A reply to a fellow teacher: Why I believe in Learning Styles


The advantage of writing blog posts is that you can actually measure the impact it has on readers in real time. Technology has done wonders for us —first-timers and experienced writers now experience a more dynamic relationship with readers. As a teacher, I find it wonderful to discuss ideas — old and new alike, with fellow teachers from all around the world. It’s even better when we disagree because there’s more room for deeper thinking . Some people might say that disagreements get in the way of their writing, but I beg to differ. I believe that thanks to different opinions, we manage to strike a balance in this world full of contradictions and square pegs in round holes, or maybe round pegs in square holes. I believe we’re constantly swapping roles: My ideas may fit today but they may become outdated in a matter of days or they might merge with other ideas and become one. Who knows?

When it comes to teaching, accepting others’ opinions comes with the job if we believe in humanistic approaches, so this is my reply to Russ Mayne’s comment on my latest Richmond blog post entitled: Learning to Learn. In this post I discuss why I believe in Learning Styles. Unfortunately, due to the word limit, I cannot post my reply there, so,  here is the link to my original blog post and to Russ Mayne’s comment:


And here’s my reply to Russ:

Hi Russ, Thank you for your comment.  It’s a privilege to receive feedback from someone as knowledgeable as you are. It is true that due to the word limit, I may have left out some important points, which I will humbly try to make up for in my reply to your comment.

You are absolutely right.  There are some holes and gaps in my post, and perhaps I have failed to present convincing arguments for learning styles. So, please do let me make myself clear:

Firstly, I never said that authors advocate against learning styles. What I said was that ‘authors would agree that there is very little evidence that learning styles exist.’ Note that I have  used ‘would agree’ so as to make it sound less assertive. By no means do I assume that they advocate against learning styles. However, they tend to assume that allowing learners to use their preferred learning styles is beneficial. As a matter of fact, many authors use the term ‘preferred styles.’

Lightbown & Spada (2009) say “there is a need for considerably more research. Nevertheless, when learners express a preference for seeing something written or spending more time in a language laboratory, we should not assume that their ways of working are wrong, even if they seem to be in conflict with the pedagogical approach we have adopted.”

After pointing out that there is little consensus among researchers, Jeremy Harmer (2007) says “it may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all — or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group. We should find descriptions that chime with our own perceptions, and we should endeavor to teach individuals as well as groups.’

Yes, I agree with Harmer. There are far too many different learner descriptions available out there, but we can and should try to find patterns to better adjust our teaching to the students and groups we have.

To support my claims even further, I would like to  add Dr. Temple Grandin’s three types of thinkers in Autism, in which she divides learners up into three major learning styles: visual, music/math, and verbal learners. ” Since brains on the autistic spectrum are specialized, there needs to be more educational emphasis on building up their strengths instead of just working on their deficits. Tutoring me in algebra was useless because there was nothing for me to visualize. If I have no picture, I have no thought. Unfortunately I never had an opportunity to try trigonometry or geometry. Teachers and parents need to develop the child’s talents into skills that can eventually turn into satisfying jobs or hobbies.” (Grandin, Temple, Thinking in Pictures, 1996)

In her blog post for Wandering Educators, Roseli Serra (2014) claims that ‘working with learning styles makes us rethink our teaching practice, and gives us fundamental elements to build up a more appropriate methodology to lead our students to more effective learning of EFL.  She continues and moves on to  Brown (1994), who says that styles characterise the consistent and rather enduring traits, tendencies, or preferences that may differentiate one person from another. I would define learning style as individual preferences learners take so that learn better, that is, “an individual’s natural, habitual and preferred ways of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills.” Learning styles will affect a person’s general approach to learning.

Towards the end of my post, I suggest that teachers let students decide whether they want to take notes or work in groups precisely because we must respect students’ individual needs. Anyone who has been teaching for as long as I have, will  have probably noticed that some learners need to write things down while others do not; some students need to get up and move around while doing an activity while others would rather sit still. As I was writing my post, I originally considered including my own daughter’s example of a specific learning style and how her learning style still strikes me since it is so different from my own.

“As a teacher, I have always used lots of visuals, mind maps, sketches, and diagrams to explain language. When I helped my daughter prepare for her 8th grade final Portuguese exams, none of my explanations worked. I’d laid out a cardboard sheet on the table on which I’d drawn color lines and maps of the verb conjugations, adverbials, clauses, and other categories. “Just say it,” “I don’t need to see it,” she said impatiently.

Secondly, you are absolutely right when you say that  authors believe in learning styles despite the lack of evidence. What I mean by ‘obvious’ is that it is present in many course books and yet teachers overlook it.

My blog post addresses both experienced and inexperienced teachers. It is also a fact that many of us — experienced or not, do not always read teachers’ manuals. I have lost count of how many times I have been given a class and a book to teach and not having access to the teachers’ manual. I have probably missed out on relevant information about authors’ beliefs and approaches to ELT. I bet many teachers out there do not have a chance to study the materials beforehand. When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I taught audio-lingual and I had no idea of the beliefs and assumptions behind it; I just did what I had been told in the one-day training session. That said, it is fair to assume that many teachers apply learning styles in their classes without even being aware of it; and yet, some claim they do not believe in learning styles.

Thirdly, by no ‘right’ or no ‘wrong‘, I mean applying activities based on  learning styles simply because it is exactly what my post is about: Learning Styles, and not about any other theory. I believe I have mentioned that Harmer has no objection to adopting learning styles as long as our classes are not ‘based solely on any of the learning style instruments.’ (2009).

In your enlightening IATEFL Harrogate talk, you quote Thornbury, who says that the learning styles theory is ‘ a convenient untruth.’ You go on on to say that it is convenient and useful for the students, but it is untrue. Well, I can only assume that learning styles are by no means harmful. The word choice speaks for itself: useful.

As for the prohibitions, you mention sounding like native speakers, which  used to be the ultimate goal for students and teachers back in the 80s when I started teaching in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a time when teachers and learners strived to achieve native-like fluency. So, it is proof that  the so-called truths and fads come and go.  I would not be surprised if any of what we both claim to be absurd today made a comeback sometime in the near future.

Finally, you claim that learning styles do not exist. However, I claim they do. They are not a fad. They have been around in my classes all these years. In my teaching experience, I have observed students deal with an activity in different ways and I have helped these students learn in ways that work for them. Can researchers actually prove they do not exist at all? What is the foundation for the non existence of Learning Styles?

There may be little or no evidence of their existence, but I have the right to claim they exist even if it is just sheer intuition. I am myself a kinesthetic/visual learner. I need to see things and this — together with my beliefs,  has an impact on the way I teach. Anyone who observes my classes will clearly notice that my students move around more than in other teachers’ classes and see things I draw on the board.  However, because I believe in learning styles, I do not let my own teaching style dominate my classes. I also craft activities for auditory students, for example.

As a mentor, I have observed a large number of classes and I have had the privilege to   sit back and observe teachers and students in action. I have concluded that the way one learns is definitely reflected in their teaching. I once observed an excellent class in which the teacher used no visual cues except for the ones in the material. He spoke and used body language to explain a grammar point. ‘How can he explain grammar this way?,’ I asked myself. To me, that would be just  impossible.

Furthermore, I would like to remind you and  my readers that my post is about learning styles only and why I believe they exist. By no means do I wish to extend it to other aspects of life or society when I affirm that ‘they are standing right before your eyes.’ I would like to clarify that the pronoun ‘the‘ is anaphoric and therefore it refers back to ‘learning styles’ in ‘yes, learning styles exist…’ so it is wrong to assume that they refer to any aspects other than learning styles.

I have been teaching long enough to form my own opinions and I am entitled to agree with whomever reflects my views; I might go a bit further and say that I feel free to change my mind whenever new possibilities and ideas emerge. So far, the evidence I have seen in my classes along all these years tell me that individuals have different learning styles which influence their behavior as students.

As Marjorie Rosenberg says in her webinar, it is not about labeling people; it is about offering learners activities and strategies they feel comfortable with.

I am a language learner and I have always been. I speak English as a foreign language and I have worked my way into the grammar system differently from my classmates. I am now learning French and my belief in Learning Styles allows me to adopt strategies that are consistent with my preferences.

We are not solely cognitive beings; we are much more complex than that. We cannot assume that people experience learning in the same way; many factors come into play: external and internal motivation, previous experiences, expectations, personality traits, and in my opinion, learning styles. I do not know what approaches or methods you use in your classes, but if you do not believe in learning styles, then how do you deal with your students’ preferred learning styles in practical terms?

Further Reading:

Grandin, T. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Vintage Books 2006

Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson Longman: 2008

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. How Languages are Learned. Oxford: 2006

Mayne, R. A Guide to Pseudo-Science in English Language Teaching. (recorded IATEFL Harrogate Session)


Richards & Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP:  2008

Rosenberg, M. (January 11, 2015) Teaching to Learners of All Styles. IATEFL YLTSIG (recorded webinar)


Serra, R..  (November 14, 2014) Do we Care about Learning Styles? Wandering Educators (online):


Grandin, T. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Vintage Books 2006


8 comentários em “A reply to a fellow teacher: Why I believe in Learning Styles”

  1. hi,

    thanks for this lengthy reply. It was a fun, -if rather frustrating read. Whenever I talk to teachers about learning styles I feel myself going round in circles and i wonder if we aren’t both wasting each other’s time. for example, you write “because I believe in learning styles…” and here i’m struck by the word ‘believe’. I have a slightly different, can I say ‘attitude’ to you here in regards to knowledge. I try not to believe in things but to find out how credible they are when evidence is available. If we are talking about beliefs then I’m afraid the conversation will have to end here because beliefs, as I’m sure you will agree, are quite different things to facts. you may believe your child is the most perfect in the world, but of course ll the other parents probably believe the same thing.

    therefore my position is not ideological. show me the studies that prove matching teaching style with learning style is effective for students and I will do a 180 switch and preach the gospel of ‘learning styles’. As it is, all decent tests into VAk meshing hypothesis show no significant difference between control groups and experimental groups. So it’s not that I ‘believe’ they don’t exist, it’s that there is no evidence to date that they do. You can tell me that you know they exist from experience, but my experience is different, -so who is right? Are Christians, Jews or Muslims ‘right’? they all believe, and they all have personal experience of their gods but who is right? etc etc

    so rather than trying to change your mind or answer all the points above I’ll ask 1 simple question to you.

    What would make you change your mind?

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thanks again for your reply. I would never presume to tell anyone else what to think, and as what you are doing works well in your teaching situation, you have no reason to change it.

      I understand how upset you must be when you come across posts such as mine, which do not reflect your views. However, rest assured that what I do in my classes works very well both for me as a teacher, for my students, and the institution I work for.

      My blog posts express my personal opinions and views, so I would not expect to please or convince every single reader. MIT Phisicist Neil Gershenfeld’s essay on Truth has an interesting passage that should inspire us all :

      “Truth is a model (…) and building models is very different from proclaiming truths. It’s a never-ending process of discovery and refinement, not a war to win or destination to reach.”

      Once you start seeing things from this perspective, I believe you will be more tolerant of other viewpoints.

  2. Hmm I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to suggest I’m intolerant of other people’s views or that your views upset me. Your views are so commonplace in EFL and among teachers in general (93% of teachers believe in learning styles) that I’m pretty used to it. 🙂

    I hope you don’t mind my asking again since you may have missed my question:

    What would make you change your mind?

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thanks again for your comment and sorry again for my lengthy reply. I don’t see any reason why I should change my mind about learning styles and I don’t see any reason why you should change your mind, either.

      My blog posts are based on my own experiences as a teacher and as learner. I’m not a researcher, so I don’t mean to attribute the characteristics of a scientific study to my blog posts. My posts are evidence-based. Although I read about a wide range of ELT topics, attend conferences, and strive to gain a better understanding of ELT theories and approaches, I don’t take a scientific attitude toward what I write. To tell you the truth, I hate ELT talks that pose as scientific talks loaded with data, charts, and figures. What I like as a teacher, is insights, practical tips, and ideas that I can use in my classes.

      I regret to say that even scientists disagree on several things. Doctors disagree with each other, and sometimes two different researches based on different principles yield exactly the same results; the opposite is also possible, so why don’t we give each other the benefit of the doubt?

      I have a background in linguistics and I know too well that theories can diverge. In his book How Language Works, linguist David Crystal puts it simply when he says that there are “only so many ways of telling the language story, but one goes on looking for new angles, new insights (…) there is no attempt in these pages to represent the full range of opinions — at times often very divergent — about the way language can or should be studied. This is above all a personal account.”

      We can carry Mr. Crystal’s ideas over into the field of ELT. The Communicative Approach is nothing but “a set of correlative assumptions dealing with the nature of language teaching and learning.,” as Jack Richards and Theodore Rodgers say in their book Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Yes, it’s beliefs and assumptions we are talking about. Many diagnoses and conclusions in the medical field were evidence-based before new scientific methods and tools were devised to prove them right.

      That said, Russ, none of us are surrounded by a ‘heavenly sphere of perfect eternal’ truth. Truth is a model. I’m sure, however, that we agree on other things concerning ELT. If you have some time to spare, please take a look at my other blog posts. You’ll see that they’re an account of my experiences both as a learner and as a teacher. More often than not, I observe a lot of things when I’m teaching and this is what I try to capture in my writing.

  3. Hi 🙂
    I’m sure we probably do agree on a lot and I’m sure you’re a great teacher. I’m afraid I don’t agree that ‘truth is a model’.i don’t ink you believe that either 😉 when you leave the house in the morning I assume you go by the front door -not the window. I also assume you need to eat ands rink and breath. These things aren’t relative personal truths, they’re absolute truths.

    Anyway, I hope you have a great day. 🙂

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thank you for your insights about beliefs dealing with language learning. I agree with you on the fact that there can be absolute truths — as we know them today. We know for a fact that the sky is blue and that we need to breathe oxygen, but even these absolute truths need continually to be validated against all evidence that challenge or support them.

      Just to illustrate my point, no one dared to challenge the idea that the sun moved around the Earth until enough evidence and new concepts challenged this view. Scientific knowledge changes along time, and our ideas about truth change, too.

      It isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, is it?

      Have a nice day, too.


  4. Hi Teresa,

    you’re absolutely right. I’m glad we both agree that absolute truth exists.

    I feel from the most recent comments on twitter that this discussion is taking a somewhat bad-tempered turn. That’s a great shame. I would hate to think you considered me patronising or condescending as you have suggested. Perhaps tone and intention don’t transmit very well online.

    I’m not sure anything fruitful can be gained by discussing this further, since we seem to be working from different and irreconcilable perspectives so I think this will be where I bow out.

    Are you at IATEFL this year? Perhaps we could continue the conversation over a drink?

    All the best!

    Russ 🙂

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thanks again for your comment. I’ll be happy to meet you at IATEFL this year. I’m sure there are many other things we agree on. Online environments don’t always convey ideas exactly the way we’d like them to, not to mention that written words carry greater weight. It will be nice to discuss this and other things with you in Manchester.

      Have a nice week!

Deixe um comentário

Preencha os seus dados abaixo ou clique em um ícone para log in:

Logotipo do WordPress.com

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta WordPress.com. Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Google+

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Google+. Sair /  Alterar )

Imagem do Twitter

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Twitter. Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Facebook

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Facebook. Sair /  Alterar )


Conectando a %s