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Accounting For Learning Style

By Paul Meehan
How an understanding of individual learning styles can pay dividends in class

A historical account of language teaching would inevitably involve an examination of the methodologies that have shaped its evolution. As language teachers, we are well aware of how our responses are conditioned and moderated by the prevailing theoretical climate and its implications in terms of classroom practice. We now find ourselves in the post-Communicative era, where the accent is less on PPP and grammar structures and more on lexis and its grammar – tackled via task based learning and emphasis on skills work. We have also increasingly learnt to view our teaching from the point of view of the learner and understand that a single approach does not fit all. This has filtered down to classroom level from contemporary research into effective learning.

ESOL/EFL teachers now routinely use a diagnostic test as the departure point of their courses, which allows for student needs to be placed at the centre of the ensuing teaching plan. Along with this understanding that the learning process needs to be structured around the learner’s needs, rather than the strictures of a course book or long established course outline, we have become sensitized to the notion that students not only have a set of learning priorities, but that the way they approach a learning situation is also a question of personal/individual predisposition. This, at least, is what research into Neuro Linguistic Programming(1) has concluded.

As a consequence, the lesson planning of a conscientious teacher now must also take into account the preferred learning styles of those in his/her class. These can be grouped into four general categories or modalities, which have evolved from R. Bandler and J. Grinder’s work into NLP(2). Therefore we need to provide: wall displays, posters, flash cards, realia and clearly planned board and OHP records for the visual learners (who tend to use lists to organise their thoughts and recall information by remembering the features of its layout); storytelling, songs, jazz chants, drills, video and audio tapes, regular pair and group work to cater for auditory learners (and their need to engage in discussions, interact with an interlocutor, solve problems by talking about them and make use of rhythms and sound as memory aids); physical activities, competitions, board games, and role plays for kinesthetic learners (whose learning is triggered by being involved and active and encourage to move around, rather than sitting still for lengthy periods); demonstrations, projects, role plays and opportunities to use drawing and writing to accommodate the hands-on nature of tactile learners.

Additional learner characteristics to factor in are the differences between left and right brain-dominated students and distinctions between field-dependent and field-independent learners(3). Those who are right brain-dominated tend to: be intuitive and subjective, process information in a holistic way, enjoy dealing with uncertain or elusive information, rely on drawing and manipulating to help them think and learn. Conversely, left brain-dominance means an intellectual predisposition, a preference for established, certain information and a tendency to: be objective, to make sense of learning through discussion and written records.

Field-dependent students have good interpersonal skills and rely on others’ ideas when solving problems; they also tend to find it more difficult to see the parts in a complex whole. Those who are field-independent, while less skilled in building interpersonal relationships, tend to be able to separate, with relative ease, important details from a complex or confusing context. They are also characterised by self-reliance and confidence in their thought processes when solving problems.

To what extent have these developments forced us to reappraise our own teaching styles and how have we moderated them as a consequence? This is an interesting question, for it is highly likely that our teaching style will be influenced by our own learning style and have an unconscious bias favouring those students that respond, to a learning situation, in a similar way to us. Our assessment of our students’ linguistic aptitude may also, as a result, be skewed – since the successful learners are simply those whose learning style is the one predominantly being catered for. The danger here is evident: there is a clear possibility that we will overlook the needs of a section of our student constituency, albeit subconsciously, and create learning expectations which have less to do with them than with us. If unchallenged, this simply can fossilize into a teaching delivery that is partial and not only permanently limited in scope, but also in terms of potential success.

Insight into learning styles can rekindle the teacher’s interest in experimentation. By this, I mean a willingness to respond flexibly to the students, out of a professional concern to accommodate their diverse needs. Possible outcomes here could be, from the teacher’s point of view, the consolidation of a broader range of teaching options able to meet a broader spectrum of learning needs, and to, perhaps, provide the impetus to nudge us out of whatever rut we may have fallen into. It can also supply the rationale to try new things with a group of students who themselves are entrenched in a comfort-zone and showing dwindling motivation levels, or who are unwilling to stray from a predictable and familiar lesson format – with the result that they are not being stretched or challenged. The extra assessment tools that this insight provides us can be a great motivational aid, where the students are concerned, as the teacher is better able to contextualize the learner’s performance, provide more targeted feedback and devise a more tailored learning plan for the student to follow.


1. This is a branch of psychology developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder that has provided the foundations for our understanding of learning styles and the stimulus worldwide for enhanced classroom practices (at all stages of the education process). NLP differs from traditional clinical psychology (which is primarily concerned with describing difficulties, categorizing them and searching for historical causes) in that it focuses on how our thoughts, actions and feelings work together , in the here and now, to produce our experience. It originates from the modern sciences of biology, linguistics and information and has incorporated new principles in terms of how the mind/brain works. In practical terms, its concerned with the creation of pragmatic models of human excellence.

2. See:

Frogs into Princes. Moab, Utah: Real People Press, 1979.
Bandler, Richard, and John Grinder.
Reframing: Neurolinguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning. Moab, Utah: Real People Press, 1982.
3. Field dependence-field independence: refer to how individuals attend to, recognise and structure perceptual patterns. In a field dependent mode, an individual’s pattern recognition is strongly dominated by the holistic/overall organisation of the perceptual field. Field independence allows an individual to see the parts of the field as distinct from the organised ground – i.e. he/she is able to break up a given field’s organisational structure and locate a nominated structural part, while. Research in this area further revealed that FID individuals are more capable of restructuring the perceptual field or imposing a structure if one is missing, compared to FD individuals. The Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) was devised (in the 1970s) to measure an individual’s response to information being presented and thus gauge his/her cognitive style. The applications of this research have been widespread, as evinced by its contemporary use in business environments to study and assess the process of decision making, information processing and strategy development. See:

Witkin, H.A., Moore, C., Goodenough, D. & Cox, P. (1977) Field Dependent and Field Independent Cognitive Styles and their Educational Implications, Review of Educational Research, 47, pp. 1-64.
Witkin, H.A., Oltman, P., Goodenough, D., Friedman, F., Owen, D. & Raskin, E. (1977) Role of Field Dependent and Field Independent Cognitive Styles in Academic Evolution: a longitudinal study, Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, pp. 197-211.

Written by Paul Meehan for Tefl.NET April 2017
Paul Meehan is a London-based EFL/ESOL teacher and freelance writer.
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