Skip to main content

Learning styles

When I was teaching at Ripon Grammar School I did some work on learning styles with a Y10 tutor group. This may have been around the year 2000.  I handed out a questionnaire to my class and the answers were used to help students work out if they were predominantly visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. The "VAK" model was popular at the time (along with multiple intelligences). Some schools even went to the ridiculous lengths of labelling children as V, A or K to help teachers adjust their teaching to each child. VAK still persists in some quarters.

I did the questionnaire myself and, if I recall correctly, I was more of an auditory learner than anything else. This didn't surprise me at the time since, as a linguist, I had a feeling I liked to listen and had a keen ear. I even do that thing typical of "auditory learners" where you cock your head to one side when you listen.

In recent years "learning styles theory" has been debunked by psychology. There is no evidence to suggest that we learn (i.e. establish memory) in fundamentally different ways as humans or that you can match your teaching or lesson planning to specific learning styles. On the other hand, psychologists do not object to the notion that we may have different learning abilities or preferences. Daniel Willingham put it this way in a recent blog:

"... something quite close to the theory is not only right, it’s obvious. The style distinctions (visual vs. auditory; verbal vs. visual) often correspond to real differences in ability. Some people are better with words, some with space, and so on."

But he then adds:

"The (incorrect) twist that learning styles theories add is to suggest that everyone can reach the same cognitive goal via these different abilities; that if I’m good with space but bad with words (or better, if I prefer space to words), you can rearrange a verbal task so that it plays to my spatial strength."

My feeling when I read tweets about learning styles is that there is a genuine confusion here between learning styles theory (dodgy to say the least) and learning preferences (real). You don't need to have done psychological research to know whether you tend to prefer reading or listening to gain information, or if you are "good with your hands".

It should also be common sense to language teachers that there are very good reasons to vary the nature of the input and practice to provide variety, interest and yes, potentially, to appeal to learners with different preferences. The very fact that language skills include listening and reading make this a necessity in any case (a possible reason why learning styles might appeal to linguists??). But this is not the same as trying to defend a learning styles theory.

In short, we shouldn't be too snooty in dismissing "learning styles" if what we really mean is "learning preferences".

It may also be the case that psychology has not YET produced evidence for a learning style model, but I wouldn't dare take that argument further since it's well beyond my knowledge.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…