Anyone who has ever taught in a language teaching institution will know that students tend to resist easy characterisation and that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t deliver required outcomes. Like all students, language students tend to learn best in different ways, different locations and at different speeds.
Since the 1970s this has led to the development of a range of theories that try to explain these differences and which categorise people into one of four primary learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactile. Although few studies have found any validity in using this approach in learning environments, tailoring teaching to learning styles remains a common approach. But how relevant or appropriate is this for English or Foreign language learning?
What are learning styles?
Again, this is incredibly difficult to define as there are a wealth of different models of learning styles. In fact, one literature review actually identified 71 different models. The best-known version is probably Neil Fleming’s VARK model, which identifies four main learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic. Developed in 1987 in New Zealand, it rose to prominence as the first to systematically present supporting content and materials for students, teachers and schools to use.
Fleming’s theory suggests that students who process information best in one way should also learn and be taught in the same fashion. For example, and speaking generally, the theory outlines that auditory learners are best able to learn a language through listening and conversation exercises; that visual learners are best at absorbing and processing information in a visual form e.g. diagrams, maps, slideshows, images etc. Learners with a reading / writing preference learn best through textbooks, newspaper and magazine articles, whilst kinesthetic learners benefit from active language activities (e.g real-life conversation scenarios) that keep them engaged and motivated.
Fleming’s work and the term learning styles are still widely used across education and within language learning. Indeed a survey of over 300 English language teachers in 2015 and 2016 found that 90% of them thought that teaching to a learner’s learning style would improve learning. Yet the theory has been recently and widely criticised by a number of notable studies.
Criticism of the learning styles approach
A leading critic, Dr. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, is robust in his response to learning styles theories. He states that: “kinesthetic learners don’t exist, and learning styles don’t exist.” Willingham warms to his theme explaining that: “It’s been tested over and over again, and no one can find evidence that it’s true.”
More specifically, criticism tends to focus on four key areas.
1. The neuroscientific point of view
According to Professor Susan Greenfield, the concept of learning styles is highly flawed. She notes that: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.” Thus because the brain is so interconnected that, as soon as one modality (e.g., sight, hearing) is activated, others are as well.
Harrington’s 2014 research goes further. She argues that as ALL learners are multi-sensory learners, educators should focus on and prioritise learning skills rather than learning styles.
2. It’s incredibly difficult to accurately identify a student’s learning style
Writing in 2006, Krätzig and Arbuthnott’s research tried to categorise a group of learners as having either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning styles. The researchers asked students to complete a self-report and to complete a questionnaire to try and identify their preference.
But there was less than 50% agreement between the two methods. Which clearly makes it difficult to have much confidence that a student’s claimed learning style is indeed accurate.
3. Impact of learning outcomes
Most importantly, there’s an increasing body of evidence that focusing on learning styles actually has no impact on academic performance. In 2015, for example, Rogowsky and colleagues found no relationship between a learner’s supposed learning style and their actual ability and performance.
Similarly Newton and Salvi’s 2021 research at the Swansea University Medical School found that: “The identification of supposed student learning style does not appear to influence the way in which students choose to study and does not correlate with their stated preferences for different teaching methods.”
Newton and Salvi’s research also identified concerns that the learning styles theory could actually be damaging for students as it can be used be to pigeonhole them and limit opportunity: “For example, a student who is categorised as an ‘auditory learner’ may conclude that there is no point in pursuing studies, or a career, in visual subjects such as art, or written subjects such as journalism and so be demotivated during those classes.”
This theme is also emphasised by Professor Guy Claxton in his book “What’s the point of school?” and by psychologist Kris Vasquez, who fears that the approach could lead to the development of self-fulfilling prophecies that damage work to boost student diversity.
How should language educators respond?
Given the above concerns, it’s important to leave educators with some new inspiration that they can use in class with students. The first, as Harrington above and a recent Berlitz blog post suggest, is “to see VARK as a multi-modal style rather than an individual style. We seem to benefit from using all modes—visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic—not just one.” The blog continues: “Many studies support this idea, showing that we retain vocabulary better when it’s paired with images and gestures as opposed to simply reading on a page or simply paired with images.” It appears therefore that more is definitely better!
Furthermore, taking another different approach to learning styles may also generate success. For Dr.Willingham (see above), the educator’s approach should be determined by the task at hand rather than the student. More specifically, he advocates the use of so-called “task-dependent learning styles”, where particular tasks may require or be better suited to students using a visual, auditory, writing/reading, or kinesthetic approach.
Finally, there’s a wealth of other teaching approaches grounded in a solid evidence base that educators are not currently using. One approach advocated by the British Council, for example, suggests leveraging students’ prior knowledge can also be effective, particularly when educators help them to make connections with new information.
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