The aim of this discussion forum was to summarise and critique the current debate around learning styles. Three presenters – Carol Lethaby, Philip Kerr and Phil Dexter - gave short, 20-minute presentations providing insight, clarification and opinion on the debate from varying standpoints, giving carefully considered views on the effectiveness (or not), usefulness (or not), application and criticism of learning styles in English language teaching.
Following the presentations, the issue was explored in more depth with a question and answer session.
The three presentations
There are several reasons why assessing and accommodating learning styles is not deemed a useful teaching practice, including neuroscientific ones, the lack of supporting evidence, and the influence of commercial interests. I propose that finding out what the learner knows already and using this information is far more important and helpful than considering sensory learning preferences when planning teaching.
In understanding our learners, and identifying ways we all learn, ‘learning preferences’ can be a helpful concept . However, any approaches to teaching and learning that sift and sort learners on the basis of pre-determined judgements about how they ‘should’ learn are likely to be ineffective. I discuss, though, why a focus on ‘learning preferences’ can really matter when considered through the lens of inclusive education.
Consideration of learning styles in ELT is most frequently manifested in attempts to cater to what are perceived to be the differing needs of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. In my talk, I focus on vocabulary teaching and look at a typical example of a 'learning styles' approach. Although there is no evidence that learners can be meaningfully categorised in this way, nor that instructional interventions can be usefully modified to cater to such categories (the meshing hypothesis), I suggest that some of the practical classroom suggestions may, in fact, be doing the right sorts of things for the wrong reasons.
About the speakers
Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, having previously lived and worked in Austria, France, Greece, the UK and Mexico. She is a part-time assistant professor on the New School New York online MA in TESOL and an honoured instructor on the UC Berkeley Extension Certificate in teaching ESL/EFL. http://clethaby.com
Phil Dexter is the British Council UK English language Teacher Development Adviser with a main focus on primary, secondary and inclusive education. Two of Phil’s current inclusive education projects is working with Ministries of Education in Chile and South Africa. Phil has a Diploma in Special Educational Needs and manages resources for the Teaching for Success CPD Framework approach.
Philip Kerr is a teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer. His books include the coursebook series Inside Out and Straightforward (both with Macmillan) , and the methodology titles Translation and Own-Language Activities (CUP) and How to Write Vocabulary Presentations and Practice (ELT Teacher 2 Writer). He is the author of numerous blogs, including the popular Adaptive Learning in ELT blog.