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What Do I Need to Know About Learning Styles?

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: April 1999
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Anything we find confusing or complicated is best learned when we can see, hear, and do something in order to understand it. In general, however, by age 8 or 9, a child is stronger in one of those three areas: seeing (the visual learner), hearing (the auditory learner) or doing (the kinesthetic, or hands-on learner). Sometimes, all it takes for a child to understand the lesson is a change in how the information is presented.

The visual learner prefers to look at illustrations or text, or to watch others do something, rather than listen only. He tends to remember what he has seen. (This child may be able to tell you where you left your keys.) As an adult, he or she is likely to be a note-taker and list maker. The traditional approach, textbooks and workbooks, are comfortable to this type of learner.

  1. Use visual aids: pictures, charts, graphs.

  2. Provide an orderly learning area. These learners tend to be more productive when surroundings are neat.

  3. Use color as a visual aid if a student has difficulty learning to read or spell a word. Color over the troublesome portion with a yellow or orange highlighter, or write that portion of the word in red or orange.

Remember, ability to memorize text and fill in blanks does not prove that a child has learned how to think. Be sure to incorporate thinking skills and provide opportunities to encourage creativity, even though these activities may initially be met with protest.

The auditory learner prefers listening. He may not look at you when you speak, which appears to be inattention, only to amaze you with his ability to parrot back exactly what was just said. He seems to easily memorize what he hears and tends to be a sponge when information is presented in this way. Often sociable, he may be the chatterbox that enjoys trying to be funny, wanting to be the center of attention. Therefore, he is likely to prefer group projects, discussions, presentations, and videos to either textbooks or workbooks.

Weak areas tend be a sense of time (we think he dawdles, he disagrees) handwriting, following written directions, and organizational skills. Because he is so sociable, he tends to want others nearby, preferring continual one-on-one input to working on his own. He is easily distracted by sound, and tends to look for excuses to socialize.

  1. Tell the student what to do rather than having him read directions. Consider following written directions to be a weak area and work on it specifically without allowing it to interfere with other subjects.

  2. Be flexible with traditional visual materials. Instead of requiring the student to write answers to questions in workbooks or texts, for example, let him tell you the answers. Discuss anything he gets wrong.

  3. Read aloud or use books on tape and videos to broaden his base of literature. Then cover comprehension questions by discussion.

  4. Use audio tapes that set facts to music for any areas in which rote memorization has been difficult.

  5. Explain steps clearly when teaching a task that requires organization. The student will need a simple outline to follow or a list of steps for reference. Remind him patiently and as often as needed while he develops skills in this area.

  6. Provide a quiet place to work when he must concentrate on an assignment, since sound attracts his attention.

The kinesthetic learner needs to do, not just watch or listen, to gain understanding. Often referred to as the "hands-on learner," he usually fusses if required to read and fill in workbook pages. Instead, he enjoys projects, field trips, videos that show real places and people while explanations are narrated, and computer software that allows him to become directly involved in the lesson. Doing, alone, however, does not ensure that he is developing specific skills or retaining important concepts. Therefore, provide direction for his thinking by giving him specific things to look for or accomplish before he begins an activity. Then use discussions, oral quizzes, presentations, or projects as a follow-up to be certain that information has been gained and will be retained.

  1. Use manipulatives.

  2. Teach through activities that allow the student to move and explore.

  3. Use a reading program that allows the student to learn by using all the senses: see-hear-do.

  4. Allow the student to read out loud or talk to himself (think out loud) when he works independently.

Every child is unique. Many do not fit neatly into a learning style profile, especially since personality and age also contribute to how a child learns. Therefore, it is always necessary to observe the child, then choose a method or resource to try, regardless of its category. Get feedback from the child as well. Most children volunteer their opinions without being asked, but if not, find out whether or not the approach or materials seemed easier to understand. In this way, a love of learning can be maintained.

Check out the February 1998 column, "Beat the Blahs," for more information about the auditory learner and the March 1998 column, "What to Do with the Hands-on Learner," for more information about the kinesthetic learning style.

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