotten the score I feel I was capable of, I would still be saying it. It's just not write to set a test and then set timing for it that is clearly, obviously, too short. (I have the same complaint about IELTS writing, by the way. Far too short a time to produce something good written by hand).

I have less of a problem with the Module Three paper and the Module Two portfolio, and I realize why there are limits set on what you turn in. My only (small) complaint is that what is expected is not always realistic, especially for the assessed classes. In reality, for a systems lesson, one hour is barely enough time to intro the topic, do an activity to set the target language, do meaning, form, pronunciation and use and then practice it with limited feedback. I would do all of that in an hour and a half, but if you move just a tad too quickly (yes, too quickly) you can get it done in an hour. It is not enough time to include extended practice. It is not enough time to answer more than one or two in-depth learner questions, and maybe not even that. It is not long enough to extend the practice as long as you might like or give as much feedback as you'd like. It is not enough time to explore any sort of teachable moment or extra 'noticing'. The result is that while you learn a lot about your teaching, you never quite teach a class like that again, because in the real world it's simply unrealistic. Plus, the feedback you get often includes notes like "it would have been good to include extended practice in collocations" or what have you, and you're all yeah I think so too, but that is not possible in a one-hour class, JEEZUS. You want to see that, GIVE ME MORE TIME.

What's more, when you choose a topic, you're not supposed to be thinking about the class you're eventually going to teach - you're meant to concentrate on the paper first and then plan a class related to it, using one or more of the teaching suggestions given in the paper. But the class you teach has to be important for the learners, fit in with what they already know and what they need (and the course in general), be pitched to their level and needs etc. - how can you choose a topic and write a paper without thinking about what you will eventually teach? (A lot of Delta veterans admit that it's not possible - you must start out considering your eventual learners, and then basically pretend you didn't).

My only qualm with Module Three is that it continues the tradition of giving you not quite enough time to do the best possible job - you design a 20-hour course, which is great except most courses are longer than that, and the word limit for each section is just a bit too short to include everything they seem to want, which again means you are assessed on the compactness of your writing (forget having any sense of style or attempting to make it pleasurable to read) rather than the ideas therein. And I say this as someone who got a Merit. Otherwise, while I actually cried during this module, after it was all over I'd say it was my favorite of the three. I suspect I'm in the minority on that, though!

Overall, I don't see many faults with the design and implementation of Delta, but there are a few concerns worth mentioning. The timing of the Module One course was just about right, and while Module 3 went by a bit more briskly than I would have liked, it was basically okay. But Module Two was way too fast - it seems to me it'd be smartest to give candidates two full weeks between all assessed lessons (so about 3 weeks total) and an extra week for the experimental lesson somewhere in the middle. But in practice, one LSA (assessed lesson + paper) has to be done in two weeks, and often, just due to the way one's work plan rolls out, it's in the time between LSAs 2 and 3, which is generally when you should be doing your experimental lesson. So you suddenly have way too much work to do and way too little time to do it in. More reasonably, courses might simply start two weeks earlier, allowing again for candidates to do their best work within a reasonable time frame rather than being assessed based on how well you work under pressure, rather than the quality of the work you do. I'm not just saying this to complain - I haven't received my results yet but I received Distinctions on at least two papers and a Merit on a class, and I didn't fail any LSAs - I genuinely feel it would be a better experience for everyone to do it this way.

In short, it would be great if Delta could give us adequate time and word count to do the best we are capable of, rather than making it so we are measured not just on the quality of our work but on how well we cram our work into somewhat unreasonable deadlines and parameters, which I feel does detract from overall validity.

My other qualms with Delta aren't really related to Delta itself - things like the difficulties many face in having a reliable, useable class for Module 3 or finding a local tutor for Module 2 (or having access to appropriate classes for it), and how unsupportive a lot of employers can be - not my employers, but I have seen this happen.

Finally, I'd just like the ELT industry to respect Delta more. There's no reason why governments can't recognize it as a valid teaching credential. Certainly not all Master's degrees (which are accepted in Taiwan regardless of their relevance to the field) nor a teaching license for children is as pointedly directed at teaching adults as the Delta. I'd like to see more sponsorship of it by employers - my employers were supportive but I did notice that neither one offered to help sponsor me. I felt like it was seen as something I could do (and pay for) independently, I don't know, for fun or something, and otherwise was not related to their employment of me, when in fact it's directly related to my development as a teacher. Naw, I'm not mad, I'd just like to see more of a British Council attitude to Delta in the industry overall.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Doing the Delta in Taiwan: final thoughts

I've meant to write a blog post detailing my Delta experiences in Taiwan for a few months now, and with results coming any day now, I've been reminded that it's been put off for far too long (in my defense, immediately after finishing Module 2 this past December I came down with bronchitis).

Overall, we did manage to do all three modules in 3 years, and could have done them faster. I would say the only reason we chose to do one every September for 3 years was money, and yes, money was a consideration (Modules 1 and 3 aren't that expensive but Module 2 is; besides, it may not look like heaps of money but we also like to travel and have things like student loans to pay).

But really, the main reason I think we didn't push through and do one in March, the next in September and then another one the next March, to finish in a little over a year, is that while a Delta isn't a Master's degree, it's still extremely stressful. It's hardcore and takes up basically all of your free time. Although I feel I have better 'academic endurance' now, after the first two modules I did, I just didn't feel ready to start a new one just a few months after the last one ended.

So, although it took us 3 years, we've proven it can be done from Taiwan. We're not the first or only Delta holders here - there are a small group of them across the island, mostly in Taipei, who mostly seem to know each other, but we are two of the very few who did the entire thing from Taiwan (there are likely a few others at, say, British Council whom I don't know personally). Others either left to do the three-month intensive course, or had Deltas when they arrived. A few are in the midst of doing the modules, as well.

I'm going to start with this - specifically doing the Delta from Taiwan. If you're reading for reflections on the Delta in general, well, that will probably be my next post!

Some good things about doing it here:

- Getting books: Websites like Book Depository (free shipping!) and Bu ke Lai make it easy, if you order in advance, to get the books you need. Sometimes used bookstores like Whose Books (Shilin, back behind the MRT and Gongguan) have used copies, as well. Of course Caves has a solid ELT selection, but it's easier to go in person than to try and order online.  It's not that easy to get books here - see below about that - but it's not that hard, either. While it's no Tokyo, London or New York, I imagine Taipei is far easier for Delta candidates than, say, those stationed in Africa, the Middle East or most of rural China. Not having restricted Internet is great, because while China probably wouldn't ban sites you'd need to get articles and studies, you just never know.

- Weird working hours: these often seem to be a bane in this industry and seemingly especially in Taiwan (I could write a whole critique of capitalism based on what the free market has done to ELT here), but when doing the Delta they are not necessarily a problem - bring a book or printout of the journal article you need to read, and you can get work done at odd times of day rather than feeling stuck at a job all day, unable to study. Split shifts are great for this, as you can find a cafe or just go home and do a bit of studying before heading back to class.

- The lower cost of living: this means that, if you're willing to be a bit skint (this assumes you make enough money at a job where you are reasonably professional enough to be well-paid, it might not hold up if you're at, say, Hess where joke wages mean a joke job...#sorrynotsorry), it's easier here to free up your time and still be able to afford to live. I don't know how I could have afforded to live while working more or less part time to do the Delta in the USA, where I was always, always broke even when I was working full time at a salaried job (and even when I had a second job on top of that, which would have made the Delta impossible!). The generally lower hours of an English teacher (more in the range of 18-25, maybe 30 with prep time, rather than a full-time 40) are also beneficial.

- Good Internet - no seriously, due to various family issues I've been in the US a lot over the past two years, and the Internet there just isn't as good as the excellent fiber optic cable Internet in Taiwan (which Chunghwa Telecom will upgrade for you for free, or at least they used to). You'll be doing the courses almost entirely online, so having access to superfast Internet not slowed down by "ho hum, looks like one section of cable actually rides on 1920s phone lines, and I can't fix it, no fast Internet for me, dum-de-dum" which you get in the US).

- The time difference! Man, when the deadline is 9am GMT, that means you have until late afternoon in Taiwan to finish your assignments! Woo! A Sunday night deadline (as is the norm for Module 3) means Monday morning for you.

- British Council - they are fairly active in the ELT community here and there you will find the greatest concentration of qualified teachers. They are able to hold Module 1 exams and are a good place to go to do your Module 2 observations. There isn't always a British Council wherever you are, which may be a hindrance.

- Fairly reliable group classes
- I mean, unless you're at, say, Global Village. But it won't be like my friend who worked in Saudi Arabia at an actual university and was having trouble getting everything ready, on time and energetic for students who weren't that interested in an actual education (and she's a good teacher, that wasn't the problem).

- People here who do Delta really care about their teaching and their learners - I'm sure they do everywhere, that's not to poop on Delta holders in other countries, but there are enough challenges (below!) and little enough professional payout (though we'll see), and it's hard enough to find a tutor and pay for the course on low Taiwanese salaries, that those who do decide to go for it REALLY want it. You won't find anyone who does it because 'that's what you do' or because they were asked to, but maybe weren't even that enthusiastic. I'm sure such people exist (I'm also sure they're in the minority, as Delta is stressful enough that you wouldn't stick with it without a good reason), but you generally will not find them in Taiwan. It makes for a good community of professional teachers who care about their learners, their own competence, and the industry.

- It's a good filter - it's far easier to tell good schools from bad, good jobs from bad and good bosses from bad (as well as suss out the attitudes of your coworkers, who may not be bad but may not value professional development, which is at least useful to know about them) when you have done something like Delta, based on how they react to it. Do they look worried that now you are going to cost more? You don't want to work for them anyway. Do they seem excited that you care about your career and learners? Great, you've found a winner! Having one is also good for getting to know the professional ELT community in Taiwan, small as it is. It puts you on the map as a serious person and just by dint of observing teachers and finding a tutor you are likely to meet others who are at the level where you want to be.

- It leads to some good opportunities - good employers will give you pay raises and more responsibility, it'll be easier to get an 'in' as an IELTS examiner (for example), the qualification looks good to potential students (it is something of a credentialist society), you are in a better position to take on teacher training roles - perhaps someday as a CELTA tutor or other type of teacher trainer? - and it helps you specialize, leading to more lucrative work.

- It simply makes you a better teacher, which I do believe and which is worthwhile regardless of where you are. But more on that in another post.

...and now for the bad:

- Finding books: yes, I'll put this here too. The cheapest books are usually used books bought via Amazon or associated sellers, and it is impossible to get a good rate on shipping to Taiwan. To get the best possible rate, which was important as I was going part-time every semester except the last one to give Delta my all, we had used books shipped to my in-laws at the far cheaper domestic rates, and they were kind enough to forward them all to us in one big box. I don't know how we would have otherwise gotten some of the titles we needed. And unlike a major Western city or even perhaps a city like Tokyo, there is no library you have easy access to that will have the titles you need.

- Exam snafus: there are two registered exam centers for Module 1 in Taiwan - British Council Taipei and a YMCA location. The British Council location wasn't listed on Cambridge's website at first, and nobody seems to know why. It was hard to convince them, once we did manage to register, that there was a special rate for Distance Delta candidates at BC. They originally wanted to charge us a ridiculously high rate per paper (there are 2, so for 2 of us that's 4 fees) which would have cost almost as much as the course! YMCA's contact window was not very helpful and avoided our questions about fees, so we can assume they'd be high, or he wasn't very good at the 'communication' part of his job.

- Finding a local tutor for Module 2:  We were lucky, we had an offer of a tutor from someone who is personally invested in raising the bar of English teaching in Taiwan and we arranged to do the course in time, as there's a fair chance he'll move to Australia in the not-too-distant future. There are plenty of qualified people to be tutors, but many, if not most, are very busy people and not necessarily able to take on the fairly heavy workload of tutoring a Module 2 candidate. I have heard of people who want to do Module 2 in Taiwan and just...don't, because they can't find anyone to tutor them (and in fact this is one reason why we left it to the end - finding that tutor seemed impossible when we started).

- Low pay - Delta is not a particularly expensive qualification compared to similar-level qualifications in other professions and especially compared to a Master's degree, but it can't be denied that the pay in Taiwan is below average for East Asia. This is usually OK as the cost of living is also on the low side, but when you start looking at programs that cost in the hundreds or thousands of pounds, well, it's just not that easy to finance them on the salaries provided by Taiwan's stagnant economy. I'm fairly well-paid as English teachers go and I found it hard to come up with Module 2 tuition (1 and 3 aren't so bad, they're in the hundreds).

- Lack of a CELTA (or decent alternative to one) program in Taiwan - though I hear this is going to change, the lack of a good practicum-based initial certification program creates another hurdle to anyone who arrives in Taiwan, gets a job with no certification, and (like me) actually decides to stick with it because they find something of value in the profession. Before they can even consider Delta, which can be done remotely from Taiwan, they have to do CELTA, which can't. That means a 4-week vacation from work (at no pay, though to be fair even jobs that offered paid vacation probably wouldn't pay for such a long leave), tuition fees, an international trip and international accommodation and living expenses when you may be maintaining an apartment in Taipei (or another city, but Taipei is by far the most expensive place to live). It's no wonder that so many English teachers never even begin, because while getting a CELTA is supposed to be less of a commitment time-wise (and to an extent financially) than getting a Delta, in Taiwan the opposite is true and the folks at Cambridge would be wise to consider that in their market analysis. I hear, several times a month, from teachers who actually do want to get a CELTA but can't because they can't afford to leave for that long. Offering one in Taipei would help to mitigate the problem, especially if it were a part-time program.

- Lack of any sort of face-to-face Delta courses in Taiwan - I mean hey, if we can't even get a CELTA course running, a Delta course isn't going to happen either. But a face-to-face Delta course would make it easier for those who don't do distance learning well, and would help in having a tutor automatically provided. Also, for the Distance Delta, Module 2 requires a face-to-face orientation (with a fee) that is only two weeks, but that's still a fairly big expense, especially as few if any such orientations are held near Taiwan or in relatively cheap places to stay. (This is why we did Distance Delta for Modules 1 and 3, but moved to Bell for Module 2, and I'd recommend you do the same).

- An unprofessional ELT industry/work environment for most people - people will argue over and over about whether training is important to a good teacher but I'm gonna stop that on my blog at least with "yes, of course it does". It's a no-brainer that a teacher who gets professional feedback, assessment and mentoring is going to be a better teacher than one left to their own devices. This can be informally done, yes, but training programs such as CELTA and Delta are quality programs that provide proof that it was done. This is not to minimize the importance of experience, but to point out that experience with guidance and outside feedback is going to be better than experience where you spend the entire time finding coping strategies inside your own head.

So, related to that, it astounds me that schools in Taiwan are just so unprofessional in this way. I am lucky to work for two schools (and have a bevy of private students) that do care about professionalism and training, but my situation really is not the norm. It's terrifying how many schools would rather hire an inexperienced teacher for NT$600/hour than a trained one for NT$650 or a very well trained one for NT$700 or $800, or a salary (without then overworking them). The dollar is the bottom line, and quality doesn't seem to matter - that's not to say all qualified teachers are good quality but yes, generally, the overall quality of education will go up. The result is fewer job opportunities for experienced, trained teachers, and not really much more pay (you'd be lucky to get a 10% jump) for those who do seek professional development. That encourages people not to do something like the Delta, because it's a big time and money investment for not that much payout in Taiwan. On one hand, it's good to narrow down the job field to only the best jobs, on the other, it stinks that the industry is so unprofessional when it could be better. It's also no wonder that the English level in Taiwan, while not bad - I'm not one of those "Taiwanese can't speak English!" types -  could be better.

- Unsupportive bosses: again I didn't have this problem. The directors and managers at the two places where I take group classes were quite supportive of my doing the Delta, but I recognize that my situation is not the norm. When I worked at my former company, in theory they were supportive of Brendan's and my doing the CELTA, but in practice they completely screwed Brendan visa-wise by first approving our leave, and then suddenly, just before our trip, refusing to hold his visa/work permit while we were gone. Technically legal but a super crappy thing to do and the top reason, among others, why both of us quit. It would have been understandable if they'd said it was impossible to hold two visas when we first asked, or before we paid for the trip, but to wait until a few weeks before is just unprofessional and crappy, and if you hadn't noticed, I cannot and will not forgive them Other bosses might refuse to modify your schedule, not give you classes with a minimum of 5 learners (especially important for Module 2, and to some degree Module 3 although for that you may design a course for a one-on-one class) or give you other necessary support to finish.

- Visa issues for those who do modules abroad:
if you don't want to do a distance course, or want to do something intensive abroad rather than spending a whole semester on it part-time, depending on the module, employers may not be overjoyed to hold your visa/work permit while you are gone, which pretty much forces you to do it as a distance course. If you do all three modules intensively, it will take 3 months and almost no employers are willing to hold a visa for that long, which means a visa break, which can create problems. (I didn't put this under 'unsupportive bosses' because it is understandable to a degree why an employer would not want to do this, my point is it creates problems, not that it is entirely the school's fault). Not everyone handles distance learning well, or likes the format. Distance learning also means finding a local tutor for Module 2, which can be difficult for the reasons above, so making it harder to take an intensive course where a tutor is provided is problematic.

* * *

I know it sounds like there are more downsides than upsides to doing a Delta in Taiwan, and there is some truth to that. It is definitely not as easy here as it would be in a city where you had more access to books, were paid more, where schools and employers were more supportive of professional development, local tutors were easier to find and you could expect a bigger career boost, or could take a course locally.

But it is important to remember that some of those upsides are pretty big ones - the lower cost of living making it easier to work part-time and the less rigid work schedule are two big ones, and it is certainly better to do it here than many other countries that have even fewer ELT resources, where it is more difficult to order them. It may have been easier resource-wise to do it in the West, but I might not have been able to afford it! So, it's not all bad.

And all in all, even though it's not always a huge boon to one's career in Taiwan, although I am willing to bet more opportunities will open up to me for having it in the long run, it is good for development generally and a worthwhile thing to do, and what's better in terms of getting something done than intrinsic motivation?

Questions? Comments? I'm always available!

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Cambridge Delta Reading List

Well, I'm finally done. I actually have been for some time, but I got bronchitis and some other stuff happened and I'm only now finally feeling like writing about my Delta experience. I've written about this before, but only from the perspective of having done one or two modules. Now that I've done the entire Delta, I feel more qualified to write holistically about my experiences.

That'll take awhile though, so I thought I'd start out with an essential Delta reading list. Sandy Millin has one going, and though I generally agree with hers, my recommendations are not quite the same.

Obviously most people are unlikely to be able to read all of these before they start a Delta, so I've starred (*) the ones that are the best choices for pre-reading

Some of these titles are only helpful for one module, some will inform your understanding and learning in all three, but all provide the essential knowledge needed to do well on Delta:

*About Language (Scott Thornbury)

This provides an essential overview of the language system of English, which will help you quite a bit on Module 1 Paper 1 Task 4 (though I've heard they've changed around the tasks, so this may now be Task 5), inform your systems assignment decisions (especially if you do a grammar assignment) and papers in Module 2, and be useful to know when figuring out what learners need in Module 3. What's more, it gives you the essential background in basic phonology that make it possible to skip a foundational phonology text (though you may want to read about connected speech and intonation elsewhere, perhaps in Field's book on listening, recommended below). All in all, an essential text as you won't pass Delta without a knowledge of systems.

Testing for Language Teachers (Arthur Hughes) - only the first few chapters are necessary

This will help you out in Paper 2 on Module 1, in the task where you analyze a test for strengths and drawbacks. It will also inform your choices of assessment methods in Module 3 and give you solid background knowledge - though nothing you can cite - for assessing progress in your Module 2 classes. Overall a working knowledge of key concepts in testing is necessary to do well on Delta.

Syllabus Design (David Nunan)
(* only for Module 3 pre-reading)

This is almost entirely for Module 3, but you can't write the paper without having read this text or something similar. I chose this text over others (e.g. Kathleen Graves' Designing Language Courses) as it's short and to the point, so it's a good book to read before you attempt to write your Module 3 paper.

*How Languages are Learned (Patty Lightbown and Nina Spada)
This is solid general background reading and will help quite a bit on Module 1, Paper 2 Task 4 (the one where you try to suss out the assumptions of other language teachers based on some sort of excerpt), as well as inform your choices in Modules 2 and 3.

Beyond The Sentence: an introduction to discourse analysis (Scott Thornbury)

Extremely useful for all three modules - obviously for a Module 2 systems lesson on discourse, but also in Module 1 for Paper 1 tasks 3 and 4 (in which you analyze lesson content and a learner's production, where a knowledge of how that lesson and how that production is organized - or not - in terms of discourse), as well as in Paper 2 tasks 2 and 3 (where you analyze coursebook materials, and being able to provide ideas taken from a fundamental knowledge of discourse will help earn marks). It will also help you in Module 3, in terms of deciding if a dip into discourse-related topics would be suitable for your group of learners. All in all I found this to be one of the more enlightening Delta books I read, as I began with zero knowledge of discourse.

How to Teach Grammar (Scott Thornbury)
(good to read as you are looking at Module 1 Paper 2 tasks 2 and 3, or Module 2 for a grammar systems assignment)

Of all the skills and systems books out there, this is the only one I'm putting in the "core list" as it is the most informative one across a range of topics. It specifically focuses on grammar, but "grammar" is such an open-ended word, and the teaching methods discussed in the book (inductive and deductive learning, guided discovery, the relationship of lexis to grammar etc.) so adaptable, that it can be used to inform a number of teaching decisions even on non-grammar topics. Plus, "teaching grammar" is such a bugbear for many language teachers, and has such a bad reputation among those who have an outdated view of what 'teaching grammar' means, that it's essential on all levels.

An A-Z of ELT (Scott Thornbury)

This is not a book to 'read', though I suppose you could do so. It will help you in the terminology sections of Module 1 (the first two tasks) but the real key is to understand the concepts that underpin the terms, which will help you through the rest of the course.

*An overview text of ELT as a profession
(Can be skipped if you have already read such a book)

If you haven't read one already (perhaps for a CELTA course), an overview of ELT would be a good book to digest before starting. Tricia Hedge's Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom or or Jeremy Harmer's The Practice of English Language Teaching are good options.

*An introductory course book in Linguistics 

(if you haven't already read one)

This would be a smart thing to read as well, as you'll be expected to be familiar with a lot of the terminology and basic concepts. Except for the syntax chapter, which I couldn't follow to save my life, I recommend Linguistics for Non-Linguists, though any decent introductory text for a Linguistics 101 course would be suitable.

* * *

That's about it for a core reading list, but of course that's not all you're going to be reading. During the course, you're going to want to read more on skills and systems - especially for Module 2, but even for Module 3 it's useful to have this knowledge as you decide what your learners would benefit from in the course you design.

With that in mind, here are the best books I've found for macroskills:

Reading: Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (Christine Nuttall)

This is really the seminal book on reading, and is updated regularly.

Listening: Listening in the Language Classroom (John Field)

Similarly, this is the seminal book on listening and it really informed my skills essay on connected speech. Other books are out there but this is the winning choice.

Writing: How to teach writing (Jeremy Harmer)

This is a fairly easy foundational text in teaching writing. By the time I got to my Module 2 skills assignment on writing (the second-to-last thing I ever did for Delta) I found it a bit too foundational. But it's great for citations and for anyone who doesn't know how to start a skills assignment in writing - far more so than other books on teaching writing that are out there.

Speaking: How to teach speaking (Scott Thornbury)

The aim of the "How to" series really is to act as foundational texts for newbies in the profession, but for citations and a basic working knowledge, without being overly fusty or theoretical, this is your best choice.

And here are some choices - admittedly incomplete - for systems:

Pronunciation: How to teach pronunciation (Gerald Kelly)

Discourse: I haven't found a great book for this, I would say "Beyond The Sentence" (in the core list above) is the best you are going to do for now, though it's more about core ideas in the field than actually teaching them.

Lexis: I didn't do an assignment on this so I don't have a good suggestion. Anyone? I don't know how good the "How to" book is on this (not every book in that series is good - I found "How to teach with technology" to be rather useless).

Grammar: As above, "How to teach grammar" (Thornbury)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Delta Module 3: the Git 'r Done Edition

After writing up a recommended pre-course reading list for Delta Module 3, I have some more thoughts and advice I'd like to share:

1.) Become very familiar with Word and Excel, especially creating graphs. This will save you a lot of time later.

You're going to need to be able to do things without problem such as reducing file sizes, scanning and inserting JPGs and PDFs, creating graphs in Excel and inserting them into Word, and creating page breaks or having only some pages in a longer portrait-oriented document render as landscape. Figuring it out as you go, if you're not already a whiz at Office (and I'm not - I was a terrible admin assistant), wastes time. This is especially important if you use a Mac, as the tutors for the online courses tend to use Windows and usually don't know how to help Mac users.

2.) If you think the paper lacks some construct validity, you're not alone.

My main issue has to do with word counts (below). I get why the limits exist and support that, I just think the limits decided upon are unreasonable and should be modified, not abandoned. I wrote about this regarding Module 1 as well. 

While obviously your grade is assessed based on the quality of your curriculum design, it is also to some extent assessed based on how well you can cram your individual writing style into their parameters, and how adept you are at cramming information into their teeny-tiny word counts. I have never delivered a baby, but I would compare trying to cram the amount of information I wanted to include into the word count they gave me as roughly similar to pushing a fairly large (think 10-12 pound) baby out of an itty-bitty vagina. It is entirely possible that a writer who does not have, and is not good at, creating a compact writing style might get a lower score just for that reason, regardless of how good the paper would have been without such stringent guidelines.

Maybe I'm just not very British about the whole thing, but, I do feel that the paper ought to be assessing how well we understand and apply the fundamentals of curriculum design, not how well we pack information into insufficient word counts. It does not entirely succeed in this regard as the word counts are simply not sufficient.

3.) If you think the recommended reading is a bit dated (a lot of it is from the '90s or earlier), you're also not alone, but there's a good reason for that.

I'm actually OK with this simply because a lot of really good seminal works were written in that time, after the Communicative Approach had become more of a standard thing and less of a groundbreaking new approach that, like the release of a new technology, inevitably had a few bugs to work out, but before that approach started to feel a little stale as it does today, but with nothing better having come along to replace it (rather like our End of History and the Last Man liberal democracy). And those works tend to be updated and come out in new editions. So, I'm fine with Bailey and Graves and Nunan because their publications remain relevant. The only thing to watch out for are un-updated books that haven't accounted for the emergence of computers. Like so:

 photo 10622948_10152756939661202_801816646064914207_n.jpg

4.) Yes, the word counts and other requirements are persnickety. Whoever designed the word counts is on my permanent hit list. Either way, listen carefully and do exactly as your tutor or course leader says.

I'm not anti-word count. I'm anti-British word counts.

I'm used to an academic system where you are given wide parameters - usually font size, spacing, margins and a generous variance in page requirements (say, 8-10 or 12-15), possibly font selection itself. What this does is create some basic standardization so you don't get two-page papers nor do you get 200-page papers when you wanted about 20-page papers, but someone with a terser writing style can write, say, 8 pages and someone who likes a few rhetorical flourishes can write 12 pages. There's room for individuality and creativity, and nobody would think anything of it if the paper didn't meet exact specifications.

This is a good system because it acknowledges that there is very little difference, nor is there any reason to freak out, over, say, an extra paragraph or have a page longer or shorter. It's really okay - what matters is the quality of the paper, whatever the size. None but the most anal American would care if your paper were, say, 4503 words rather than 4500.

And yet, this is what Cambridge essentially freaks out over. Your paper should be about 4500 words. You can write as few as 4000 (but 3999 and HOLY SHIT CALL IN THE NATIONAL GUARD YOU FAIL), and as many as 4500 (but 4501 and HOLY SHIT WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE FROM ZOMBIES). It doesn't make any sense - what is the difference in quality between 4500 and 4501 words? Or 3999 and 4000?

Wouldn't someone who wrote 4570 words well be turning in an inferior work by editing down to 4500 when it really sounded better with the extra 70 words?

The variances allowed in American page limits allow for this. Cambridge on the other hand has clearly eaten too many scones and not enough vegetables and needs a nice long sit on the pot to just relax.

I'm not saying abandon word limits - some standardization is needed. Or even to change to page limits - why not keep your precious word limits, but make them more flexible? How about 4000-5000? Or (heaven forfend!) 3500-5500? Wouldn't you get better quality papers with more freedom? Papers that inject a little individual flair into the whole thing rather than a string of passable but unengaging academic crap?

Along with this, the word limits given for the information asked for is simply not sufficient. What's asked for is reasonable. For example, for Part 2 it makes sense to want a candidate to describe and justify their needs analysis and diagnostic test strategies, write about their analysis of the results, and end with a short class profile and course priorities. What doesn't make sense is to ask for this in 900 words. 1500 words is more reasonable, and you'd get better quality work from it. Furthermore, you'd be assessing based more on the content rather than how well it's crammed inside a too-small package, increasing construct validity.

It also forces any sort of individuality or unique voice from your paper - my writing style was so quashed that it barely reads as having been written by me. I had to do things like replace "and" for every closely related set of nouns with a slash (so "speaking and listening" was replaced with "speaking/listening" because it was one word rather than three). This may sound like a conceit, but Cambridge says that they prefer paper that speaks to individual experience and insight - how can you do that if you are not provided sufficient word count?

Finally, every word processing program counts words differently. Microsoft Word for Mac counted my paper at 4498 words, but Word 2007 on a PC counted them as 4570. So, we were told to note the word processing program we used to account for any discrepancies.

But if you're going to do allow such discrepancies, then why have a word count at all? What purpose does it serve to be so exact when my handed in paper is 4498 words and another candidate's is 4500, but when viewed in the same program mine is 70 words longer, but would still be accepted even though the other candidate's would not be if it were 4501 words? It makes. no. sense.

As for the requirements, yeah, they want very specific things. While that does quash individuality to some extent, I get the reasoning behind this. Just don't ignore anything your tutor says. If your tutor says "you may want to provide further justification", then do that. If your tutor says "this could be addressed later", then move the point to be addressed later.

You don't have to agree. You just have to do it. Is this realistic? No. But there you go.

5.) Is there a slight bias toward one kind of syllabus? Yes. But technically you can do anything you want as long as you justify, justify, justify.

Cambridge folk and your tutors will swear up and down that there is no bias towards any kind of syllabus - it could be a process or product syllabus, negotiated or synthetic, whatever you want as long as it suits your goals and class needs and you can justify it. With one exception: as you have to submit some kind of course plan, you can't use a totally free-form syllabus reliant on Dogme or the Natural Approach*.

But, I swear to you, I observed a bias. As assessment is a required aspect of your course, a product syllabus with "can do" statements or clear assessment "at the end of this course, students will be able to" goals is the clearly favored syllabus for this assignment. Perhaps it is because a product syllabus requires less justification generally: the end goals of that syllabus and how they line up with the class's priorities, which are why it's called a product syllabus at all, are their own justification, but a process syllabus that focuses on how and what will be taught, with assessment merely measuring what was learned without pre-set ideas of what the outcome should be requires further justification as to why that process was chosen and why it's not necessary to state your desired outcomes or achievement levels.

But, that still boils down to "you don't have to work as hard to justify a product syllabus" which makes a product syllabus easier to use for this assignment, which I feel creates a bias in favor of it - less need for justification requires less verification and agreement on the validity of that justification after all.

Someone using a process syllabus is going to have to explain why they aren't using a product one (which takes the form of justifying a lack of defined end goals) but someone using a product syllabus does not have to justify why they didn't use a process one.

Add to that the tightfisted (or tight-other-body-parted) word count requirements that don't leave a lot of space to justify your choices, and there is a clear bias in favor of choosing a path that requires less justification - there isn't enough space to do justice to a more involved choice.

That doesn't mean you need to use a product syllabus - just that you're going to have to fight harder for your process syllabus, which is arguably not fair.

*I still think this sounds like the title of a porno movie

6.) Get reading done early - you will need that time to analyze and write about your results and ideas.

See my previous post, linked above.

As much as you think you can put it off, you can't. You will need more time than you ever imagined to design, roll out, collect, analyze and write up your diagnostic test and needs analysis (which should be related, by the way - your needs analysis results should inform the kind of diagnostic test you design - for example if the learners you're working with don't need to focus on listening and don't report any problems with listening you wouldn't design a diagnostic test focusing on listening, obviously). So get crackin' on that reading NOW and thank me later.

7.) The assignment itself may only be 4500 words, but the appendices you will attach bring it up to 100+ pages.

Yes, that's how much supporting information you need. Remember, for everything you write about in parts 2, 3 and 4 of this assignment, you'll need a buttload of data or sample materials supporting your choices. You're not writing a 17-page paper. You're writing a 117-page paper, even if it's not considered such when you submit.

8.) It's easier to choose a standard class with standard needs. However, doing this may also make it hard to be creative.

Brendan and I ran into this.

During the assignment, I was definitely the more stressed-out spouse, with my unusual class who didn't want to do role plays, communicative activities, games or take any sort of tests and which, while being a Business English class, didn't really want many of the topics commonly associated with Business English with the exception of presentations. When they talked about what they needed - to be able to socialize with coworkers, higher-ups at work and industry peers, for example, the common Business English methods for that were not interesting to them. They weren't there, as most BE students are, to improve in specific ways for work purposes: they were there for a reason not commonly found in BE - to have fun.

It was very hard to create a class for them within the BE parameters - and yes, there is a bias in favor of using a class that to some degree fits a typical profile of a class in your chosen specialism (there kind of has to be - otherwise how can you be assessed at how well the course you've designed fits within the specialism you've chosen?). Although, what this bias does is compartmentalize learners into classes that fit into specialisms that may not reflect them well for reasons that may be arbitrary. (I could see, however, Cambridge parrying this with "a Business English class doesn't fit in the BE specialism simply because it takes place in a business for colleagues and paid for by the company, that class may well be General English despite superficial similarities to Business English", and they wouldn't be wrong).

This gave me, while not real ulcers, definite ulcer-like pains. For the longest time it was unclear whether my class fit the BE profile sufficiently, but I didn't have another class to fall back on.

On the other hand, because my class was so unusual, I had a lot of room to be extremely creative in how I approached it. I had to be: I couldn't do the standard stuff as they didn't want it. I suspect this creativity-by-necessity may have contributed to my getting a Merit on the assignment.

Brendan had the opposite experience: his class fit the exam class mold perfectly. He was far less stressed during the assignment as the needs of the class were clear and well within the parameters of the specialism profile. The path was clear for him and he got to use a product syllabus (as above, it is its own justification!). I chose a process syllabus because it made sense for my class, and had to justify up the wazoo why I didn't choose a product one. He chose a product syllabus because it made sense for his class but at no point had to explain why he didn't choose a process one.

And yet, because his class was so straightforward, it was easy and smart to use well-established, straightforward approaches and materials. There isn't a lot of room for creativity and change when the norm actually works, after all.

So, despite his paper likely being better situated within the Delta Module 3 rubric, it may have actually been harder for him to have achieved a Merit.

We'll never know.

Advice? Try to be creative - if you do it well and justify it, it pays off.

9.) If you think you have enough charts and graphs, you don't.


When I did my first diagnostic test result appendix, I was told that for assessing speaking, I did not need to type out transcripts of what was said and then analyze every little grammar, lexical, pronunciation etc. error, that I could mark based on overall impressions and then give some examples of how I came to those impressions. I thought I'd done a pretty good job with that, when I was told it was not sufficient.

In the end I did actually type out transcripts of what was said - although I chose snippets of conversation that exemplified my impressions rather than analyzing the entire 3 hours of spoken discourse, and analyzed those for the above issues. I had been told I did not need to, but I did.

Then I graphed those issues, comparing the number of grammar errors, lexical errors, register errors and pronunciation errors in a pie chart to see which were the most prevalent, separated out for monologues (such as a presentation) and discussion (a group conversation), using the total number of non-target forms to inform my assessment of their overall level.

I originally had maybe 5 or 6 graphs for the spoken part of the diagnostic test. After rejiggering it with the additional analysis, which took an entire working day, I had graphs and charts in the double digits.

And I still only got a Merit, not a Distinction, despite doing more than I was told I would have to do.

You need more graphs.

10.) Advice and guidance for Module 3 generally tell you to set aside a few hours a week for it (I think in the range of 7-10). This is not true. Treat it like a part-time job: 20 hours a week or thereabouts is what you'll need to do well.

Not much to say here. Expect to spend several hours a week and at least one entire weekend day on this, and toward the end expect to devote entire weekends to it.

11.) I definitely recommend taking the three-month online course over the two-week crash course after which you write your paper.

I can't say much about the two-week course - perhaps if it comes with post-course tutor support as you devise your curriculum and write the paper, it won't be so bad. But considering the amount of reading I had to do, and the level of detail of the requirements and how to meet them that I had to understand and apply, I really don't feel two weeks could have done anything other than confuse and terrify me. Doing it over several months means that you don't have to worry too much about the next part of your assignment: you do each one in turn, and breaking it down like that and connecting them as you go makes a complex project easier.

12.) I'm not encouraging you to be a pirate per se, but I just want to point out that you need a lot of books to get a healthy number of citations and have a good number of sources informing your ideas, and if you don't have access to an ELT library at work or school, well...

...I mean, it's not good to pirate intellectual property. But without some form of access, doing this on your own could cost you literally hundreds if not up to a thousand dollars in books, especially if you buy all new. Not a lot of these books are available in e-book format at a discount.

First, try to buy used. Second, save on shipping by having orders consolidated by a friend or relative in a country with cheap shipping, sent to you as one box. Third, pay full price but order from Book Depository where shipping is free around the world, or in Taiwan, Bu Ke Lai which will deliver to a 7-11 near you (Caves also has an extensive ELT offering and is a pleasant walk to the corner of Minzu and Zhongshan Roads from Minquan W. Road MRT, as does Crane which delivers). AbeBooks is also a good resource but hard to use for maximum savings.

If none of those options helps you bring down the cost of books, I'm not telling you to pirate so you definitely should not check out all of the titles available as PDFs online, nor should you seek out help even though there are people out there with PDFs who are willing to help a serious teacher out.

I'm just saying. It's really not right how expensive books can be for some candidates without access, which creates a system of privilege between the haves (British Council teachers?) and the have-nots (freelance Business English trainers?). I discussed this regarding Module 1 reading in a previous post. I don't like such systems, and mum's the word if you decide to tear down some walls. Knowledge shouldn't be something only accessible to those who have enough money to pay for it.

13.) Be ready for some culture shock if you're not British or "close enough" British (like Australian or Kiwi*). Basically if you're American.

Partly the word counts, partly the British English, partly the foreign and somewhat baffling qualification and award system, and partly the way they use language. I don't think Cambridge ESOL intends to come across this way, but something about things like "stronger candidates provided a correct definition" and "weaker candidates had weak arguments" or "candidates are recommended to spell terms correctly" (page 7) just...come across as a bit snobby-posh to Americans, I guess.

Oh, and get used to British indirectness. "You may wish to revisit this" means "this sucks, fix it". "This is a good point that could be improved with further discussion" means "okay, but you're going to have to say more". "Are you sure this is the best strategy?" means "this is a bad strategy". "How does this connect to what you said earlier?" means "Either this doesn't connect to what you said earlier, or I don't see how it does". "I'm not clear on this" means "you were not clear on this". "I'm not sure" means "you are wrong".

Also I'm not sure if this is a culture difference thing but some of the examiner's report comments on Delta modules strike me as odd. For example, the 2011 report for Module 3 says that weaker candidates started with a course in mind and chose the specialism later, letting it act as a kind of title, when it needs to be front-and-center. Which, yeah, you need to keep the specialism in mind at all times, but the only way I could see to avoid that issue would be to choose your specialism and then choose from among a selection of suitable learner groups. And that strikes me as quite a privilege - I wish I'd had that option. But, I only had one reasonable option for my learner group, and if I had to choose Teaching English to Poopydinguses because it was the only specialty that fit my only real choice of group, then consarnit I was going to choose Teaching English to Poopydinguses. Not everyone has the luxury of choosing a specialism first and a course that fits it later.


Calm down.

14.) At some point you just have to go all "Git 'R Done". 

I reached a point in my paper when I was devising a class that, while mostly good, I knew would in some ways be unacceptable to my learners. They would never want to do the formative assessment I devised, nor would they want to do any sort of homework, for example. They would be far more interested in discussing the media I chose rather than doing any sort of specific language work with it. In most classes you can make them take their medicine, that is, give them what they don't want so they can achieve what they do want. But with my class, they didn't have any specific goals for what they did want other than "speak better English", "be more fluent" and "have fun". The last was a very specific and strongly-stated goal. As such we'd been using Dogme, and it'd been working. Their employer was fine with this - implicitly encouraged it, even! But, I needed language work and other activities in my course plan - filling it with discussion would not have been acceptable as it would have been rather formless. So, I designed activities and language work I knew they would never want to do, and I would never make them do (even though I might make a different class do them).

I kind of felt like, "if I'm supposed to design a course that learners will both be happy with and benefit from, and I have to include these sorts of things, but I know they won't be happy with it, and I would never actually teach it that way despite this being a course tailored to those learners, then why am I doing it at all? What is the point of a course tailor-made to learners to Cambridge's satisfaction that the learners themselves won't want to do?"

My learners knew that I was using them for Module 3, and overtly said that they did not want anything to do with the formative assessment that I was required to design. They said outright to put it in the paper to pass but please never give it to them, or if I devised an observation-based assessment, to never tell them about it as they didn't like the anxiety of being observed that way. I knew I would never deliver the formative assessment as written.

But, you know? Git 'r done. I put it in there and got my Merit. A merit for a great course, tailored to specific students, who would prefer that it not be tailored in quite the way Cambridge expected it to be.

Whatever. Git 'r done.

15.) In the end, it's worth it.

You'll be stressed and full of suppurating ulcers, and you'll start feeling really stabby toward the end, but you gain a lot of insight into what goes into planning a solid course, and practical knowledge of syllabus and curriculum design that would be harder to pick up as quickly or practically in any other way. One thing I can say is that I improved a great deal and that has informed my teaching. That makes all the ulcers worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Delta Module One: The Grand Finale

Well, our Delta Module One course finished last month, and I figured I really should say a bit more about it for those out there who might take it someday, or who are just curious.

Before I get into how the test itself was, I want to note a few things.

  1. It's important to separate Cambridge ESOL (which runs the Delta Modules) with The Distance Delta (who offers the online course through International House and British Council). The Distance Delta did a great job preparing us, especially considering the fact that it was entirely online. The course was well-structured, well-planned and well-run with solid tutors giving great feedback. I occasionally disagreed with the feedback (for example, I didn't get a point because I called some text 'engaging' - I was supposed to say 'creative, for the purposes of engaging the reader' - wouldn't that text then also be engaging? Dunno, I don't understand at all why not), but my overall impression was very positive. Occasionally I disagreed with feedback, but not because I disagreed with the tutor, but because I disagreed with the guideline answers for the exam - that's Cambridge's issue, not The Distance Delta's. I would recommend Distance Delta Module One in a heartbeat to anyone interested in doing the modular Delta.
  2. The test is too damn short, at least the first paper is. More on that below. Paper 1, in order to be a true, fair exam (if done in an outdated way), really needs to be more like 2 hours. As a result I feel the test - especially Paper 1 - lacks some construct validity. It's constructed so that getting too focused or "in the zone" or being the sort of person who needs to write out their bad ideas before they come to good ones (and can then go back and edit the bad ideas out), or the sort of person who knows a lot and wants to show all of it are all things that can be punished by not having enough time, and therefore not getting all the points they're capable of. It tests your ability to speed-write and have a specific kind of test-taking personality, not your knowledge of the concepts ostensibly tested. If that's not lacking construct validity, I don't know what is. And because I was a taker of that test and I have my doubts, it also lacks face validity! I don't think the score I will get is an accurate reflection of my ability...not at all. 
  3. I, however, understand why there are time limits: otherwise people would write whole theses in an attempt to get perfect scores, and the markers would have to go through all that, and discard probably quite a bit of faff. I just feel the time limits on Paper 1 are too short, to the point that they ruin the validity of the test.
  4. In the end I learned a lot, as well as having prepared for the exam, so I'd recommend this module to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of past ideas, concepts and research as well as current theories, trends and debates in ELT. That's part of why I'm disappointed that we probably won't be able to do Module Two this year.
  5. The test is not as scary as you may think when you begin to prepare - in the beginning it seems like those evil folks at Cambridge could test you on anything, and there's just no way to know what will pop up or how difficult it will be. In reality, they don't expect you to know everything, and there are limits on how difficult they will make each task. There are limits on how deep they expect you to go, or how deeply the tasks given will let you go. If they give you a task, there must be relevant things there to find and write about. Think of it this way: if you're playing Legend of Zelda, and Link is running all over the level board, looking behind trees or rocks or in rivers, the game creators are going to put things in that landscape for him to find. There will be coins and swords and clues and doorways and whatnot. They won't stick you in a little game-forest with nothing to find, and let you wander around looking behind bushes when there's nothing there. Like that, the exam creators left things for you to "find" as you do these specific tasks. Your job is not to fret that there's nothing to say, nor is it to re-invent the wheel (to use an old cliche), but it's to be Link and to find the things they want you to talk about, and why. If you look at it that way, it's really not that hard at all.
As for the test itself, it goes something like this:

Paper 1:

Part 1 - name five ELT terms from definitions provided

Part 2 - define four out of six given ELT terms
Part 3 - look at a class activity and list five things the students will need to know before they do it (taking their level into account)
Part 4 - some discourse analysis (relevant features of the text) followed by "grammar salad" - lots and lots of language analysis (too much, in my opinion)
Part 5 - authentic student-produced text (written or spoken) - write 3 key strengths and weaknesses of the student from the text and choose one to focus on, giving three reasons why (considering the student's level etc)

The test was not that hard, but the first part was rough. Not because it was difficult, though! I raced through the first and second part (where you have to list or define terminology), skipped part 3 because I wanted to take a good hard look at part 4 (BIG MISTAKE), and got so into part 4 - with so much to say about it even as I cut down my word count to bullet points and sentence fragments - that I lost track of time.

I looked up at the clock one moment and thought "crap, I have ten minutes, then I have to move on". I was in the zone. I had flow. I was killing it. Thoughts were coming to me like beautifully cut diamonds, and I raced to get them on the page. I was zoomed in like I'd chugged Provigil (I hadn't).

I put my head back down and kept chugging through Part 4, looked up again after "ten minutes" only to find that 30 minutes had passed! SHIT. I didn't have enough time to finish, so I did what I could (which was terrible work, because now I was nervous and freaked out, too) and didn't finish. Parts 1, 2 and 4 were grand, beautiful things. Part 5 was a mess; I may get a few points. Part 3 didn't even get looked at (it's worth fairly little, but still).

I blame myself for this - I'm the one who didn't manage time well. It doesn't matter that I didn't manage time well because I was too focused, all that matters is that it happened.

But I also have to add that this test is meant to examine your knowledge of relevant ELT practices and concepts and your depth of understanding, it's not meant to test how quickly you can speed-write or how quickly perfectly-formed thoughts can appear in your head and be jotted down on paper in neatly-packaged summaries. Or at least, it shouldn't test that, because what does that accomplish?

I've been saying this since before we took the test - an hour and a half is not enough time for everything they ask you to do in Part 1. It's just not. It's ridiculous. And I felt that way before I screwed up.

So what ends up happening is that people who really know the concepts tested who have either tendencies to get verbiose (*ahem*), or who benefit from time to edit and re-consider, or who just get really focused and think 10 minutes have passed when it's actually been 30 get punished not because they don't know the material (in fact, they often really, really do!) but because they were in the zone.

Why would you punish someone for getting a little too focused or having too good flow, and reward someone who muddled along and kept looking at the clock because the material was hard to grapple with? If I'd found the material harder I would have looked at the clock too!

The part of the test I finished? I killed. I put a gun to its head and made me give it all its money. I twisted its arm, gave it a wet willy and made it cry for mama. I sucker-punched it like a guy in a cheap dragon costume on the original Star Trek. I was the Incredible Hulk and the test was Loki (I don't know how to embed gifs here). HULK SMASH.

And yet, while I will probably still pass, I probably won't get a distinction or a merit. I do feel, based on the work I was able to finish, that I would have deserved one. Oh well. Life is more than the grade you get - I was just disappointed is all, because I know this stuff and I don't like that I'm being punished for knowing it so well that I stopped thinking about time.

That's why I think the exam lacks construct validity - I don't feel my score will reflect my knowledge of the concepts tested, but rather the fact that I was a little too focused for 20 minutes of my life.

Then there's Paper 2:

Part 1 - you're given a test with background information on what students it is given to and why, and you talk about strengths and weaknesses of the text, using relevant testing terminology as needed
Part 2 - you're given an excerpt from a textbook and you first write about the different indicated activities and their purpose/the intentions of their creators, considering your knowledge of ELT concepts. Then you list at least 6 key assumptions about language learning the textbook authors made in creating those activities.
Part 3 - you take more excerpts from the same text and talk about how they fit together with the previous ones
Part 4 - you're given an extract of some research, article, syllabus, comments, or theory from an educator and you are asked to unpack it using your knowledge of ELT history and other relevant concepts (usually things like giving feedback, the purpose for focusing on certain skills, giving instructions, historical and current theories and practices for language learning, dealing with errors, learning styles/multiple intelligences, that sort of thing).

This is the paper everyone thinks is so hard, and frankly, I disagree. Paper 1 is easier theoretically, but there's simply too much there to do a good job on any of it. Paper 2 has less to do, so if you're rock hard on your theory, then it's really not bad at all. You have time to actually think about what's being asked. I thought Paper 2 was great, and I'm pretty sure I killed it. It's rare, or may even be impossible, to get a perfect score on these papers, but I can't think of anything I wrote that I'd change now. I will get the highest score I am capable of on that paper. It is at least possible I'll get full marks, though unlikely.

I don't have much more to say about that one, because I wrote it out, did a golden job, had 5 minutes to look it over and everything before turning it in. 15 more minutes would have been great to perfect my answers, but I'm happy with the work I did.

In the end, I will probably pass. Brendan and I felt quite differently about the test - he got through every part and gave competent-but-not-brilliant answers (his words, not mine), and will certainly pass. I gave what I think are brilliant answers to what I finished, but didn't finish. Our scores will likely be quite similar. From one perspective, that's fair, as we're of similar intelligence despite our very different personalities. From another, that sucks, because dammit, I gave brilliant answers (or at least I think I did). Why should I get a score similar to others (not just Brendan - I actually have no idea what he wrote so whatever I say about it are his words) who muddled through and did each part well enough?

Oh well. One more month and we get our scores. We'll see then.

Such Great Heights, or Laments of a Serious English Teacher

Remember that old gem from The Postal Service?

They will see us waving from such great heights
"Come down now," they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away...

Imagine that song played on a million tiny violins, because I don't expect sympathy. I just want to be straight about how things that seem so feasible can be so not feasible, and how hard it is to claw your way to good professional development in this field.

I have another post in the wings on my final thoughts on Distance Delta Module One, but that's not what I feel like writing about after my long hiatus (sorry - there was the exam, then the holidays, now getting ready to travel for Chinese New Year. Although our planned trip to Myanmar is not expensive, it is time-consuming to plan as it's not as 'easy' a destination).

Until about five minutes ago, we'd been planning to return to Istanbul - the Other City of My Heart - in June for the six-week Delta Module Two, plus a seventh week to visit the city (you don't get any time off for sightseeing on the course) and see our dear friend Emily, who was planning to make it so she'd be in town.

Then I did the budget for our trip and realized - this is probably not going to work. We made our nine-week trip to Turkey and the USA work two years ago and I'm not sure by what magic or sorcery that happened (and it almost didn't seeing as Paypal decided to hold our savings hostage for two weeks right in the middle of it - I was sending it from my account to Brendan's as my ATM card stopped working and they kept freezing the transaction because activity in Turkey is automatically "suspicious" - and I'll never forgive them for that. We only got to eat food and take the subway for those weeks because we have a great, supportive family).

So, seeing as we made it work two years ago, I figured we could make it work this time around too. Everything looks perfect from far away...

Between rent here (yes, we've considered subletting or getting a temporary roommate in the guest room, but we can't bank on that working out for us), rent in Istanbul, bills here (at least they'd be lower if we weren't around), student loans, course tuition, a 'cushion' fund for when we get back that does not impact my emergency fund (with a major family illness, I need to always have the cash on hand to fly home literally at a moment's notice), etc. etc. it comes to - and I kid you not - about $15,000 US total, about $7500 each. It's just too much to come up with between February (when we'll be able to start a fund for this trip) and June (when the course starts). I don't even feel bad admitting that it ain't gonna happen - I don't know anyone our age, anywhere, who can come up with $7500 that they didn't have before - because I won't dip into other funds, that's not safe - in four months.

Who knew CPD (continuing professional development) could cost so damn much?

There are ways to cut down the cost a little - we could rent out that guest room for awhile. We could couchsurf or cut our accommodation budget (but what if that doesn't work out?). We could ask someone to watch our cat for free as a favor (we usually pay). We could hack our spending budget for Istanbul to the bone and eat a lot of cheap bread, olives and ayvalik tost. If I cut the budget to "just enough to scrape by and there better not be any problems" I can get it down to about $6500 per person...still more than we or anyone we know who is our age can sock away in four months. We could spend very little over the next few months - no cafes, no nice beer, no fancy cooking, (I was really getting into the fancy cooking, but I can give that up for awhile) no dye jobs - everyone can just see the gray hairs, it's cool - and still not be able to put that away.

Anyway. I am sure a lot of tiny violins are playing for me now. Poor baby can't afford six weeks in Istanbul and to have her really nice three-bedroom apartment and she's going to Myanmar in three weeks, boo hoo. Of course we're quite lucky and privileged to have what we have. Of course I take none of it for granted. Of course I need to put on my big girl pants and be realistic about what we can and can't afford. And in the grand scheme of things, not being able to do this course in Istanbul this year is hardly something that will send Oxfam running to help.

I realize all of these things, but it is disappointing to know that a simple teaching diploma - not really all that much to ask - is something that may have to wait yet another year because we're on our own as far as CPD is concerned. We can always do Module Three in the meantime, if we're accepted on the course without having done Module Two, but it's disappointing to not be able to see Emily and return to a city I love so much, as we'd been planning for months (but not saving for months, because I took a part-time schedule to get Module One done. Sensible academically, nonsense financially). So far we've been the ones to make it work. To have enough cash, to get the nice apartment, to take the cool trips, to just make it work (They will see us waving from such great heights...). It's disappointing to know that this time, it's probably not going to work, and over something that's actually important like CPD. ("Come down now", they'll say...)

My only hope is that I can jiggle the numbers around to make it work, or maybe Brendan could sell his sperm (his genes have got to be more desirable than mine, and it's easier to beat off in a cup than harvest eggs...imagine cute little dorky kids with big green eyes reading books and wearing glasses all over Taipei), or I could take up pole dancing or something (people would pay me not to do it! WIN-WIN), or we could get accepted onto Module Three in Istanbul (if they run a face-to-face course there) and go for just two weeks. Or we could just put it off for a year, do Module Three online in Taiwan, go see Emily in Istanbul for a week (what is it about that city?) and then visit the USA. We have it's not like I expect people to be Kickstarting me or anything like that.

I'll end with this - all the after-school-special morality plays on not insisting on what you can't afford, on living within your means (which means budgeting within your means), on not chasing shiny baubles that will plunge you into financial disarray - hey, maybe those previous trips worked because we were willing to risk a little financial disarray, but now we're not! - they always seemed to have at their core something materialistic or even shallow. A new car, the latest video game system, an iPad for everyone including the cat, some expensive jewelry, a house that the protagonist couldn't quite afford. The sort of things my values have already taught me to not want (OK, we have an iPad. But just one). Nobody in one of those "how to be a grown-ass adult" specials ever had to face the idea that what they couldn't afford was education! Education - another thing my values have taught me to cherish!

Oh well. I'm going to go mope in bed now - it's 1:30am after all - and come up with a solution tomorrow. There's always a solution.

They will see us waving from such great heights
"Come down now," they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
"Come down now," but we'll stay.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Doing the (Distance) Delta in Taiwan: The Halfway Point

We've just started the 5th of 8 units in the Distance Delta, so I thought I'd throw down another blog post before hitting the books again. It's a good time to sit back and think about what we're getting out of this and what I wish were different.

Some good points about the course:

I'm learning a heck of a lot. Some of it is just putting terminology or academic weight behind concepts I had already been trained in or were implementing intuitively (I get the feeling that a lot of research in ELT and Applied Linguistics generally consists of studies of things teachers have known intuitively for awhile). Some of it is learning about language systems in general, which is helping me more accurately diagnose, test, explain and give feedback to my students on their language skills. Some of it is helping me look at tests and textbooks with a more trained, critical eye. Some of it, however, is just new stuff that's great to know.

It's forcing me to use the phonemic script enough that I can now actually claim to know it. I never did bother much about it after CELTA.

It's putting me in contact with widely-circulated ideas in ELT that, as a teacher in a school run by non-professionals (not one person on staff is a truly trained teacher - some claim to have training, and perhaps they do, but not quite to the level of what's needed to run a language school), and now as a "rogue educator", I wouldn't otherwise have access to.

It's giving me access to more people who really know the field, who can offer feedback and critique. As usual, things I thought I was weak in (analyzing form and use) I am actually quite strong in if I take the time to look over them properly, and things I thought I was strong in (discourse analysis) are areas where I actually need a lot of work.

A lot of this new knowledge is making me feel more confident about grad school - I won't be going in as a total rube.

I do find the exam practice is helpful for increasing knowledge and acuity, so I don't feel that I'm just studying to a test.

Finally, I appreciate how the reading recommendations on the course are a good way to suss out good books on ELT - there's a lot of reading material out there, and I don't have time to read it all. I do, however, have time to read a few carefully curated recommendations.

Finally, ELT gets a bad rap worldwide - it's known as a field full of ne'er-do-wells, itinerant hippies who need a job, inexperienced kids and idiots who couldn't make it elsewhere. Real teachers, apparently, teach in international schools or in schools back home, not in kids' cram schools around the world. It doesn't help that the owners of these schools are generally not terribly concerned about the talent and training of those they are hiring, and will hire the morons, no-talents, kids and hippies (and let's not forget about the old perverts). In one way I'm complicit in this: I wasn't too interested in a buttoned-down "real job" in the USA (tried that - no thanks) so I came as a young-kid-itinerant-hippie, and only later grew up enough, and became interested enough in the field, to make a real go of it.

So I'm happy to see that it's not this way everywhere, with every person. That there is a legitimate ELT academic field, with its own conferences, publications, luminaries, ideas and journals. It's not all just untrained people teaching kids to sing "A-ah-apple, B-buh-ball".

I appreciate that the ideas bandied around in forums and commented on by facilitators are pretty modern and progressive. You won't find any stuffy grammar prescriptivists among the staff. You won't find the online equivalent of your gray bouffant hairdo'd horn-rimmed glasses'd elementary school English teacher (I never had that teacher - I'm just quoting a stereotype).

Some things I'd like to see improved:

There's not enough time to do all the reading I want to do, and so I feel like because I don't have 20+ hours a week to devote to the course (we were told 6-7), that I won't do as well because I can't possibly read two or three books a week plus suggested articles plus the core material plus the exam practice. Eventually I'll catch up - I suspect I'll be doing a lot of the reading after the test, just for general knowledge. It would have been nice to be able to do that before taking the test, though.

I also feel that the amount of time they said we'd need to do the course (6-7 hours/week) was as off as I predicted it would be. I do wish they'd just give a more accurate assessment at the beginning. I had to quit Chinese class until December because I just didn't have time for that and Delta. With Chinese class I only had 2-3 hours per week to study, and the rest had to happen on weekends. That just wasn't working for me. It also meant Brendan got way ahead in reading for awhile (he still is).  If I'd known it was going to be this far above their stated estimate, I wouldn't have started new Chinese classes to begin with!

It'd also be nice if the test was open-book, not because I want an easy way out but because that's how life works - life, including working in ELT, is one big open-book test. So why not add some construct validity by testing us in the way we'll be executing this knowledge in the real world?

I do sincerely wish one thing - and I hope someone from Delta staff reads this and takes this idea to heart: I feel there's an undercurrent of academic snobbery in the whole system. No idea if that came from Cambridge or if it's home-grown or what, but it's there. It manifests itself in a few ways:

1.) Readings: there's a list of core texts, which we did purchase and borrow. That's fine. The list wasn't all that long, although if you are on your own in some foreign country ordering all these books just for you, because you have no access to them otherwise, it can get really expensive really fast. Because we are two people who need just one set of books, and because we were able to borrow many titles, it was OK for us. But imagine if it was just one of us in some small town in Indonesia without resources or other students nearby.

The greater issue is all the "suggested" reading. If you do it all, or as much of it as you can, you'll almost certainly do better on the exam. But the suggested reading implies that you have access to it - and we don't! The articles suggested are not available online or must be paid for, and the books aren't exactly sitting around in a library where we can borrow them. So some candidates are already primed to do better than others because they have 'access', and we don't. That seems a bit snobbish to me - the 'in' circle is inherently more privileged because they have a way to read all the literature. Those studying at British Council or International House centers would have access, as would those in major Western cities with good library systems, but the whole point of the Distance Delta is that not all candidates have these things, nor do they have inexhaustible funds with which to buy the suggested texts. And they are suggested, but you know, a lot of things are "suggested but not required" in life, but are more essential than people realize (networking, access to good education, the ability to afford to do the unpaid internship that'll get you the job, that sort of thing).

2.) Fees: the initial and exam fees are fine. At the beginning we're then told there may be an 'invigilation' fee for the exam, but not how much that is (to be fair, it varies by center). I guessed it'd be twenty bucks or so. Then we all start registering for the exam, and find out it's half the cost of the initial exam fee, which raises the total cost of the exam to 50% higher. That's only for British Council centers - for outside centers, they can charge whatever they like, and that can as much as double the initial fee (or more)! We're never told this - you only learn that it will cost that much more in October, when you're already invested.

We're not struggling, so it's not like we can't pay the fee. It's just...the snobbery inherent in knowing that British Council will charge so much, and other centers often charge twice that - and they must know it - and not telling us, assuming that people can just pay the fee because that's what ya do, is surprising. What's with the assumption that everyone has a hundred extra pounds kicking around? Especially in ELT, where you can get paid very well by local standards (as we are), but in the beginning you're often just scraping by? Why do they assume it's fine to drop a fee like that on everyone, and it won't be a big deal? That academic fees are somehow 'different' and if you want to be a part of this inner academic circle, you have to have the ability to pay them? It reminded me of GW in that way, and I am no fan of GW and their overpriced tuition and nickel-and-diming ways.

I can imagine a person doing this test without much money - perhaps on a reduced teaching schedule so they have time to study - who actually doesn't have the extra fifty or hundred quid to pay for the 'invigilation' fee within the window of time that it must be paid, who then has to postpone the test until June (putting him or her at a disadvantage, although it would mean more time to read). And all that could be avoided by just being upfront about the expected fees.

3.) The test reports: I can't put my finger on it, but something about the wording of the test reports and Cambridge ESOL Guideline Answers is a bit snobby. I am sure they don't intend it to be that way, but the whole "Stronger candidates did this" and "weaker candidates did that", plus a few other choice phrases, strikes me as formal British academic phrasing that, to American ears, sounds Posh English Snobby. As a friend put it "what is this? Evolutionary biology?"

Anyway, that's it for now. I have to get back to reading. Woooo.