Ask a teacher about how their students learn best, and they will probably tell you that their students are ‘very visual learners’. They might also define students as ‘auditory’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ in the way that they learn. This contrast comes from a theory of learning known as ‘VAK’, a model from the 1970s, which suggests that people can be split into these three broad categories of ‘learning style’.
In fact, most people describe themselves as ‘visual learners’, a fact which is not surprising given that over half of the surface of the brain is devoted to vision. Also, given that most of the learning we describe in students is as a result of language (parents and teachers telling us things, for example), it is hardly surprising that people self-describe as ‘auditory learners’.
Any teacher will tell you that some students move around more as they learn, and that there is a link between physical movement and quality of learning. This may be true for more tactile subjects, and as a way of reinforcing other content (miming or movements with song, or actions with stories), but in most examples of movement used as a teaching tool, it goes along with language or music, which is auditory, isn’t it?
This VAK model of ‘learning styles’ was a leap forward when it was suggested, and has informed the ways that teachers work with different students enormously. However, is it enough to categorise the immensely diverse range of personalities, skills, motivations, needs and goals of any group of students? Why should it be up to a teacher to define students by how they learn?’
From ‘learner styles’ to learner preferences
A more student-centred and individualised model of learning defines the preferred ways of learning that different individuals have developed. Rightly or wrongly, every individual has their own strategies for dealing with new information, remembering it and preparing to use it. Some write notes, some speak under their breath, some use reference books, some focus on vocabulary learning over everything else, others write it out… There are hundreds of ways of achieving more effective learning that students use every day, without being pigeonholed into three groups, as the VAK model attempts to do.
This is the essence of learner preferences: tailoring teaching to the ways in which our learners benefit from accessing information in class. Knowing what goes on in your classroom is the first step to this strategic approach to teaching.
Find out how your students prefer to learn
Different students have different preferences in how they engage with the materials they use. Some prefer to work with a dictionary by their side, some talk things through in their first language before putting it out there in English, and others prefer to think to themselves before producing out loud. Do you know who in your class works best in which ways? If not, it’s a good idea to find out!
When you set an activity, watch how your students respond to it - do they use their pencil to read the lines of text? Do they look at the page or turn to their partner and ask for help? Do they try an answer and rub it out, before correcting and moving on? These simple actions can tell you a lot about your students’ approaches to learning, which can be incorporated into a differentiated approach to the tasks you plan for them.
Doing things the way your learners prefer to study
Making class activities more focused on different learning strategies can enable learners to make the most of the strategies they prefer, enhancing learning greatly and incorporating what they already do into tasks in a systematic and guided way.
Any class activity can be expanded beyond just answering the questions, by adding pre- and post-task support with how the task is performed. Use instructions like the following to support different learning preferences and to focus on the processes that students use to complete the tasks you set:
Pre-task instruction (for quiet thinkers): Look at the following text / questions / sentences. Take two minutes to think about them. What do they have in common / what kinds of words go in the spaces? (or similar pre-thinking tasks).
Pre-task instruction (for dictionary users): Before you start, take two minutes to read the following text / questions / sentences. Use a dictionary to look up any new words.
Pre-task instruction (for monolingual groups): Before you start, take two minutes to talk to your partner/s in your own language. How will you complete the questions below?
Post-task instruction (for reflective thinkers): Think back to the questions we just answered. How did you find the answer? / Which words helped you to complete the sentences? / Where in the text did you find the answers you gave?
Post-task instruction (for reflective thinkers): Look back at the questions we just answered. Which questions were most difficult? Why? / Which answers did you change in the end? Why?
Post-task instruction (for talkative sharers): Look back at the questions we just answered. Talk about the questions with your partner - did you both agree? Which questions did you disagree about? Why?
Post-task instruction (for creative thinkers): Think about the language we studied in these questions. In what other situations could you use these words? / What other topics could you talk about using this grammar?
By taking a couple of minutes to reinforce appropriate strategies for approaching tasks, and a few minutes afterwards to reflect or extend a task in these ways, it will be more and more likely that your students will shine, and their strategies for success will be brought forward in their learning.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.