boooooo! hurrah!

Penn and Teller‘s show ‘Bullshit was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in ‘pesticides, baby food and the water supply’.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and ‘chemical’ is for many people a ‘boo’ word. 

‘Boo’ words, and their opposite ‘Hurrah’ words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that “ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes”. I’m not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear ‘Chemical’ we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:

the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood – include ‘learner-centred’, ‘meaning based’, ‘holistic’, ‘discourse’, ‘discovery’, ‘process’, ‘interaction’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘strategy’. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to ‘bad’ pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include ‘teacher-dominated’, ‘form-based’, ‘discrete’, ‘sentence-level’, ‘transmission model’, ‘product’, memorization’, ‘repetition’, and ‘drill’. (2009:167). 

I would probably add ‘testing’ and ‘textbooks’ to this list. These words are often placed in ‘boo’ or ‘hurrah’ boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it’s not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct ‘Web of Substance‘ blog wryly notes:

I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as “authentic”, “innovative”, “Child-centred” and “21st Centruy” so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 

We often take our views ‘off-the-peg’, after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the ‘tribe’ they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!


Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won’t they? Perhaps. But I’m uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they’re so ‘teacher centric’. Thassumption in this statement is that ‘teacher centric’ (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, ‘are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?’ 

Secondly, we’ve seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique ‘intelligence’ they will flourish. It’s certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that “a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value.” A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds “composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses.” (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don’t fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘traditional’ while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a ‘a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials’ and say claiming that you only eat ‘organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?’

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian ‘newspeak’ where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, “approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’” are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it’s a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it’s important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we’re talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn’t help them, -even hindered them, I’m likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I’ll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it’s the way you were taught to teach, or because it’s how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is ‘I just know’ or ‘common sense’ and the answer to the latter ‘nothing’ then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.  


How to create your own TEFL method

disclaimer: All methods appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real methods, living or dead, is purely coincidental

1. come up with a new theory

It doesn’t really have to be new, it can be a rehash of old stuff with a new name if you like. Ideally it would involve doing the opposite of whatever it is teachers are currently doing. For example, if teachers are using textbooks, the your method should be textbook free. And if teachers generally like to correct students’ grammar then your method should avoid that altogether. In fact it should expressly prohibit correction.

Teachers are constantly disappointed with the results they achieve. Like the overweight   making yet another doomed set of new year’s resolutions, teachers’ sense of hope is strong. They believe that if they can just find the right method, it will unlock the secrets of English for their students. Whip up some interest, -the thrill of the new, -claim that your method is “revolutionary” and make extravagant claims about it’s effectiveness.

2. Give it a interesting name

Call your method something ear-catching and cool. If you can’t do that then come up with an approach which ideally can be reduced into a three letter acronym like TPR, NLP, CLL, ELF, PPP or TBI. If you only have two then just toss in a meaningless word.  Like ‘total’ in total physical response.  Could we have HHPR (half hearted physical response) or NMPR (not much physical response)?

The more complex the name the better. Make it sound complex and scientific if possible -don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about science, it doesn’t matter!  Just grab some sciencey sounding words and paste them together. The more obscure the better.  Take Neuro linguistic programming for example, (NLP!) even the practitioners state, with no apparent shame, that it has nothing to do with neuro science or linguistics! 

3. don’t really describe what it is

That is, tell people it’s a new ‘system’ or ‘approach’ (don’t call it a method!) that is concerned with the approach to humanistic and holistic autonomous learning spheres which takes account of students’ multiple intelligences and promotes student-centric learning. Or something like that. Alternatively just define it as whatever anyone says it is, like this:


A: It seems to me this is related to motivation?
B: yes, motivation plays a part in it.

or

A: Is it related to teacher identity in the technological classroom?
B: If you want it to be

3.5 be a man 

No method has ever been invented by a woman. 

4. tell people it works
 
Nothing succeeds like success. In the same way. nothing works like things that people say work!  Just keep telling people that your idea “really works” that the students “love it” and that you have seen great improvements and eventually someone will become your follower and start saying all this stuff for you. After a few years you’ll have a book out and be running training courses in your approach.


5. In case of emergencies

By this time your method becoming quite popular. This is when the backlash begins.  Don’t worry about those spoilsports pointing out that your theory is meaningless, just carry on and be even more vague than you were before. Tell your critic that what you do is not measurable by their methods, but only by whole body and mind convergence and the nourishment of the soul!  Let’s see them try to measure that.


6. If that doesn’t work

Weird theories are oddly resistant so don’t worry. Even if some bright spark shows you to be a complete fraud just nod sagely and say that “it’s not for everyone” and that “teacher’s and more importantly students can decide for themselves what works and what doesn’t”.  Another well worn trick is to throw out some of the troublesome bits of the theory and keep the popular bits. Strangely in EFL when something doesn’t work teachers are very reluctant to throw it out but would rather keep using bits of it, so you’ll still be able to sell books and appear at conferences. Also if you wait about 30 years your method will no doubt come back into fashion.


7. sit back and count the cash

Now you can relax and let your followers do all the work for you.  If you’re as successful as someone like Chomsky you can move out of the field together, reappearing with a book every now and then!  Don’t worry about being found out, the academic world is slow to process things and weighted towards the ones with the ideas, not those who point out they don’t work. 


So what are you waiting for, get cracking with your new theory and good luck!




Why we need Evidence: part.1 ‘it works!’


Teaching isn’t the most rigorous of professions.  It’s not glamorous and usually not very well paid. Most of the teachers I meet do it because they love the job, and they love the students.  It’s often said that teaching is “an art not a science”.  There might be some truth in this. But is evidence unimportant?  I’m going to try to argue ‘no’ in a series of posts. 
 
It’s difficult to prove much of anything in TEFL and there is very little for which  there is solid evidence. However, new techniques and approaches appear all the time and are taken up with vigour by teachers who become convinced that this time they have hit upon the holy grail of teaching -the method to rule them all!  They are sure that this time….this time…they have discovered the method that will turn their barely communicative disinterested students into fluent autonomous learners. Said teacher is convinced of the efficacy of the approach due to the stunning results it produces and the expressions of sheer joy on student faces. This position could be called the “It works- just look at their faces!” position. A few examples are the following:

“Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009 online) Richard Graham, founder of GenkiEnglish, presenting the ‘evidence’ that his method “really, really works”

“both kids and teachers told us it really works” Video extolling the virtues of Mindfulness training in classrooms.

Teachers using BrainGym continue to this day, despite all the evidence against it, continue to insist that it works.

“In the final analysis, like any other methodology, [neuro-linguistic programming]NLP will work or not for an individual teacher because it is right for them and not because it is scientifically proven or not.” (Harris 2002:37)
 
I cannot really say that these doubts have completely disappeared but I can say that ,little by little, I BELIEVE that the magic of NLP can actually come true. I am really conscious that the changes I am experiencing with myself and with my students in class…How do I know is it working? Because I can see it in my students´faces, gestures and attitudes (Esteve online)
 

 

Now some teacher might take me to task here saying “well how can we prove whether a method works or not in any scientific sense?”  This is a fair point and I agree but I have two caveats to add to it.  Firstly, if a method can’t be proved to work, then we should resist saying that “it works”.  Certainly we should not suggest that students’ reactions or the way we feel about it constitute any kind of reliable evidence.  Secondly, though it may be difficult to prove that something works, it’s relatively easy to prove that something doesn’t work, -or can’t work.  for example, NLP claims that you can tell a persons “learner style” by watching their eyes move and listening to the pitch of their voice.  BrainGym claims that children can children can massage their bodies to increase the oxygen supply to their brains.  Both of these claims are demonstrably false

  
Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, is a good place for teachers to start.  In this case, the following principle might be useful:

wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

This is because people believe what they want to believe.  A teacher who likes a a particular activity/method/approach will find it easy to convince themselves that their students like it, or benefit from it.  Confirmation bias (i.e. recording the hits and forgetting the misses) will do the rest to convince a teacher that their method “really works”.

But what does “work” mean here anyway?  If you want to test something then it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of what it is you want to test.  Does “work” mean “make the students happy” or “allow me to skive off the lesson” or “make me, the teacher, feel good about myself” or “increases the chances the group of students will become more proficient”?  If you don’t know what “works” means then it’s meaningless to say that something works. 

no one is impervious to this kind of thinking, which is why we do need evidence that our practices work, or at least, the ability to weed-out those which really do not.  Fifty years ago teachers were making their students listen and repeat and declaring that “it really works!” and 20 years ago communicative language teaching came and that “really worked” too and now Dogme “really works!”  If all these methods work, why do we keep changing them?

 

part 2 is here
for more about GenkiEnglish read this.

NB:  If you want to read a blog which basically says everything I do, except funnier and before me, then check out this one.

references 


Harris, T. 2002. ‘NLP: If it Works, use it … or is there Censorship Around?’ in HLT magazine retrieved September 23 2012 www.hltmag.co.uk/sep02/martsep023.rtf


Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works

Teacher beliefs in EFL

There are many odd beliefs around the world, strongly held yet completely ridiculous.  I like to collect them. I’ll introduce some of my favourites here for you: 

 

Penis theft:

In nations like Nigeria, the Congo and Uganda witchcraft is still believed in.  Witches and warlocks have magical powers and, so the legend goes, one of these is the ability to steal a man’s penis by touching him.  The fear of penis theft is quite real yet there have been no reported cases of men with missing genitalia.  There have, however, been several cases of “witches” being murdered for stealing penises.  Penis theft is a kind of mass-hysteria in which a man may scream in a crowd “oh my penis has been stolen” or something like this at which point panic breaks out, a witch is found and often beaten to death. 

Korean Fan death

Thanks to newspaper misinformation many Koreans believe that leaving a fan on overnight will lead to death.  Quite how this works is a mystery, but there have been a couple of suggestions.  One is that the fan blades chop the air molecules up and thus decrease the amount of air and the other is that the fan creates a kind of vortex sucking all the air out of the room.

Chinese period panic

monthly taboos are common in many cultures.  Chinese medicine is a bit like western medicine was 400 years ago and so the idea of people being hot and cold etc still exists in the popular conscious.  Women are ‘colder’ than men and during their period they become even more so and thus must avoid cold foods like ice-cream, eschew ice in drinks and avoid some foods, like alcohol altogether.  It seems partaking of these things will lead to discomfort for women.   There are around half a billion people living their lives like this because this is what they believe.   

Interesting!  but what does this have to do with EFL?  
Bear with me! 

If you haven’t heard of these beliefs before, you may have read them with disbelief.  You may have even thought, “how stupid!” or “how could anyone believe that?” and perhaps assumed I was exaggerating.  You might have even entertained the idea that those countries have poor education so perhaps it is to be expected.  But how would you react if something you believed was on that list?

Well, I wouldn’t believe anything so patently untrue, -you might think, and if I had made mistake I would quickly change my views.  But would you?  We’ll do an experiment later on. The crucial thing to remember is that no one believes that they hold mistaken views.  If they thought they were wrong then they would believe something else.  You might expect, if we were rational, we might just say “oh I see, thanks for telling me!” but people don’t.  What you think is connected to who you are.  Believing something that turns out to be wrong makes you feel like an idiot, -it shouldn’t- but it does.  Only an idiot, after all, would believe in stupid things. 

So time for an experiment, read the following sentences and see how many of them you believe?

1.       People should drink 8 glasses of water a day

2.       You should wait an hour after eating before going swimming

3.       You lose 40% of your body heat from your head.

4.       Daddy long legs are very poisonous but cannot bite through human skin

5.       Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death

6.       We only use 10% of our brains

7.       Emus, when threatened, bury their heads in the sand

8.       The great wall of China is the only man-made object you can see from space

9.       Eskimos have 7/50/100/1,000 words for snow

10.     Blood in your veins is blue

Well, they are all wrong.  Not a bit wrong, or right under certain circumstances but all widely believed and absolutely wrong.  But what’s this got to do with EFL? I’m coming to that…
But first think about compare your reaction to the ones you already knew were wrong and the ones (if any) that you just found out were wrong.  No doubt you’ll pulling a pained look and heading straight for Google to check them out.  Perhaps a little shocked?  Perhaps even trying to justify your belief (well, it might not be 8 glasses, but drinking water is important etc etc).  Secondly think about how you came to know and believe in that “fact”. 

Finally!

How does this all relate to teaching?  Well EFL has a similar trickle-down of knowledge effect.  Examine the following sentences and see which ones you have heard/believe:

1.       An ideal class should have at least 60% student talking time to 40% TTT.

2.       A task-based approach is the best method for teaching languages

3.       A process approach to writing is better than a product based approach

4.       L1 should, where possible, be avoided in the classroom

5.       An inductive approach is best for grammar teaching

6.       It’s useful to have students activate their schemata

7.       Each student has their own individual learning style

8.       It’s useful for students to get feedback on grammar mistakes

 
Now, I’m not going to now tell you that all of these are wrong. But before we go any further you might want to think about if you believe in these ideas, and if so, why? Personally, I have no idea for most of them but I’ll comment on a few.
 
In number 2 for example, Swan looks at the idea that Task based instruction is superior to other methods and, after carefully examining the evidence, concludes that “The claim that TBI is a superior teaching approach, solidly based on the findings of current theory and research, cannot be sustained” (2005:396) a view he shares with Richards and Rogers (2001). Another example is process approaches to writing which seem quite popular these days but  for which “there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (Hyland 2003:17-18)
Most teacher give students corrective grammar feedback for their writing. But does it do any good? Truscott and Ferris have argued over this point for over 15 years. Truscott has claimed that feedback is not only pointless but might even harm students while Ferris has tried to find evidence for its efficacy. In a 2004 article entitled ‘The ‘‘Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here?’ Ferris admits that “despite the published debate and several decades of research activity in this area, we are virtually at Square One” (2004:49) If we don’t know whether it works, and it could even be harmful why are we doing it?
For a lot of this, we just don’t know. I am hopeful that as research techniques get better we will learn more. The purpose of this article is, though, to warn against dogmatism and bandwagon jumping. I’ve heard many teachers (myself included) make claims about this method or that approach, that just can’t be backed up. New interesting ideas seem to move quickly to dogma in the EFL world and it becomes difficult to challenge the orthodoxy. Just think about how easily other false beliefs have implanted themselves in your mind, -or other people’s for that matter. The medical world was convinced that bleeding people was a super cure for all manner of diseases, until it turned out that in fact it wasn’t. And if you’re thinking how stupid people were in the past, remember that it didn’t seem stupid to them.
When asked about approaches teachers claim things like “I know this works, I can tell from the students faces” and “since I started doing [method/technique/approach] things have been better in my class” or “I don’t care about evidence, it works for me!”. Now these teachers may well be right, or they might be suffering from confirmation bias, but until there is solid evidence about practices, it’s probably best if we all proceed with caution.
   



nb: As always, comments and corrections are very welcome!


 References  

Ferris, D.R. (2004) Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? Journal of Second Language Writing 13 (2004) 49–62

 
Hyland (2003) Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process Journal of Second Language Writing 12 17–29

Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M (2005) Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction Applied Linguistics 26/3: 376–401

 

Prediction

Imagine an alternative universe in which a large number of teachers, experts and textbooks promoted a model of teaching which was untrue.  Imagine that despite ample evidence of the flaws of this approach,  in the form of books and journal articles, teachers and publishers just carried on teaching it, -all the time taking students money for this “education”.   Unfortunately, many EFL teachers live in that world where reading skills are concerned.  I’m hoping to write more about reading skills, but this entry will only deal with prediction.

Prediction is a popular EAP activity.  One of the key principles of reading listed by Harmer is prediction.  He notes that things like the title can help students to form opinions relating to the work before they begin reading (2007).  Grellet (1990: 56)  adds that, “reading is an activity involving constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed”.  The British council note that ” Prediction is a valuable stage in…reading activities. It mirrors L1 skills use, where predictions form an important base for being able to process language in real time.”(online)  Prediction is an idea that comes from one model of reading, “this model of how people read is called the “psycholinguist guessing game model”(Grabe 2009:102). 

Grabe makes two important points about this model of reading.  The first is that it is very popular among “applied linguists” and the second is that “it has been proven wrong in its predictions by accumulating evidence for the past 20 years” (Grabe 2009:102).   Grabe hammers the point firmly home noting that this approach “has no empirical validity and is problematic”(Grabe 2009:103)  adding “One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)  

 20 years of being wrong and we still use it?  Still teachers may not be familiar with articles in obscure second language reading journals and Grabes book only came out in 2009.    If only an article had appeared in something more accessible, like the ELTJ a little earlier, say around 1996…….if only!

In 1996, Amos Paran in an article called “reading in EFL facts and fictions” published in the ELTJ bemoans the use of the “psycholinguistic model” of Reading in EAP courses, noting that it “was never accepted as an important model in the first place “(1996:29) and adds:

                As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how the Goodman and Smith view of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

A point made perhaps more worrying by fact the paper was first presented at IATEFL in 1992.  Despite this, I can still pick up textbooks, such as Oxford’s “well read” which include, in Swan’s words, “the standard battery of exercises designed to train students in ‘skimming’, ‘scanning’, ‘predicting’, ‘inferring’ and so forth, that one finds in textbook after textbook” (2008:266)

Swan, beating Paran by 8 years, noted another problem with this model, namely the assumption that non-native speakers lack the ability to predict.  With his usual finesse for cutting through bullshit he writes:



               One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts of predictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. (Swan 1985: 8)

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting our students’ time?

references

British Council (2012) Prediction.  In teachingEnglish. Retrieved July 6 2012, from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/prediction

Grabe, R (2009) reading in a second language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Grabe, W. (1991) Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, no 3, 375-406

Grellet, F. (1990) Developing reading skills Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harmer, J. (2007a) How to teach English Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Swan, M. (2008) Talking Sense about Learning Strategies RELC Journal 2008 39: 262 261-273

Swan, M (1985) a critical look at the communicative approach 1 (1), ELT Journal 39/1, pp.2-12

MA TESOL /app ling or DELTA? Which to do?

DISCLAIMER: This is not a piece based on evidence but just personal experience.  If you feel there are any factual inaccuracies then please let me know and I’ll change them.
 
I recently got an email asking which of these is a better option for an EFL teacher.  Although the person asking probably didn’t expect such a long winded reply, it inspired me to put my thoughts down in this blog.  I’ve wanted to write about the DELTA for a while now but this is not that blog…hopefully it will push me to start writing that blog though…so I’m going to lay out some of the pros and cons of both here and let you make up your own mind depending on your needs and situation. 
Time
This is fairly straight forward.  The DELTAis a 2 month course (with 1 month to write the essay for module 3) and most UK based MAs take a year.  things get more complicated if you want to do part time, or distance learning.  A lot of people choose the DELTA because taking a whole year off work is quite tough for many EFL teachers -in terms of pay, EFL is hardly banking.    
Cost
Most DELTAs are being advertised for around the £2,000-£3,000 mark for a full time course including exam fees. Of course, if you do a full time course it is quite likely that you’ll have to travel somewhere or live in another country so you can add the cost of flights, accommodation etc to that.  I did my DELTA by distance with BELL and I think it was around the £3,500 mark.  If you’re lucky, your employer may be willing to pay for some/all of the fees.
In 2006 Masters programs cost about the same.   They have subsequently increased in price and I’ve heard they will shoot up in the near future to match BA courses, -though this could be a rumour.  I luckily did my masters in 2006 for about £3,600.  The same course now costs over £4,600.  On top of this you have the loss of earnings for one year, the accommodation and living costs.  This makes the number of people able to even think about doing an MA much smaller, I imagine.  The part time option for the same course comes in at about £7,000 over two and a half years.  There are, though, scholarshipsavailable it seems. 
There is a good chance that if you choose a fairly big university and have decent qualifications, there may be chances to work in the English Language centre on campus.  There are at least 4 people where I currently work who were in that position. 
Order of acquisition
There are a number of MA TESOL courses which offer exceptions for DELTA holders.  That is, if you have a DELTA you can receive credit for a portion of the MA without having to do it. The list ranges from nothing (Unis not on the list) all the way up to 60 credits.  Rather ironically, Cambridge, producers of the DELTA, offers nothing.  It thus makes sense to do the DELTA first IF you are planning on going to one of these universities.  I did the DELTA second and it worked out for me because, by that time I had a full time job in the UK and the institution paid some of the fees.  I did try to start the DELTA abroad but for module 2 you will need a trainer and it’s pretty tough trying to find one in Asia. 
Although it’s sensible to do the DELTA first, it might be easier (as it was in my case) to take a year off work when you are younger.  If you get a DELTA and then get a well paid job you might be more reluctant to leave it to start an MA with no promise of there being a job at the end of it.  However, the longer you wait to do the MA the more you’ll probably get out of it.  That is, you’ll probably have a better idea of teaching and more experience to give you a better idea of what it is you want to focus on. 
It’s also perhaps worth adding that as module 1 and 3 are exams, you can enter by yourself without actually doing a DELTA course.  So, you don’t have to take the course to apply for the exams and if you feel confident you might find this is a good way to save money.  I will add that the exam has some very odd expectations in terms of answers, so make sure you aware of these if you plan on doing this. 
What you will learn
The DELTA course is 3 modules.  The first is an exam in which you will have to define terms like “notional functional” and “unbounded morphemes”  and be able to say who started the “silent method” and what it involves.  Why this is important for a teacher to be able to do is anyone’s guess.  The test, which is actually two 90 minutes exams,  does have a few useful sections.  The section in which you have to analyse and correct a student’s work seems pretty authentic to me.  Also the section in which you must analyse a test and find its faults is quite useful…though you inevitably start to think about the flaws of the DELTA exam itself.
The second module is the practical part and this is the real meat of the DELTA.  you are assessed over two months and have to produce a huge amount of paper.  There are five lessons (including the experimental) four of which are observed and one of which is observed by a n external candidate.  If you fail that then you fail the whole thing.  you do have a chance to retake this though as I did.  One complaint about this module is that it doesn’t explicitly tell you what good teaching is, rather it just seems to allow anything so long as you can justify why you did it.  Another problem is the huge amounts of writing you have to do.  5x 2,500 essays plus a detailed lesson plan each time 500 word post class reflection and a 800 word linking piece between the essay and and the lesson plan.  There is also a personal development essay of about 5000 words, which you cannot fail and which is full of the kind of meaningless pseudo-babble that I personally despise.  “I feel I have developed as a teacher and met my objectives” –ugh!  (edit: I might be being a little harsh here)
The third module is quite interesting.  It is a long essay which is divided into sections and staged quite cleverly so that if you mess up the start you’re pretty much done for.  You have to firstly do a needs analysis with a class.  Using the needs analysis you devise an exam for the students to test their abilities and then finally you create a syllabus/15 lesson course around your findings.  It’s quite a neat intellectual challenge though I did have some issues with it as well.  The literature on needs analysis is a bit fluffy and lacking any real scientific basis.  It just seems likes opinions dressed up with academic language.  It also seems a bit questionable to me to take time out of lessons to test students for a course that, in many cases, they will not actually ever do.  I wonder how ethical this is?
The DELTA has also recently introduced a 3rd module for managers and those wanting to be a DOS which seems like an interesting move.
Though the DELTA curriculum is standardised,  MA courses are much less so.  It is also worth remembering that two holders of an MA TESOL could have studied completely different things.  For example:
[course A] Methodology/ Second language acquisition/ Intercultural studies/ sociolinguistics /phonology/
[course B] Syllabus design/ testing/ psycholinguistics/ corpus studies/ grammar
Therefore it’s probably worth thinking about what you want to study and trying to find a Uni which offers something along those lines.
Difficulty
in short, people can and often do fail or give up the DELTA.  It is very time consuming and I wasn’t always convinced I was doing anything other than busy work.  It would take some spectacular skill to manage to fail a master’s degree.  Universities are not very good at failing people and short of not submitting work or plagiarising it’s a good bet that you will pass.   
 
Opportunities
It’s a bit of a risk doing either one or the other because there are some jobs which prefer the DELTA and others, the MA.   There isn’t really one choice that will satisfy everyone and as the job market gets more competitive, the number of places asking for, and getting candidates with both is increasing.  The place I work used to require a DELTA or equivalent qualification.  Now they state DELTA essential despite it being essentially an academic department. 
Generally speaking the DELTA will get you further.  The DELTA is the British council’s baby and hence they will look favourably on people with it.  The DELTA is also more respected as a ‘practical qualification’.  Jobs in EFL in Europe will more often require the DELTA than an Master’s.  If your goal is university work in Asia, (particularly Japan where the British council doesn’t have a great presence) the DELTA is quite often unheard of.  A search of Gaijin pot (Japan) brought up about 3 jobs which asked for a DELTA (an then they were just listed as ‘desirable’) and 1 on the TEALIT (Taiwan) site.  A search for Master’s degree’s brought up slightly more but this time they were listed as essential. 
It is worth noting that a master’s degree is not the guarantee of lucrative university work in Asia that it once was.  Almost always the departments will want people with a MA TESOL or applied linguistics and almost always they will require some published papers.  Taiwan is also quite fussy about what kind of master’s degree you got and they will want it to be officially stamped by your university notary and then by their ’embassy’ in whichever country you are from.  they will also not accept MAs that were done part-time or those which are over 3 years old.  This legislation is apparently an attempt to avoid fake degree certificates. 
 Pro/cons
The DELTA gives you a chance to examine your teaching.  Unfortunately as there is so little actual solid theory in EFL teaching you can’t be convinced that what you’re being sold is actually worth anything.  OK, so now I know what a notional functional syllabus is, but I’m not sure if I should be teaching one or not.  The module three essay at least gives you the ability to try to set up a course doing a needs analysis and designing a course around the results.  It might not be great but it’s perhaps the best we’ve got a this moment.  For those with an MA though, the theory side of the DELTA might seem a bit superficial.  Getting a DELTA though has some kind of magic aura associated with it.  For English teacher’s it’s like being a war veteran or a karate black-belt.  You just exude confidence and authority (whether or not you have any is another question…)
I personally preferred the MA, so I’m probably quite biased but the MA allows you to investigate whatever it is you want to investigate. The DELTA essays do allow this as well, to some extent.  In short the DELTA seems to say “this is how is it” whereas the MA says “why is it like this?” I felt I got a lot more out of the MA and though I can’t say I became a better teacher by doing it (after all there is no practical element on most courses) it (cheesy cliche) enhanced my world view. 
 Notes
Any questions or correction please comment.  I would love to make this article more general as at the moment I can only go on my own experience. 
some interesting criticisms of the DELTA and a blog from a DELTA tutor, Marisa Constantinides
Here are a few threads discussing the topic in more detail.