• ELT Action

Embrace the Differences


It is a given that different learners perceive, process, store and recall information in different ways. Many begin with sensory-based filtering of information and may prefer to be confronted with new information in their preferred channel. They then approach learning differently depending on how they cognitively process information and their individual learning behaviors and patterns. What this means for us as teachers is the recognition of the fact that our classrooms consist of unique individuals who might need slightly different ‘packaging’ of material. This, however, does not mean that we need to set up a special program for each of our learners, but, instead, make sure that we mix the methods we use in order to reach them all. When we first harmonize with our learners by meeting them in their preferred style, we give them the confidence to continue, and then we can begin to challenge them and help them to learn new strategies and to stretch out of their comfort zones. In addition, when learners are aware of the differences between learner types, they gain an element of metacognition and this is a useful tool for them as they also become more tolerant of others thereby fostering cooperation and understanding within the classroom.


There are several myths that should be addressed. As mentioned above, not everyone learns in the same way but we also do not need to teach to each style separately as this would take too much time both in preparation and in the classroom. Styles are also not related to competence. It could be that students of one style find it easier to learn a particular subject but it does not mean that they are the only ones who can do that. Styles are not an excuse; everyone can learn, some may just need longer or find their own ways to tackle assignments.


The first model we often look at is known as sensory-perception or VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic). However, in the years I have been working with styles, it has become apparent that the kinaesthetic channel should be broken down into two different categories, namely a motoric and an emotional one. Although these certainly overlap in individuals and some people have strengths in more than one, some general orientation can be helpful to understand these learners.


Visual learners need to see things written down, they usually take notes while listening, they like visual materials, use colors and highlighters on their learning materials, and may sketch their ideas. What is important for them, however, is to rearrange what they have learned in a different order and learn it again as they often remember where they have seen something on a page and it may come in a different place when they are tested on it or need to use it. When it comes to activities, they usually enjoy using photos, images, mind-maps, charts, color-coded systems, word searches, crossword puzzles, labeling, and drawing themselves.


Auditory learners have a need to speak or listen, may sub-vocalize while learning new material, often do not take notes as they prefer to concentrate on listening, like to discuss things with others, and can generally repeat back what they have heard. For them, it is important to transfer newly learned knowledge to paper as they often learn aloud. If they are then confronted with a written test or have to write something themselves, it is helpful if they have made a picture in their minds along with the auditory memory they have. They generally enjoy listening to texts or stories, taking part in discussions, brainstorming, pronunciation activities, story-telling, debates, presentations, and describing things to other learners or their teachers.


Kinaesthetic motoric learners feel a need to move, may play with small objects, need to try things out for themselves, like real-life experiences, and learn best with things they can touch. If they have learned something new while walking or moving about, they need, as the auditory learners do, to transfer it to paper and learn it again. While learning they enjoy movement, mining, role plays, running dictations, drawing tasks, and demonstrating ideas physically.

Kinaesthetic emotional learners usually have a need to feel comfortable in a group, connect learning to positive feelings, like the freedom to be creative, and often want to know they can ask someone else for help. In learning situations, they often have to learn to put their emotions aside. They enjoy certain types of role plays, personalized activities and personal stories that they choose, cooperative learning, and working in a group in which they feel comfortable.


The second model that is helpful for teachers to be aware of is the one called the Global/Analytic Model or the Field Dependent/Field Independent Model.


Global learners are more field-dependent meaning that they rely more on their surroundings and the people around them. They remember the entire learning experience, like to try things out for themselves, are relationship-oriented, like to please others, value feelings over facts, and like being spontaneous. Although it can be difficult for them, they have to learn how to take criticism in order to learn something new. Activities they enjoy include unjumbling sentences or texts, paraphrasing, creative writing, discovering rules from examples, predicting endings, and working together to find solutions.


Analytic learners are more field-independent meaning that they find it easier to make decisions based on their own knowledge and not on those around them or their environments. They perceive information through details, remember specifics, may prefer to work alone, are usually self-motivated, are task-oriented, value facts over feelings, can take criticism more rationally. They, however, may need to be reminded to keep an overview in mind and not get lost in the details. While learning they generally enjoy word grids, matching activities, logic puzzles and problem-solving activities, true/false activities, error correction, using critical thinking skills, categorizing, and finding examples from rules.


As teachers do not often have the opportunity to do an assessment with their learners, using feedback to find out what learners need is very valuable. Asking learners what helped them learn and why it helped gives you valuable information and will most likely provide a number of different types of answers as learners may have approached the same activity in different ways. In order to encourage autonomy, we can then encourage them to think about what they can do on their own when learning at home and how they can stretch out of their comfort zones. Giving them the option to come up with more ideas themselves means recognizing their experience as learners and helping them on the road to learning independence. Helping them to discover what they need, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and what they can do for themselves may be one of the most valuable things they take away from our classrooms.




Thirty-eight years in English Language Teaching (ELT) and methodology working with pre-service and in-service teachers, business clients, and university students. Materials writer and author (business English, course books, supplementary materials, and methodology) for CUP, Delta Publishing, Pearson, Express, and Wayzgoose. Former Cambridge Speaking Examiner and presenter. IATEFL President 2015-2017. IATEFL BESIG Coordinator 2009-2013. NLP trainer and plenary speaker at international conferences.


Specialties: Methodology: learning styles, NLP, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences

English: general and business English, CLIL

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