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Detecting Learning Styles
Knowing how your students prefer to learn is of great advantage to help them improve their English. This simple-sounding statement is often overlooked when we teach English to grown-ups. Many of our students have not been asked that question or thought about it. The only time they acquired any learning strategies was at school and often those did not suit their learning styles.
In one-on-one tuition, detecting the way your student learns is a must; if your student is not happy in the classroom, you may lose the whole course. In group courses, although a lot of people combine some learning styles, things can get difficult if student groups are heterogeneous and students may drop out because they do not feel that they learn the right way. Remember, if students cannot learn in a way appropriate for them, their frustration increases, they get demotivated and learn less. Thus, it helps both teacher and student to spend some time at the beginning of the course on learning styles.
There are a number of learning styles and types and you do not have to be an educationalist to deduce learning styles in your classroom and use them to your advantage and for your students’ benefits. Indeed, it may be a good idea to explain them in a playful way to your students. I usually group the following six:
- The language detective: learns by analysing, asks questions about rules and structures – the systematic learner
- The bookworm: loves texts and pictures, learns by reading and visual input – the visual learner
- The radio listener: learns by listening and repeating, just like singing along to the radio – the auditive learner
- The telephonist: learns by talking to others and using words in spoken context – the communicative learner
- The dancer: learns best when moving around and being able to touch things – the kinaesthetic learner
- The movie-goer: learns by different kinds of input, sound, images and subtitles – the audiovisual learner.
To detect learning styles in the classroom, you have a number of possibilites. Here are some tips:
Tip 1: Send out pre-class questionnaires which include questions about learners’ biographies (previous learning experiences, e.g. “Did you have English at school?” “Have you attended English courses before? If yes, what did you like/ not like?”). You can also ask questions about preferences. Below you can find some examples:
I like listening and taking notes.
I like acting out role-plays.
When learning new words, I ‘see’ them in my mind.
I remember words by writing them down.
I remember words by using them in conversations.
Tip 2: Try out different ways of learning vocabulary and observe how your students cope with them; mind-mapping, for example, works well with visual learners; word families or word trees work well with language detectives and visual learners. Miming words so that others may guess them works well with visual and kinaesthetic learners.
Tip 3: Run interviews in the classroom to ask your students questions about their learning behaviour outside the classroom, e.g. “How do you assemble a new bookshelf?”:
I usually read instructions when assembling a bookshelf.
I assemble a bookshelf by trying it out without any help.
I ask people to tell me how to assemble a bookshelf.
Here, you will learn that “read instructions” indicates a systematic learner; “trying it out” a kinaesthetic learner, and “ask people” a communicative learner.
Tip 4: Sometimes your students’ jobs can also give you hints about their learning preferences. Engineers or accountants, for example, tend to love detail and structure; marketing people love visuals and creative parts.
If your students are more aware of the learning process, you can also suggest suitable activities outside the classroom for them which will reinforce their learning experience and make them more motivated. Remember: you can teach them English, but the learning is their job.
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Kirsten Wächter teaches business communication, English for special purposes and intercultural courses. She is also a translator, author and copy-editor and divides her time between Germany, Scotland and Sweden.