TEFL A discursive essay on recognising and considering the importance of learning styles in the EFL classroom.
How important is the student in the process of designing a lesson plan? Once a lesson plan is composed, should the teacher stick rigidly to every step detailed, ploughing through even if students fall behind, miss the point and inevitably lose interest -and faith ?V in what the teacher has to say?
Personally, the author believes that the lesson is not the focus of the classroom, rather the student is. If a learning point takes longer than anticipated, then a teacher should hope to be attentive to the needs of the class, adapting the lesson or activities to address difficulties in understanding or to extend the practice of a particularly problematic area. However, it is important to realise that it may not be the topic or focus point that is causing confusion in a lesson. It may in fact be the method of explanation, the style of the practice activity or even the layout of the classroom. Considering this, we may look into the ideas of how we can determine individual students?? ??preferences for certain ways of processing information?? (Putintseva).
Various schools of thought have composed methods of rendering these different learning types measurable. However, in the TEFL system, there are many factors to take into account before we even begin to consider each individual student??s learning type. Before choosing one of the many ways of defining a student??s learning type (or types), EFL students will have already gone through a level testing and needs analysis to deduce their level of English. They may first of all be graded and placed according to age (in a school, college, university system), to ability (from Starter level through to Upper Intermediate), and considered for specialist needs (vocabulary and phrasing suitable to a certain career type, such as business English).
These factors alone mean that lessons may be manipulated according to whether the student is learning through mainstream education or in an EFL school; whether the teacher has been employed by a company wishing to improve the language of its staff for purely business related interaction; and whether the student wishes to learn for their personal interest, career prospects or because they have to. Once all of these factors have been considered, we may begin to think about the strengths of the students and any learning type preferences. Understanding individual preferred learning styles, we can deliberate which activities might be most beneficial in teaching them.
That said, it is unlikely that every class we are considering is a one-to-one lesson. Thus we run into the difficulty of having to plan a lesson for several students of mixed learning types. If we consider classification based on learning types, do we then risk having to have either many small classes ?V or having to mix ability levels to suit learning types? Should we then begin to question whether this specialised learning method is so beneficial that it outweighs the sacrifice of splitting students from other students off whom they learn well, and taking them from the opportunity to be nurtured in their weaker skill-type areas in doing so?
Beyond all of these questions, we may then come to wonder about who is going to teach all of these different styles? Because, just as students work well within different learning styles, so do teachers have their strengths and weaknesses! It would be hopeless for the author to teach a group of scientifically minded students, when it is certainly not her own personal forte. We may well ask how a teacher can begin to inspire students with a method or topic that they themselves have no enthusiasm for.
Gardner??s theory details ten different intelligence types that should be attended to when considering the needs of individuals in a ??learning environment??.
Intelligence TypeKey activity / focus
LinguisticWords and language
Logical (mathematical)Logic and numbers
MusicalMusic, sound and rhythm
Bodily-kinaestheticBody movement control
Spatial-visualImages and space
InterpersonalOther people??s feelings, empathy
Spiritualist/existentialReligion, ??ultimate issues?? moralEthics, humanity, value of life
(Information adapted from Gardner, 1985)
We may be considered blind to ignore that there are indeed other types of grading in which learning types can be categorised. Some individuals may find they fit into the boundaries of a category within one school of thought, but be spread across a variety of categories in another. Again, types may be classified but experimentation and feedback can be the only true test for a needs analysis.
In the same way, a student with a tendency towards a specific learning type may not necessarily suit every activity that is focused towards their learning-type needs. For example, a kinesthetic learner may excel in an activity where they can physically explore the lesson point through performance (eg role play), but may not be inspired when involved in a structured physical game. Does this mean that they are what McCarthy would define as ??innovative?? or ??dynamic?? learners?
Thus, it is also important to realise that not every student will have one specific learning style that they thrive on and seven or so that are hopeless. More likely, each student will have several strengths. The author recently took the Gardner Multiple Intelligence Test (Gardner, 1985) and discovered not one strength but an equal weighting over a variety of preferred learning types. We may, however, be skeptical of personality tests?? explanations of how well we learn from certain methods of teaching and activity. A teacher may choose to use such a method of testing to form a hypothesis ?V or loose guide - for preferred teaching styles in the class. Although, they may find that trial and error of various methods is more instructive of preferred learning types, as more specific preferences can be gauged based on commitment to task, performance achievement and individual feedback. If a class ?Vor individual ?V performs exceptionally well (or incredibly badly!) in a specific task, the teacher can deduce whether or not the style of the activity is appropriate for said student(s).
Rebecca Oxford describes the EFL lessons using the metaphor of a tapestry. She admires how ??the tapestry is woven from many strands, such as the characteristics of the teacher, the learner, the setting, and the relevant languages?? and states the importance for ??the instructor??s teaching style [to] address the learning style of the learner [who] must be motivated and [provided with applicable] resources??. Every aspect of teaching holds a high degree of importance during a lesson. The resources in the room must be varied to appeal to different types of learners, and if necessary, different levels. The culture of the students should be respected, as should the authority and culture of the teacher. And finally, the students?? needs should dictate the direction of the ??weave??, both in how the lesson is planned and in how it is adapted during practice.
In the EFL classroom especially, where students come and go, moving class according to ability, location and needs, it is important to cater for classes by appreciating that a range of learning styles will be both required and inspiring. Choosing one ?V even the teacher??s key strength is only beneficial to a small minority. Variety means that there will be a range of activities where different students can excel at different times whilst also learning from their peers and being nurtured in other areas through different activities. In order that students are encouraged by this mixed style approach, well prepared lessons with a clearly defined ?V but flexible ?V structure is often the key to tapping into any type of learner. If the class has a majority strength, the teacher would be a fool to avoid working with it. Here, peer learning plays a more important role than any, as it can inspire a struggling student who has been encouraged by a teacher but is more encouraged by seeing the achievement of the peers who prove that the task is possible ?V regardless of whether or not the task is tailored to their intelligence type!
Ultimately this author believes that it is important for a teacher of EFL to recognise learning styles in the forms of strengths and weaknesses ?V both of the students and the teachers. Such attributes can be identified through self-analysis and observation feedback, and employed henceforth in accordance with how useful they are in the teaching of a certain individual or class, noting that even if a specific activity type is shelved because it doesn??t help in a certain class, it is not completely useless and may be particularly useful in another class.
?XPutintseva, Tatayana, The Importance of Learning Styles in ESL/EFL, Koryo International College, Japan: http://iteslj.org/Articles/Putintseva-LearningStylesl
?XGardner, Howard, Multiple Intelligence Test http://www.businessballs.com/howardgardnermultipleintelligences
?XOxford, Rebecca, Integrated Skills in the ESL/EFL Classroom, University of Marlyland: http://www.cal.org/resources/Digest/0105oxfordl
?XConner, M.L. Introduction to Learning Styles?? Ageless Laerner. 1997-2004: http://agelesslearner.com/intros/lstyleintrol
Author: Ginny Hemming
Date of post: 2006-11-20