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The Art--Not the Science--of ESL Teaching
Kevin Dellit Says Grand Theories Not Much Help

Kevin Dellit recently posted on the NIFL-ESL listserv some remarks which seem to suggest that too elaborate a theory of language may even have deleterious effects on classroom teaching. He agreed to share his comments with the readers of ESL MiniConference Online in this article.

"The man who can make hard things easy is the educator." Emerson

Kevin DellitPerhaps it's oversimplified to say, "go with what works," but I think very often too much is made of new theories, methodologies, and research. Some of the driest classes I ever took were about those very things. Yes, that knowledge is necessary and good. I'm glad I have that background and enjoy talking with other teachers about "what works." I also stay current on the latest theories. Thank you psychologists, researchers and theorists for finding out why this or that works. Thank you for relating that information to the rest of us. Your work is important.

But it often strikes me that much of the "latest and greatest" is nothing more than a rehash of something we have already learned or someone else has already discovered. And I really don't have the time to spend on that.

To me teaching is more of an art than a science. When I am confronted with the challenge of trying to make a student understand a concept, I don't say, "wait a minute, I've got to go see what the research says." I devise a strategy based on my observation of the students, their learning styles, the materials available, and my best guess as to what might make this concept understandable. Then I try to make the concept as simple as possible for them. Once I feel that they get a feel for what I am trying to explain, we practice it and practice it, and look at it in as many different ways as we can think of. And this is all done with humor, grace, empathy, and respect for the student. That's the part that is the art. And I think good teachers learn very quickly if they have a feel for that process or not. If they do they live for the moments in the classroom. If they don't, they do something else.

Maybe I'm wrong. I haven't researched it, but I don't think Monet or Picasso learned to paint by reading manuals and studying theories on the subject. I don't think they took the time. And I'm glad they didn't...

Comment by Kevin Dellit
Reading Specialist & K-12 Media Coordinator
Hayden School District, Hayden, Colorado

2002 ESL MiniConference Online