Anyone who has ever taught in a language teaching institution will know that students tend to resist easy characterisation and that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t deliver required outcomes. Like all students, language students tend to learn best in different ways, different locations and at different speeds.

What are learning styles?

The best known definition is probably Neil Fleming's VARK model, which identifies four main learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. Developed in 1987 in New Zealand, it rose to prominence as the first to systematically present supporting content and materials for students, teachers, and schools to use.

For example, the theory outlines that auditory learners are best able to learn a language through listening and conversation exercises. Visual learners are best at absorbing and processing information in a visual form like diagrams and slideshows. Learners with reading/writing preference learn best through textbooks. Kinesthetic learners benefit from active language activities that keep them engaged and motivated.

Fleming's work and the term learning styles are still widely used across education and within language learning.

Criticism of the learning styles approach

A leading critic, Dr. Daniel Willingham, is robust in his response to learning style theories. He stated that: "kinesthetic learners don't exist, and learning style don't exist." More specifically, criticism tends to focus on four key areas.

  1.  The neuroscientific point of view.
    • According to Professor Susan Greenfield, the concept of learning styles is highly flawed. She notes that, :Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain." She argues that as all learners are multi-sensory learners, educators should focus on and prioritize learning skills rather than learning styles.
  2. It's incredibly difficult to accurately identify a student's learning style.
    • In 2006, Kratzig and Arbuthnott's research tried to categorize a group of learners as having either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning styles. They asked students to complete a self-report and to complete a questionnaire to try and identify their preference. But there was less than 50% agreement between the two methods.
  3. Impact of learning outcomes.
    • There's an increasing evidence that focusing on learning styles actually has no impact on academic performance. Newton and Salvi's 2021 research, "the identification of supposed student learning style does not appear to influence the way in which students choose to study and does not correlate with their stated preferences for different teaching methods."
  4. Pigeonholing.
    • Newton and Salvi also identified concerns that the learning styles theory could actually be damaging for students as it can be used to pigeonhole them and limit opportunity. For example, a student who is categorized as an 'auditory learner' may concllude that there is no point in pursuing studies in visual objects such as art or journalism and so be demotivated during those classes. 


How should language educators respond?

It is important to leave educators with some new inspiration that they can use in the class with students. As Harrington suggests, let's see VARK as a multi-modal style rather than an individual style. Many studies support this idea, showing that we retain vocabulary better when it's paired with images and gestures as opposed to simply reading on a page or simply paired with images. it appears that more is definitely better. 

Dr. Willingham advocates the use of "task-dependent learning styles" where particular tasks may require or be better suited to students using a visual, auditory, writing/reading, or kinethetic approach.

There's a wealth of other teaching approaches grounded in a solid evidence base that educators are not currently using. One approach advocated by the British Council, for example, suggests leveraging students' prior knowledge can also be effective, particularly when educators help them to make connections with new information.

Whatever the approach you use to improve your students' language skills, Sanako's leading tools include a wealth of unique features that help language educators teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It's why the world's leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person lesson delivery.

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