An ELT Glossary : Learning Styles

What are learning styles?

  • Definition : The tendency of learners to favour specific ways of acquiring information/skills 

  • Examples : Some learners may prefer to have presented visually, others to hear it. Some learners like to fully understand grammatical rules, others prefer just to practise using the language even if it's not fully understood. 

But do learning styles actually exist? 

  • There are numerous models of learning styles (at least 71). Some of the best known models are Visual - Auditory - Kinaesthetic (Bandler and Grinder) and the Honey and Mumford model (Theorist, Reflector, Activist, Pragmatist). But the sheer number of different opinions about which styles exist leaves room for doubt. They surely can't all be true? But if not, which ones are?
  • Although the most popular models describe learning styles which are intuitively recognisable, there is no experimental proof that they exist,  and even if they do (at least as preferences) no-one has been able to show that "meshing" - ie teaching learners through their preferred style - actually improves the effectiveness of learning (see the article by Weale referenced below).

So are there any reasons for continuing to take them into consideration in our teaching?

  • Is it the idea of the need for "meshing" that is actually the problem? Some writers (eg Honey and Mumford - see the article by Rosewell referenced below) argue that the most effective learners are those who use a range of strategies related to different styles, depending on what is being learnt. So doesn't this mean that we actually need to be focusing not on the learning styles that our learners naturally prefer, but "pushing" them into developing that range? Going back to the example given above, and relating it to the Honey and Mumford model, theorists would want clear explanations of rules while activists might be happy just "trying out" unanalysed language. But in both cases,  isn't it necessary for them to be pushed into the other strategy for effective learning to take place?  The theorists may "understand the grammar" perfectly, but are unlikely to be able to use it fluently unless they are "pushed" into using it. And the activists will surely have a better chance of using the language accurately and appropriately in other contexts if they fully understand its form and use.
  • Even if "meshing" alone doesn't result in more effective learning, having their preferences catered for at least in part of the lesson will surely result in learners who enjoy the lesson more. And won't that help learning to be more effective?
  • Learning style models can be a useful checklist for teachers to ensure that there is plenty of variety in the lesson. If we accept the idea that we all have learning preferences we may, when teaching, tend to overemphasise our own preferences, so that our lessons become "top heavy" with one type of activity. Keeping learning style models in mind and ensuring that we cater for a range of styles (preferences?) in each lesson can be an easy way to prevent this. This variety means our learners are less likely to get bored - and again, won't that lead to more effective learning?

References and Further Reading

Hatami. S. Learning Styles  ELTJ - Key Concepts in ELT
Rosewell, J Learning Styles  Open University
Swift, S. Using NLP in ELT An ELT Notebook
Weale, S. Teachers must ditch "neuromyth" of learning styles, say scientists

... and to find out your students' learning styles _

Honey, P. Learning styles quesionnaire