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

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Damian Willians

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.

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