Learning to Learn


one way two

This month’s post is about different ways of learning, or learning styles, as some authors put it. It’s also about why I believe they exist even when we totally ignore their existence. It is a controversial issue for many teachers, who have mixed feelings about it. Do Learning Styles really exist?  Are they just a myth? Most authors would agree that there is very little evidence of their existence, but when it comes to teaching, authors firmly believe that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and that there are different paths we can take towards learning. That said, yes, learning styles exist if you believe they exist, and I dare say they exist even if you don’t believe they do.  What’s more, they are standing right before your eyes and they’re so obvious that you don’t perceive them . Here ‘s why many teachers  don’t perceive them:

In many EFL/ESL contexts, learning involves developing different skills: listening, speaking, writing,  reading, and socializing in a foreign/second language, so students often get to do activities that suit their preferred learning styles. Likewise, many ELT materials present activities  that cater for different styles; maybe many teachers fail to notice different learning styles because the authors have done all the thinking for them and this assumption is so embedded in the material that it’s too obvious for some teachers to see.

However, some teaching methods don’t contemplate all these skills or activities and students must fit one single mold: that of the teacher or the method. I’ve been there, done that. When I was younger, I used a method that didn’t allow my students to read or write anything until they memorized short passages. Those who fit the mold stayed; those who didn’t failed.

This is not to say that the communicative approach — with its holistic view of learners, does not have its shortcomings. Once an adult student complained about my classes because she had to work in groups. “I don’t need it, ” she said. “I’d rather work on my own. Other people distract me and I just can’t learn this way.”

richmond learning

Here is another way of looking at Learning Styles: Just picture one of your classes. Take a close look at your students. Observe them as you explain a grammar point. Pay attention to how they’re sitting. Are they leaning on their chairs? Are they tense? Do you wonder why some are taking notes and some are fidgeting while others are sitting still? Can you spot the ones that are struggling with spoken words more than others? Get to know about your students and you’ll soon realize they pay attention in different ways, that is, they have different learning styles:

Here are seven examples of learning styles:  analytic vs. global; rule users vs. data gatherers; group oriented vs. solitary learners; extroverts vs. introverts; verbal vs. visual; passive vs. active.

One might wonder if it’s possible to  fit these molds if we’re unique beings. Well, as learners, we’re unique in the sense that we have different combinations of learning styles that add a special flavor to our behavior as learners. No math equation can possibly account for our uniqueness and individual needs, but we can look for patterns in human behavior and preferences. In a way, the so called learning styles help us design our classes and materials in ways that make learning easier for different students.

As Marjorie Rosenberg puts it in her inspiring webinar for IATEFL Young Learners & Teenagers SIG, we shouldn’t compare Learning Styles to pigeonholes or molds. Finding out how students learn best is one of our goals to turn their learning experiences into moments of discovery and awareness in order for them to become independent learners. Marjorie also talks about ‘stretching’ their learning experiences and exploring other ways of learning for them to make their own decisions and achieve a sense of ownership.

Not complicated at all, is it? So why not take a moment to observe your students and try out activities designed for different learning styles? Let them decide whether they want to take notes or work in groups. Whether you give out questionnaires to find out more about your students or whether you just observe how learners react to certain tasks, give them opportunities to discover what works for them.  It won’t hurt a bit and both you and your students will be glad you did it.

Here’s the link to Marjorie Rosenberg’s recorded webinar. Marjorie also shares some great, fun  activities that foster deep thinking for different learning styles.


Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

  • Russ
    Posted at 12:29h, 18 janeiro Responder

    You write:

    Are they just a myth? Most authors would agree that there is very little evidence of their existence, but when it comes to teaching, authors firmly believe that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and that there are different paths we can take towards learning. That said, yes, learning styles exist if you believe they exist, and I dare say they exist even if you don’t believe they do. What’s more, they are standing right before your eyes and they’re so obvious that you don’t perceive them . Here ‘s why many teachers don’t perceive them:

    There are A number of errors in this paragraph. Firstly, you say that authors would agree that there is little evidence of their existence. Who are these authors? Considering there is not one article criticising learning styles in the TEFL literature I would say most authors believe they exist. The problem is, most researchers who have researched the hypothesis can find no evidence to support their existence. That is to say, authors believe in learning styles despite the evidence.

    Secondly, you say authors firmly believe there is no right or wrong in teaching. Again I have to ask who these authors are? In my experience, there are a number of prohibitions in teaching. Four example, claiming that Students should sound like native speakers is definitely wrong according to most EFL teachers. Most teachers also tend to accept whatever is fashionable at the moment. For example, most teachers these days would claim to be learner centred, and communicative. They would also claim the material they use was authentic.

    If you truly do believe there is no right and wrong in teaching I would have to ask you why you bother getting EFL qualifications or even writing a blog like this as it does not matter what teachers do in the classroom. Who care If teachers use learning styles or not? After all, there is no right and wrong in teaching.

    I do not subscribe to this view. Learning styles do not exist just because people believe in them.Learning styles is a very easy hypothesis to test. When it has been tested, students have not improved by having material presented in their particular modality. Therefore evidence suggests, learning styles do not exist.

    You suggest, like many authors before you, that learning styles are obvious. The problem with this argument, is that many things seem obvious.it may seem obvious that only men and women should get married for example or it may seem obvious that women should stay at home and take care of children. In many countries these obvious facts leads to discriminatory practices. We have to be very careful of accepting things on the basis that they are obvious.

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 20:40h, 19 janeiro Responder

      Hi Russ,

      I am glad you took the time to read my post and thank you for your insightful comments. Discussing ideas is my favorite part of teaching, and of course, discussing ideas with fellow teachers is even more motivating as it forces me to delve deeply into ELT issues. I hope you benefit from discussions such as this one as much as I do. I hope that my reply will shed some light on my original post, and thank you again for making me reflect on my own writing.

      So, I would like to invite you to my personal wordpress blog as I am afraid my reply to your comment is rather too long to post here.


      Thanks again and welcome to my blog.

  • Patricia Salguero
    Posted at 22:48h, 24 janeiro Responder

    Dear Teresa,
    I found your conclusion so wise as you are thinking we should addapt the right perfect style after a careful observation of our own groups. For me your article is full of great content and with a heart conclusion. I wish more educators can be as humanistic as you are, and we all can be joined by sharing and feeling as you. Once again you show us how great and the quality of lady we are reading. Congratulations!

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 23:02h, 24 janeiro Responder

      Thanks for your feedback, Patricia.

      I believe that sharing ideas create a sense of community, and this is a good space for sharing them. The good thing about Learning Styles is that we respect our students’ individual differences. It’s like telling them, ‘Hey, I understand your needs and I can share some tips to help you learn better.” Learning a new language poses a great challenge to most students, so we can empower our students by sharing strategies that match their learning styles.

  • Patricia Salguero
    Posted at 23:10h, 24 janeiro Responder

    I can agree more with you Teresa, it is a fact of respect as well, and of course we as educators are models on it. Keep your great work and rock as usual!! 🙂

  • Patricia Salguero
    Posted at 23:13h, 24 janeiro Responder

    Sorry the keyboard was naughty, I mean : I can’t agree more with you *

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