The vast majority of learning styles used in English Language Teaching were originally developed in other areas, such as psychology. In fact, ELT has a history of adapting research from other fields of study: the audio-lingual method was developed out of the behaviourist school of thought.
Learning styles have been thoroughly investigated in so far as there have been multiple studies carried out by a range of specialists in the field. However, as there is no infallible evidence of their existence, some feel research into learning styles has not gone far enough.
Learning styles have been categorised according to a variety of systems. Below are some of these systems with links to more information about them:
- VAK Analysis by Neil Fleming
- Analytic / Holistic Thinking
- Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner
- Field dependent / Field independent
Now and Then
The starting point for all of these systems of categorisation is the Experiential Learning Cycle. This was originally posited by Lewin many decades ago. However, since then it has been further developed and it was popularised in the 1980’s by David Kolb. Others have also worked on the model, out of which the other learning style systems were eventually developed. You can read more about this model here:
There are arguments against the theory of Learning Styles, some of them can even be quite compelling. David Petrie discusses these in this article:
However, it seems the most compelling argument for learning styles lies in their predictability. If you ask English Language Teachers from western countries to take a VAK Analysis test, it is inevitable that 99% of them will have Visual as their strongest learning style. However, if you do the same test with an English Language Teacher from a former Soviet country, such as Russia, their strongest learning style will undoubtedly be Auditory.
This would suggest that learning styles are socially conditioned; in others words, they are nurture and not nature. However, upon closer inspection, what we find is that a country’s education system operate as a filtering system. In the west, where education is traditionally based on teacher-led presentations using a whiteboard or a slide show with infographics and learners taking notes using different coloured pens and highlighters, it is visual learners who are in a position to be most successful. This is particularly well exemplified when examinations are taken into consideration: long laborious written papers sitting at a desk for hours upon end. However, in former Soviet countries, successful candidates are most likely to be auditory learners because teachers lecture with no slides shows, no presentations, no notes are taken and learners are examined orally in front of a panel of examiners.
If you have taken a VAK test and you turned out to be a visual learner and you are from a western country, what does that say about your educational success to date? Probably that you have been fortune enough to be in an education system which encourages your learning style and you have had it a little bit easier than, say, kinaesthetic learners.
Learning Styles and ELT
What have learning styles got to do with the ELT classroom? Mainstream schools are biased towards a particular style, surely this should continue in ELT classrooms, right? The answer is simple: no!
People pay good money to be educated by ELT professionals. At state school they have no choice as to who their teacher is and possibly even which school they go to. In our schools they do have a choice: as quickly as they join the school, they can just as quickly leave if they feel they aren’t learning anything or if they aren’t comfortable with the lessons.
Our job is to educate everyone, no matter what background they come from. If you work in a school where parents send their successful children for ‘more English with a native speaker’, chances are you also work in a school where parents send their kids for ‘more English lesson because they’re struggling at school.’ In other words, in a single class you might have a mix of learners who have the learning style encouraged by the state and learners who do not.
This means you need to do three things:
- Determine which learning style each of your learners has
This is always worth doing because it could turn out that they all have the same learning style which will make point 2 very easy
- Design a variety of classroom activities to suit those learning styles
If you are working in Poland and you have a mixture of auditory and kinaesthetic learners, then have some traditional dictation activities as well as running dictations
- Develop the learners’ understanding of learning styles
This could take the form of helping them to understand how they learn. It could also be you encouraging them to experiment with activities which are not typical of their learning style
To Sum Up
How people learn best is a fascinating topic and one which is still very much being researched and experimented with. If you are lost for classroom ideas which cater to the learners’ learning styles, you could refer to Spotlight on Learning Styles by Marjorie Rosenberg:
*Image courtesy of Online Learning Tips: http://onlinelearningtips.com/2010/05/05/maximizing-your-learning-style-in-school-and-in-life/