Your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles.


  • What is a learning style?
  • Where do learning styles come from?
  • Why should teachers know about learning styles?
  • What types of learning styles are there?
  • What teaching methods and activities suit different learning styles?

What is a learning style?
Ellis (1985) described a learning style as the more or less consistent way in which a person perceives, conceptualizes, organizes and recalls information.

Where do learning styles come from?
Your students' learning styles will be influenced by their genetic make-up, their previous learning experiences, their culture and the society they live in.

Why should teachers know about learning styles?
Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg (1990) suggest four steps: plan, teach / act, observe and reflect. Here are some guidelines for each step.

  • Students learn better and more quickly if the teaching methods used match their preferred learning styles.
  • As learning improves, so too does self esteem. This has a further positive effect on learning.
  • Students who have become bored with learning may become interested once again.
  • The student-teacher relationship can improve because the student is more successful and is more interested in learning.

What types of learning styles are there?
There are many ways of looking at learning styles. Here are some of the classification systems that researchers have developed.

  • The four modalities
    (originates from the work of Dr's Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. in the Field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming)
    Students may prefer a visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinaesthetic (moving) or tactile (touching) way of learning.
    • Those who prefer a visual learning style...
      • ...look at the teacher's face intently
      • looking at wall displays, books etc.
      • ...often recognize words by sight
      • ...use lists to organize their thoughts
      • ...recall information by remembering how it was set out on a page
    • Those who prefer an auditory learning style...
      • the teacher to provide verbal instructions
      • dialogues, discussions and plays
      • ...solve problems by talking about them
      • ...use rhythm and sound as memory aids
    • Those who prefer a kinaesthetic learning style...
      • ...learn best when they are involved or active
      • ...find it difficult to sit still for long periods
      • ...use movement as a memory aid
    • Those who prefer a tactile way of learning...
      • ...use writing and drawing as memory aids
      • ...learn well in hands-on activities like projects and demonstrations


  • Field-independent vs. Field-dependent
    • Field-independent students
      • They can easily separate important from a complex or confusing background. They tend to rely on themselves and their own thought-system when solving problems. They are not so skilled in interpersonal relationships.

    • Field-dependent students
      • They find it more difficult to see the parts in a complex whole.
      • They rely on others' ideas when solving problems and are good at interpersonal relationships.
  • Left-brain dominated vs. right-brain dominated
    • Students who are left-brain dominated...
      • ...are intellectual
      • ...process information in a linear way
      • ...tend to be objective
      • ...prefer established, certain information
      • ...rely on language in thinking and remembering

    • Those who are right-brain dominated...
      • ...are intuitive
      • ...process information in a holistic way
      • ...tend to be subjective
      • ...prefer elusive, uncertain information
      • ...rely on drawing and manipulating to help them think and learn

  • McCarthy's four learning styles
    McCarthy (1980) described students as innovative learners, analytic learners, common sense learners or dynamic learners
    • Innovative learners...
      • ...look for personal meaning while learning
      • ...draw on their values while learning
      • ...enjoy social interaction
      • ... are cooperative
      • ...want to make the world a better place
    • Analytic learners...
      • ...want to develop intellectually while learning
      • ...draw on facts while learning
      • ...are patient and reflective
      • ...want to know " important things" and to add to the world's knowledge
    • Common sense learners...
      • ...want to find solutions
      • ... value things if they are useful
      • ...are kinaesthetic
      • ...are practical and straightforward
      • ... want to make things happen
    • Dynamic learners...
      • ...look for hidden possibilities
      • ...judge things by gut reactions
      • ...synthesize information from different sources
      • ...are enthusiastic and adventurous

What teaching methods and activities suit different learning styles?

  • The Four Modalities
    • Visual
      • Use many visuals in the classroom. For example, wall displays posters, realia, flash cards, graphic organizers etc.
    • Auditory
      • Use audio tapes and videos, storytelling, songs, jazz chants, memorization and drills
      • Allow learners to work in pairs and small groups regularly.
    • Kinaesthetic
      • Use physical activities, competitions, board games, role plays etc.
      • Intersperse activities which require students to sit quietly with activities that allow them to move around and be active
    • Tactile
      • Use board and card games, demonstrations, projects, role plays etc.
      • Use while-listening and reading activities. For example, ask students to fill in a table while listening to a talk, or to label a diagram while reading
  • Field-independent vs. field-dependent
    • Field-independent
      • Let students work on some activities on their own
    • Field-dependent
      • Let students work on some activities in pairs and small groups
  • Left-brain vs. right-brain dominated
    • Left-brain dominated
      • Give verbal instructions and explanations
      • Set some closed tasks to which students can discover the "right" answer

    • Right-brained dominated
      • Write instructions as well as giving them verbally
      • Demonstrate what you would like students to do
      • Give students clear guidelines, a structure, for tasks
      • Set some open-ended tasks for which there is no "right" answer
      • Use realia and other things that students can manipulate while learning
      • Sometimes allow students to respond by drawing
  • McCarthy's four learning styles
    • Innovative learners
      • Use cooperative learning activities and activities in which students must make value judgements
      • Ask students to discuss their opinions and beliefs
    • Analytic learners
      • Teach students the facts
    • Common sense learners
      • Use problem-solving activities
    • Dynamic learners
      • Ask students about their feelings
      • Use a variety of challenging activities


If you vary the activities that you use in your lessons, you are sure to cater for learners with different learning styles at least some of the time.

Cheron Verster, teacher trainer and materials developer, South Africa



That is a very interesting literature review on the topic of learning styles. I agree with the idea that teachers should try to cater to their studens preferred ways of learning. However, we should take into account that it is not an easy task depending on the number of students you have and the philosophy of your school. Unfortunately, we still have schools that see students as blank slates that can only learn from teacher-centered approaches.
The concept of learning styles puts an emphasis on the learner, making teachers rethink their insctruction to try to maximize student achievement. The learning styles theories should be developed to a point that every student would have the right to have an option on how they access new learning material and how they are evaluated.

Related to this article is the question of learning cultures and there is a good webcast on this by Prof. Cortazzi available from the Keynotes section of I like the way he illustrates his points with pics. low tech but effective. Enjoy J

I strongly believe that in a large language class, all the methods, approaches and techniques are fruitless. I mean a student may not learn MUCH in a large class. Just compare a class of 15-20 students and a class of 45-48. Which one would you prefer to teach? How can you teach pronunciation in such a class? How can you help slow learners catch up with those who are quick learners? I don't think that the current teaching approaches can help us make our class a better place for learning. More than that, when it comes to class management, then this is another story. A large class is much noisier than a small class.

I couldn't disagree that teaching large classes is a daunting task. However I would have to wholeheartedly disgree with your statement that all methods, approaches and techniques are fruitless. It sounds as if you have thrown in the towel on trying and it saddens me that you have published it here on a public forum.I have had the pleasure of conducting ESL classes here in China of 50-70 students! Yes, there were many times I wanted to throw in the towel and just scream at the top of my lungs in near rage. Yes, large or in my case huge classes are extremely difficult to manage. (not a class for the meek for sure) Yes, of course teachers around the world would prefer a smaller class. After all a small class is pretty easy to manage and effectivly teach.  YES, current teaching approaches CAN be fruitful if the teacher learns to manage their class effectively and sticks with it.I hope that your opinion here doesn't truly reflect that you have given up on your students. I'm sure if you were to ask them they too would prefer to be taught in a class of 15-20 students, but like many teachers they have no choice. Let's make the most of what we have and don't give up. 

Its really interesting to see this theory applied to the ELT field. I'm gonna give it a try to ce how it works since I dont have really large groups. But I agree with the professor who said that there's still no approach which could ensure learning in those large groups specially if their composed mainly by teens

It is important to note down that even it is hard to teach large classes, there is a lot we can do. For instance, we as teachers may rely on group and pair work, use cooperative learning and some others techniques that suit large classes. As I said before, It is not an easy task. However, we can be very creative to cater for a succesful class.Professors Harmer and Brown provide excellent advice in their books;Teach English and Teaching by Principles.

That's an interesting subject. I am a English teacher, too. I think that whenever teaching a groups of students, firstly we have to recognize who our students are, what types of learners, learners strategies etc. so we can apply the appropriate methods for each of them.

 I will be an English teacher nexr year. So I do not have too much teaching experience. I've studied English language teaching in China for several years, but I'm still confused and afraid that I may not be able to handle students of a large group(more than 45). They are really diversified to a very great extent. I want to be a good teacher. Your opinions have really inspired me. I hope that I can apply them in my teaching.

And what if:A. The student is left-handed?B The student is ambidextrous?How will we be able to assess their learning styles according to brain dominance under those circumstances? What if you have a student whose learning styles are visual/auditive/kinaesthetic/tactile? I have seen students -highly intelligent- where there I have observed all characteristics and preferences and I had to resort to all strategies, depending on their moods and/or the tasks involved.

It is very interesting method.I think that firstly teacher must recognize what types of learners.Because teachers haven't diffulty in teaching to their students and should try to provide to student's preferred way of learning.It will help to raise learners'knowledge.I believe it.Of course you gave us useful advice for learnig language but I can't understand tactile learning a bit.Please will explain clearly it.


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