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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Learner Differences: Implications for Language Teaching

Edy Isabel, Torres Quedo and Rubén Cárdenas Cabello, Peru

Edy Isabel, Torres Quedo is an English teacher and trainer in the Language Centre of Humanities and Arts Faculty at San Marcos University in Lima, Perú. She is interested in training teachers and management. She has created lots of handouts, programmes, syllabuses, and has co-written English-student’s books. Her current interests are training teachers and observing teachers and students in class. She also travels a lot to carry out research in teacher Education. E-mail:

Rubén Cárdenas Cabello is an English teacher at UNMSM-in the Language Center of Humanities and Art Faculty, Lima, Peru. He is interested in developing tasks, approaches and activities to teach English as a foreign language. He has created a lot material to run seminars in Peru. His current interests are how to teach grammar using pictures, and how to face ambiguity in classes while developing reading tasks? E-mail:




As students themselves bring a certain amount of unpredictability to the learning style and teachers either consciously or unconsciously, emulate teachers who inspired and enabled them as students and select methods that reflect their own preferred ways of approaching academic tasks so they have different learning styles. We want to help them to develop their language learning skills in the best and practical way because a teacher may indeed be highly knowledgeable, creative, charismatic, and caring, yet still be unsuccessful in educating students whose learning is still developing and need to overcome their learning difficulties.

It was so important to revise, examine some literal and relevant teaching ideas and prove the theory to have a better understanding of the components of an individual learning style, then make practical suggestions for broadening one's teaching style to accommodate a wider range of learner characteristics while helping students develop a more flexible, empowered approach to diverse learning contexts and tasks. In this way, we believe to contribute with this article in giving detailed information to overcome the difficulties we can have as teachers.


Definitions: What is a learning style?

Kneefe (1979, p.4) defined a learning style as “Cognitive, affective, and physiological traits that are relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment” while Oxford, Holloway and Horton define it as a whole range of social and affective factors too.

Origins: Where do learning styles come from?

Students' learning styles will be influenced by their genetic make-up their previous learning experiences, their culture and the society they live in.

Why should teachers know about learning styles?

Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg (1990) suggest four important steps: plan, teach / act, observe and reflect.

  • Students learn better and more quickly if the teaching methods used match their preferred learning styles.
  • As learning improves, so too does self esteem. This has a further positive effect on learning.
  • Students who have become bored with learning may become interested once again.
  • The student-teacher relationship can improve because the student is more successful and is more interested in learning.

Types of Learning

There are many ways of looking at learning styles, for example:

a. The four modalities

(Originates from the work of Dr's Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming). Students may prefer a visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (moving) or tactile (touching) way of learning.

Those who prefer a visual learning style...
...look at the teacher's face intently looking at wall displays, books etc.
...often recognize words by sight
...use lists to organize their thoughts
...recall information by remembering how it was set out on a page

Those who prefer an auditory learning style... the teacher to provide verbal instructions dialogues, discussions and plays
...solve problems by talking about them
...use rhythm and sound as memory aids

Those who prefer a kinesthetic learning style...
...learn best when they are involved or active
...find it difficult to sit still for long periods
...use movement as a memory aid

Those who prefer a tactile way of learning...
...use writing and drawing as memory aids
..learn well in hands-on activities like projects and demonstrations

b. Field-independent vs. field-dependent

Field-independent students
They can easily separate important details from a complex or confusing background. They tend to rely on themselves and their own thought-system when solving problems. They are not so skilled in interpersonal relationships.

Field-dependent students
They find it more difficult to see the parts in a complex whole. They rely on others' ideas when solving problems and are good at interpersonal relationships.

c. Left-brain dominated vs. right-brain dominated

Students who are left-brain dominated...
...are intellectual
...process information in a linear way
...tend to be objective
...prefer established, certain information
...rely on language in thinking and remembering

Those who are right-brain dominated...
...are intuitive
...process information in a holistic way
...tend to be subjective
...prefer elusive, uncertain information
...rely on drawing and manipulating to help them think and learn

d. McCarthy's four learning styles

McCarthy (1980) described students as innovative learners, analytic learners, common sense learners or dynamic learners

Innovative learners.
...look for personal meaning while learning
...draw on their values while learning
...enjoy social interaction
... are cooperative
...want to make the world a better place

Analytic learners...
...want to develop intellectually while learning
...draw on facts while learning
...are patient and reflective
...want to know “important things" and to add to the world's knowledge

Common sense learners...
...want to find solutions
... value things if they are useful
...are kinesthetic
...are practical and straightforward
... want to make things happen

Dynamic learners...
...look for hidden possibilities
...judge things by gut reactions
...synthesize information from different sources
...are enthusiastic and adventurous

e. Eight different intelligences

Howard Gardener classified the intelligences in the following way:

Inter-personal intelligence (self-smart)
Inter-personally sharp students will often seem to be absentminded, and they might also seem slow to us.

Inter-personal intelligence (people-smart)
As Gardner put it: 'The core capacity here is the ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals and, in particular, among their moods, temperaments, motivations and intentions.

Logical-mathematical intelligence (number-and-reasoning-smart)

This intelligence can be associated with what is called `scientific thinking'.

Linguistic intelligence (language-smart)
We use our verbal-linguistic intelligence when we write poems, create stories and are involved in conversations.

Musical intelligence (music-smart)
For a person with a well-developed musical intelligence, it can be tedious to be away from the world of beat, rhythm, tone, pitch, volume and directionality of sound for long.

Visual-spatial intelligence (picture-smart)
This intelligence is related to an architect's ability to picture a building in the mind's eye, and the ability to see a structure from all sides without difficulty.

Kinesthetic-bodily intelligence (body-smart)
This intelligence is about precision and perfection of movement

Naturalistic intelligence (nature-smart)
This intelligence has been proposed recently by Howard Gardner to be added to the initial list of seven.. It is about observing, noticing and understanding the rhythms and changes of nature


As we wanted to confirm the corresponding implications to language learning and teaching of our students’ predispositions related to personality types and know their learning preference style. We decided to apply a questionnaire on ‘Perceptual learning style preference’ (by Professor Loy Reid of University Wyoming) to 24 students, age from 16 to 59. These students, who have been studying English at the Language Centre for more than six months in a 10 hour intensive course, are from different backgrounds and specialties. We have obtained the following results:

Learning Styles Preference

16-20 170 128 302 130 130 290
21-31 114 148 128 82 74 320
32-60 80 74 38 38 32
TOTAL 364 350 468 250 204 642

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 3.


First, we can see that most of the students have preference for the kinesthetic and individual style which is the 27% and 25% related to the others, especially the younger who are between 21 to 31. These learners learn best whey they are physically involved in the experience, so they remember new information if they are actively involved in activities with the teacher but at the same time they prefer working alone. So in opposed to the individualism preference only 11% prefer the group style.

Second, the older ones prefer visual style and auditory style but they don not prefer working in groups. They learn best in a visual fashion and prefer visual, pictorial, and graphic representation of experiences and they can learn by themselves with a book, takes notes of the classes to remember the new information. At the same time, they learn best form oral explanation and from hearing words spoken so they are enjoying listening tapes, watching videos and talking to other students and teachers.

Learning Styles Preferences

Visual Auditory Kinesthetic Tactile Group Indiv
Females (19)
Males (6)

Fig 4.


First, in the previous charts we can observe that females have preference for the visual style while males prefer the group work. As women are benefitting most from reading and learn well by seeing words in the books and on the board we can assume they can learn by themselves, takes notes of the lesson to remember the new information. Men enjoy working in the group style so they are learn best when working with other, this style helps them to learn and understand new material better. Females do not have too much preference for the group style and males do not prefer individual style. Females prefer working on their own and they are learning new information by themselves and they remember the materials better if they learned it alone. Males prefer group interaction and class work rather working alone they prefer to exchange ideas, understand them better and quite probably accept others ideas.


A. Implications for ESL/EFL Classroom Teachers

ESL/EFL students come to our classrooms with assumptions, usually unconscious, about how learning occurs. As teachers, we also come to our classrooms with assumptions, which are also usually unconscious, about how learning occurs. When these two sets of assumptions are different, both students and teachers become frustrated. As ESL/EFL teachers, we need to address this cultural variation in learning. In our situation when we want to take decisions about whether or not to use group work, we the teachers should consider the aim for group work. If the purpose can be achieved in another way, it may be better not to use groups. Another implication relates to the dimension of impulsivity versus reflectivity. At times the teacher’s goal may be for students to talk; it does not much matter what they say because the value is in the talking. At other times the teacher may be looking for particular responses, but if students come up with partial responses, the teacher is satisfied or even pleased. ESL/EFL teachers can structure classroom activities to give reflective learners more time to think about responses. Teachers need to give reflective learners enough time to write their responses.

B. Implications for Language Instruction

We must take into consideration the following implications:

  1. Assess language learning styles.
    It is very important to assess the learning styles of language students and teachers. This can be done by using one or more learning-style instruments (Schmeck, 1983; Oxford & Lavine, 1991).
  2. Accept gender-related differences.
    Language teachers and students should not be surprised if gender-related differences appear in the style assessments. All participants should feel free to discuss these differences openly, bringing up any socio-cultural (and perhaps biological) influences that might have helped create any contrasts between females and males. In addition, cross-gender likenesses should also be highlighted in the discussion
  3. Apply style results in learner training.
    Helping students understand their language learning styles can become part of general "learner training" (Wenden, 1991; Wenden & Rubin, 1987; Ellis & Sinclair, 1989; Brown, 1989, 1991; Cohen, 1990; O'Malley and Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990b). Learning training consists of enabling students to understand their learning styles and the learning strategies typically associated with these styles. It also includes training students to "stretch" their learning styles through systematic use of new, relevant learning strategies. Learner training provides procedures to use strategies that might be beyond the normal style boundaries of each student.
  4. Use style data for tailoring instruction.
    By using the data on language learning styles, teachers are better able to spot any style conflicts in the language classroom. Teachers can also vary their instructional techniques to meet the needs of students with contrasting styles of learning.
  5. Employ style results in preparing the learning environment.
    Style data can also help the teacher prepare a language learning environment that accommodates females and males alike. The learning environment can establish the class as inclusive, welcoming everyone.


  1. In the group of students we are familiar with they have a primary learning style preference and the preferences are not the same for all the students, so it depends of their age, sex and how long they have been learning English as foreign language. These differences influence classroom dynamics and student success. It also has provided implications for future to match teaching and learning styles so as to develop students’ potentials in second and foreign language learning.
  2. We must keep in mind that a student is an individual and that every student is a unique one, and it needs to be taken into account while developing materials as well as developing any session.
  3. We must observe constantly their students’ way of learning in order to apply a variety of tasks and activities to approach them.
  4. Students must be trained and guided by the teacher to apply the right strategies to become better language users.
  5. We must respect students’ way of learning and have a classroom where he respects every student and so he must be wise enough to suit students’ needs and wants.
  6. Individuals learn best in many different ways, sometimes using a variety of learning styles, but teachers and trainers may not always present information & learning experiences in the ways that best suit the learners.
  7. Forms of learning through workshops, practical activities or through informal methods may suit some people more than others. Sometimes, people feel they are not good at learning when it may be just that they don't know their own learning styles.


As we are all advised to consider carefully the latest findings from research into human cognition we have to continue and research in depth especially in our teaching situations.

  • Vary the activities that we use in our lessons, we are sure to cater for learners with different learning styles at least some of the time.
  • Don’t despair about the wealth of ideas and advice out there. Be bold. Turn it to your advantage.
  • Recognize just how much you are already doing.
  • Observe points of overlap.
  • Help students discover their own learning preferences and provide constructive feedback about the advantages and disadvantages of various styles.
  • Respect the learners’ present preferences and encourage their development, while at the same time create opportunities for students to experiment with different ways of learning.

It is also important to define a list of practical tips based on the various methods and approaches which address various learning styles, such as:

The Four Modalities

Use many visuals in the classroom. For example, wall displays posters, realia, flash cards, graphic organizers etc. Auditory
Use audio tapes and videos, storytelling, songs, jazz chants, memorization and drills
Allow learners to work in pairs and small groups regularly.
Use physical activities, competitions, board games, role plays etc.
Intersperse activities which require students to sit quietly with activities that allow them to move around and be active
Use board and card games, demonstrations, projects, role plays etc.
Use while-listening and reading activities. For example, ask students to fill in a table while listening to a talk, or to label a diagram while reading

Field-independent vs. field-dependent

Let students work on some activities on their own
Let students work on some activities in pairs and small groups

Left-brain vs. right-brain dominated

Left-brain dominated
Give verbal instructions and explanations
Set some closed tasks to which students can discover the "right" answer
Right-brained dominated
Write instructions as well as giving them verbally
Demonstrate what you would like students to do
Give students clear guidelines, a structure, for tasks
Set some open-ended tasks for which there is no "right" answer
Use realia and other things that students can manipulate while learning
Sometimes allow students to respond by drawing

McCarthy's four learning styles

Innovative learners
Use cooperative learning activities and activities in which students must make value judgments
Ask students to discuss their opinions and beliefs
Analytic learners
Teach students the facts
Common sense learners
Use problem-solving activities
Dynamic learners
Ask students about their feelings
Use a variety of challenging activities


Cheron Verster 2007. South Africa. Learning styles and teaching in

Jane Revell, Multiple Choice Methodologies pp 4, 5, 6 in English Teaching Professional Magazine for English Language Teachers Worldwide, Issue 43 March 2006.

Herbert Puchta Multiple Intelligence in action 2 pp 24,25 in ETP Magazine. Issue 43 March 2006.

Joy M. Reid, 1995.Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom Heinle & Heinle Publishers., P 15, 16, 17.

Richards, Jack C. and Lockhart Charles in Reflective teaching in Second Language classroom. CUP pp 52 -72 1996

Smith and Associates 1990, Learning to learn adapted by Kang Shumin in diagnosing Learning Styles and Developing Self-aware ESL/EFL Learners.


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