Revisiting ELT Mantras #3: Visual learners need to see things, kinaesthetic learners need to do things.

Think of a baby.

What is it you associate with it most – the smell? The sound of the baby crying? Perhaps you think about how it feels to hold a baby, or even just what it looks like? The chances are that most people reading this (assuming there’s more than one!) will have answered that question differently, since it’s intuitive to think that we all perceive and interact with the world around us in different ways.


… or perhaps a rabbit?!

I can remember when I was training to be a teacher, that one of the most interesting things we learnt was the theory behind learning styles i.e. that people learn things in different ways. So, the theory states, if you’re a visual learner, you learn best when you see pictures and colourful diagrams. If you’re an auditory learner, you need things explained, and a kinaesthetic learner needs to do things like writing information down or organising slips of paper.

L Styles

Under the term ‘learning styles’ there are lots of different classifications (I’ve heard different figures but up to as many as 80). There are a whole range of related theories, including Multiple Intelligence, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and BrainGym, which come under the umbrella categorisation of ‘Brain-Based Learning’. While they are all different theories in terms of what each one specifically proposes, they have two main things in common:

1 They are pervasive in the world of education and have been around for years.

In some parts of the educational world, they are so entrenched in educational values that teachers spend a lot of time analysing their students’ learning styles and planning lessons in order to cater for them accordingly. Some schools even go as far as to print special cards for their students, which have a summary of that child’s preferred learning styles (Beadle, 2011).

2 None of them are based on any real evidence.

There have been copious numbers of studies done into the strength of the original theory, i.e. that a child learns best through their preferred learning style, and overall, there have been no conclusive results as to whether this is actually the case. As Daniel Willingham (2005), an experimental psychologist from the University of Virginia, states:

Although it is technically true that the theory hasn’t been (and will never be) disproved, we can say that the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence. If there was an effect of any consequence, it is extremely likely that we would know it by now.

So why, if it isn’t based on any real evidence, does the theory feel so right? Well, it feels intuitively right. We all probably know someone who has a lot of energy and is good at sport, and so it’s easy to label them as a ‘kinaesthetic learner’. Indeed, people are different. People have different tastes and interests. People have had different experiences of life, which lead them to store knowledge of the world in different ways. I wonder, for example, how many of the people who answered ‘smell’ or ‘feel’ to the question at the top of this post are those who have had their own children?

There are also cultural differences, and we may experience the world in different ways depending on where we are from, and what we feel to be important for society as a whole. Also, some people have special educational needs, which mean they learn in different ways. For example, people with dyslexia – up to 20% of children according to Sally Shaywitz (2003) – tend to find visual representations of language easier to process than written lists.

The important thing to remember here is that although the ideas behind learning styles theories (and other ‘pseudo-science’) aren’t based on any real evidence, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t vary the way we teach in order to keep our students motivated. Very often students may just need one more example put in a different way in order to reach that ‘Eureka!’ moment, regardless of their preferred way of learning.

The way we teach something may also depend on what it is we are teaching. For example, timelines are a good way of showing tenses, but the same can’t really be said for modals. The content here is more important than what we perceive our learners’ learning styles to be. The point is, this is what we know as teachers to be intuitively true, whether it’s been proven scientifically or not.


Daniel Willingham lack of evidence, last accessed 11/04/14 at 10 am:

Beadle, P., 2011 Bad Education Crown House Publishing

Shaywitz, S., 2003 Overcoming Dyslexia Random House

Further reading

Daniel Willingham’s site

Russell Mayne’s IATEFL Talk, ‘A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching’, and his follow up blog post on elt jam .

‘The myth of learning styles’ infographic at Edudemic

Damian Williams

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

14 thoughts on “Revisiting ELT Mantras #3: Visual learners need to see things, kinaesthetic learners need to do things.

  1. Nice post, Damian!

    There are two things that pop up when reading and thinking about this:

    Whether or not learning style actually exist, no-one is likely to be cursed with a single all-dominant style that prevents learning happening through other multiple channels. If they were so cursed, then I suggest the problem is not the teacher’s at all – the student would need some heavy psychological work in order to break free form their prison.

    In all the talk about teaching to these styles, I’ve yet to see a practical application that allows a poor teacher to reach them all when necessary. God, imagine how terrible the class would be if the same point is taught in many different ways!

    • Thanks Dennis, and thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment.

      And yes, I agree – it might be labouring the point to try and teach everything numerous times to appeal to all of the styles, though I do think it’s a good idea to vary the way we teach. This actually goes against the original learning styles theory by not merely sticking to the ways we perceive appeal to most to particular learners. But it might sometimes be the case that a learner needs to see several different examples/uses of something we’re trying to teach before they ‘latch’ on to it and fully comprehend.

  2. Yes, absolutely, Damian. Couldn’t agree more.
    I’d also go so far as to say that meeting students’ learning styles can sometimes do a little more harm than good – in the long run.
    If (and I say if), for example, a student’s blatant disregard for accuracy and complexity is related to field-dependence, maybe meeting the student’s style won’t help him/her develop the sort of anaylitical reasoning that would contribute to long-term accuracy. In the same way, over-analytical students would probably profit from having a teacher who gradually showed them how to move away from too much analysis towards synthesis and message conveyance.
    I’m glad you chose to poke this particular hornet’s nest. :-)

    • Thanks Luiz. Nice to see we’re in agreement again! :)

      It’s an interesting point you raise, and what you say chimes with Howard Gardner’s criticisms of how his ideas of multiple intelligences have been abused in education. He himself said that a learner’s profile should only provide a temporary snapshot of their preferred problem-solving strategies, and that other ‘intelligences’ shouldn’t be neglected just because they appear less.

      By the way, if you haven’t done so yet I strongly recommend watching Russell Mayne’s IATEFL talk via the link above.

  3. To me, and I’ve expressed this to Russel Mayne after his talk, the thing that stuck out the most out of all that has been said on this is the idea that ELT professionals ought to be more… critical. I mean, go out there and research. Do some literature review. Get constant feedback and revisit your practices constantly. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed unless you want the risk of choking on some really nasty stuff.

    Just last week I paid $35 for 24-hour access to one measly 15-page article in this prestigious ELT journal. An infinitesimal drop in a wide ocean of academic research on ELT. We don’t get a lot of access to these; basically, they’re pricey. Especially teacher-wages pricey. And some of us don’t think it’s worth it at all. So we basic rely on well-meant (we all know which road is paved with such ideals) widespread-read-it-everywhere-don’t-even-need-to-think-about-it practices.

    It has occurred to me that we all laugh at those ridiculous “panacea” out there such as “follow these 3 quick steps and lose 20kg”, “just one quick tip to help you overcome your social phobia”, etc, but we won’t even bat an eye when people feed us “5 steps towards becoming a successful teacher”. There are no easy steps. One does not become a good teacher and period. It is a continuous strain. Educational setting is ever-changing, and so should our practices. Researchers are always bringing out some new theories to light and debunking other ones. There’s no “miracle” towards successful teaching other than being a damn good professional and taking it seriously by actually putting yourself into it. This, what you and all these other great professionals are doing here, is fantastic in these terms. It makes us reflect upon our practices, challenge old assumptions, and want to research further to enter the debate.

    This post here may be a little harsh (and I disagree with a couple of points there), but points 1 and 10 just nail it for me, they fully express my sentiment regarding the current state of matters in ELT practice.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is… thank you for the post, Damian!

    • Wow, Carol, my sentiments entirely! In fact, this is exactly what I spoke about at IATEFL a couple of weeks ago, i.e. encouraging teachers to develop by being more critical.

      One of the ways I believe we can do this in our day-to-day development is simply by comparing what we read about pedagogy directly to our own practical experience of the classroom. Trying to think of specific, practical examples which either support or refute what we read.

      The problem with a lot of the assertions made by ‘Brain-Based Learning’ though is that they are the reality for what most teachers see every day, it’s just that there’s no conclusive evidence that we should then use those assertions to drive the way we teach. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad thing, it’s just that – as you say – we need to be critically aware that certain things we do are based on intuition and not evidence.

      • I remember your talk on not believing the fairy tales, it was a gem. :-))

        I may have come across too harsh – I agree they are not necessarily a bad thing per se, but I think it is a terrible thing people just accept them at face value AND WITHOUT any challenge, spread them around as the successful teacher’s bread and butter.

        I completely and totally agree with you: reflective practice is key. Being critical about your own successes and failures in the classroom, being organized and methodical in the sense that you are able to analyze where such successes and failures come from. Sounds peachy, but it’s a heck of a lotta work. But it’s sure worth it. :-)

  4. Ah Carol, sorry I didn’t realise it was you – of course, you came to my talk, didn’t you?

    I don’t think you came across as harsh at all. I really appreciate the comment and it’s fantastic to know there are so many like-minded professionals out there! :)

    • lol, it’s OK. I’m sure there are hundreds of other “Carols” out there. 😛

      Will you be giving that same talk @ BrazTESOL? I’d like to recommend it to a couple of friends who’ll be attending. Might even drop by again (now that I know all the answers just so I look smart and hip among my peers. 😉 haha).

      • ‘fraid not. The talk I gave this year was actually an updated version of a talk I gave on the same subject at the last Braz-TESOL in 2012. This year I’ll be giving a talk on Linguistic Landscapes – hopefully just as interesting! :)

  5. Really glad you picked this topic, Damian. I honestly think Russell’s talk was one of the best things we had in IATEFL this year, but I also agree that some of the ‘pseudo-science’, specially concerning learning styles, feels right. After all, teaching is also about what feels right, using your intuition and realizing when where to change, adapt.
    On the one hand, we do need to be more critical, but on the other hand there’s gotta be room for what is not scientific. 😉

  6. It’s just a question of whether there suffices to get those not presently served by streaming services to consider altering their listening habits.

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