Report on British Council Learning Styles Forum, July 2017

Posted by Joan on July 28, 2017

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Though it was 10 pm here, I was not the only person in Greece tuning into the British Council Teaching English webinar, a discussion forum on Learning Styles. In fact, there were around 140 of us, from all the airts.

First to speak was Carol Lethaby, teacher, teacher educator and materials writer, based in San Francisco. Carol began by looking at the VAK model of Learning Styles – relating to the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles of learning.

She looked primarily at:

  1. The Brain Function

She claimed that it was a misconception to say that each learner has one sensory learning style, but that these are all interconnected.

2 Attribute and Assessment

Here she quoted the findings of Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006, who carried out research where students were asked to describe themselves as visual or auditory learners and then answer a questionnaire and self-report.  No correlation was found between the learners’ responses and their objective test performance. Other findings lead to the same conclusion: there is no recognized evidence that knowing students’ learning styles helps the learning process any more than not knowing.

  1. Why assess and accommodate LS?

There is a belief that matching the students’ learning styles and teaching mode will enhance learning and that not matching will impede learning. This belief constitutes the Meshing Hypothesis.

  1. Meshing Hypothesis

Rogowski et al, 2015, in testing this, found no significant relationship between the preferred mode of learning, the teaching mode and the outcome. Therefore, teaching to accommodate a learner’s preferred style does not enhance learning.

  1. Commercial Interests.

Carol said there were vested interests in keeping the LS issue alive, that it’s a thriving commercial area.

  1. Alternative ways to consider learner differences

Riener and Willingham, 2010, say that we should look at other important dimensions and consider other factors that influence learning. Carol’s personal area of interest is that of prior knowledge.

Van Kesteren et al, 2001, provided neurological evidence, using MRI scanning and measuring, brain activity. There was evidence that when new information was being absorbed, connections were being made with where old information was stored, so prior knowledge was playing a role in learning.  This would indicate that we need to consider what prior knowledge our second-language learners have in relation to content, mother-tongue language and second language.

In the English language classroom, we can:

  • Use pre-tasks – we may already be doing that without knowing why
  • Activate background knowledge and build on that knowledge if we don’t have enough; we should consider  how we can build that in before the task
  • Recycle – build on what we know, use a spiral curriculum
  • Find out about learners’ interests – this is  known to be a motivating factor and is often related to prior knowledge

Carol   brought us up to date with current research and usefully suggested what implications this could have for the classroom.


 Phil Dexter, the British Council, UK English Language Teacher Development Adviser, was next to speak. He spoke generally, saying he didn’t see any problem in terms of the issue of L S, which he saw as similar to learner preferences, saying it depended on what you meant.

His main approach is related to special educational needs and inclusive learning. Through presenting images he tried to express how learners could feel in the classroom. He stated quite rightly that LS are broader than the VAK model. Though he stated his disapproval of labeling people in general, he proceeded to use ‘labels’ that express special educational needs: physical, hearing and visual impairment, cognitive differences, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, etc.. It was interesting for me to see that only one grouping – the gifted and talented – referred to a learner group who can often be sidelined.  He claimed that while we use the rhetoric of inclusion, what we practise is exclusion; that students are in class but are not engaged.

His concern was that the traditional classroom approach may not connect with neurodiverse learners and that we should recognize cognitive differences as part of a natural spectrum of ways of thinking.  He mentioned some of the challenges presented to such learners: memory, the organization of work and tasks, receptive and productive language. With reference to the well-known graphic of different children trying to look over a wall, he referred to the concepts of:

Equality: having all do the same thing

Equity: making reasonable adjustment

His solution was that the wall itself- i.e. the barriers to learning – be removed.

He described inclusive education as not marginalizing learners, or sifting or sorting them on the basis of pre-determined judgements about what they can’t or should learn. Instead of focusing on the kind of differences such learners have – e.g. copying from the board, short attention-span – that we should notice what is of interest, what they are doing well, how they are doing it and what preferences they demonstrate? He wanted us to question what more we can do to support them in their learning. He gave an example of his own difficulty with map reading where the abstraction of information in the standard map format proved difficult for him to process, whereas pictures of actual buildings and landmarks en route would help him access his destination more easily. With reference to this example, he stated that teachers were not reaching students as they should; that we should be offering them options and possibilities so that they can show their skills. His final question was how do we create pathways for learners to make their choices?

This, for me, raised several questions and problems:

  • What specifically did Phil mean by ‘the choices’ that learners make?
  • That focusing on what a child can do, does not entail development. We need to look at what he cannot do in order to set challenges and support him in developing to the next level.
  •  That learners with needs at both levels of the cognitive spectrum need to be catered for and, if their needs are complex, then at least some exclusive support may be needed. I recall the mother of a severely handicapped child complaining about how the use of euphemistic ‘softer’ terms were not helpful as they minimized the severity of such individuals, thereby possibly denying them access to  the full support they required.



Our final speaker was Philip Kerr, teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer. He began by saying as a practitioner, he was going to focus on LS in terms of vocabulary teaching. Where he claimed that many talked of the LS VAK model, he echoed Carol’s point that there really was no evidence to recommend such a focus.  He said there now was consensus that the Meshing Hypothesis does not stand. He cited as typical an OUP blog post which advocated teaching vocabulary through different LS, giving examples of using sticky notes to create word associations for visual learners. He admitted that such an approach offers variety, yet it’s not matching mode of instruction with learning styles that fosters good learning, but encouraging activities of multiple representation.

He cited the problems he saw associated with this approach:

  • That there were vague and inappropriate language objectives: e.g the suggestion of writing lists of random compound words had a focus on LS rather than a real language objective.
  • Failure to meet the needs of all learners: drawing a diagram of part of the body to accommodate the visual LS, is wrong and unhelpful. We are overlooking the properties of the word itself –e.g. its phonology – and in trying to tailor the lesson for particular LS, we are probably failing all of our learners.
  •  That there are important learning differences that are not being considered: age, prior formal learning experience, proficiency in L1 and L2, learning objectives, educational setting, etc..

Philip commented that in his experience he has seen our profession jump on many bandwagons – currently he finds worrying the perception that ‘technology is good’.

He believes we should be focusing on what the learning outcome is.  He cited the example of drilling as being debunked as bad practice because of its association with Behaviourism. He said that personally had never stopped drilling and that a classroom practice may be good despite the underlying theory and not because of it.

Philip disagreed with Phil on the issue of LS and learner preferences being similar. He used apps for vocabulary learning as an example. Many learners use such apps in a massive, last-minute cramming bout before a test, and that those using this as a preferred study mode are likely to be less successful. His point is that language preferences should not necessarily be encouraged.

Two interesting questions emerged from his informed, succinct talk:

  • What will we as a profession learn from the LS issue?
  • Is mindfulness going to be the next bandwagon?