Learning styles or learning preferences refer to the preferred way(s) in which an individual approaches a task, a learning situation or tries to solve a problem (Cassidy, 2004; Cohen, 2003; Oxford et al., 1991; Oxford, 2003;). Different learners have different learning styles, such as visual, auditory, hands-on, kinesthetic ones. Though there are various learning preferences, it is argued by researchers that "no one style is better or worse than the others" (Gregore, 1982, as cited in Mayer& Dyer, 2004, p.381). However, they suggest that the existence of certain learning styles should be taken into consideration in language instruction, In this paper, I will introduce research findings related to learning styles in the past few years, these findings are closely related to other aspects in SLA such as motivation, learning strategies, learner autonomy as well as cultural and field factors. This topic interests me, because I always feel learning styles have a large impact on learners' learning process, so I want to explore which aspects will it play a role in, and how learning preferences influences learners' study, so as to provide implications for teaching.
2 Definition of key terms
The idea of learning style originates from general psychology. It refers to the characteristic ways individuals use to solve problems. There are several definitions of learning styles given by different researchers, such as "the overall patterns that give general direction to learning behavior" (Cornett,1983: 9), or as "the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others" (Dunn and Griggs, 1988: 3), or as, "the characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment " (Keefe, 1979). As researchers both in educational psychology and the L2 field have found different learners have a different manner in learning, the concept "learning styles" is then used to describe these differences.
Various learning style researchers have developed different frameworks that describe learners' style preferences. Among these, the following one is considered to be particularly relevant and useful to the understanding of the process of language learning (Reid, 1995; Ehrman, 1996):
1 Being visual, auditory or hands-on.
2 Being more extroverted versus introverted.
3 Being more abstract and intuitive versus more concrete and thinking in step-by-step sequence.
4 Preferring to keep all options open versus being closure-oriented.
5 Being more global versus more particular.
6 Being more synthesizing versus being more analytic.
As we can see above, the framework is based on five dimensions: (a) How to use physical senses (visual, auditory, hands-on), (b) How to deal with other people (extraversion vs. introversion), and (c) How to handle possibilities (intuitive-random vs. concrete-sequential), (d) How to approach tasks (closure-oriented vs. open), and (e) How to deal with ideas (global vs. analytic).
More specifically, "sensory/perceptual preference refers to the sensory modality with which the learner is most comfortable and through which most perception is channeled for that individual", (Oxford et al., 1991: 7), for example, auditory learners remember information by reading aloud or by moving their lips as they read especially when they are learning new material. Learners of this category benefit from hearing audio-tapes, lectures and class discussions; visual learners benefit from seeing words in books, on the board and in workbooks. They remember and understand information and instructions better when they read them. Learners of this category should take notes of lectures and oral directions of they want to remember the information; tactile learners learn best by touching and working with materials. By writing notes or instructions, they can remember information and physical involvement may help them remember new information in class; kinesthetic learners learn best by experience, by being involved physically in classroom experiences. They remember information well when they actively participate in activities, field trips and role playing. And they benefit from a combination of stimuli (e.g. audio tape combined with an activity) to understand new material (Zakaria& Abudullah, 2009).
Extroverted learners are those who get energy from the external world, fancy interacting with others, and have many friends, whereas introverted learners are those who get energy from inside, seek solitude and prefer just a few but deep friendships (Ehrman and Oxford, 1989; Leaver et al., 2005; Oxford, 2001). Intuitive-random people are abstract, speculative thinkers who do not believe in the sequential order of things; concrete-sequential people are featured as practical individuals who are present-oriented, and like to think in a step-by-step sequence (Ehrman and Leaver, 2003; Oxford, 1995b). Closure-oriented people work better with deadlines, take work in a serious and systematic order, prefer neatness, cannot tolerate ambiguity; on the other hand, open learners prefer to negotiating and prefer non-closure , they can bear ambiguity take L2 learning less seriously (Oxford, 2001). Global people are holistic in focusing on the 'big picture' rather than details and by synthesizing the input they receive, whereas analytic people are particular and focus on details , seek perfection and accuracy, and like logical analyses and contrasts in the learning process (Carbo, 1997; Littlemore, 2001; Oxford, 1995b).
Learning style may be considered as a trait which is stable over time or as a state changing with each experience or situation. It is generally believed that learning style is relatively fixed and not easy to change. For example, Reid (1987) viewed learning styles as strong habits that may be modified and extended throughout learners' intentional efforts. Nel (2008) suggested that learning style preferences tend to reflect learners' L2 learning history and thus may not change in short time. However, given that most people can simultaneously process new information through various perceptual channels, it is suggested by recent research that the learner's reported perceptual learning style may result from contextual or task-specific environment where the survey of learning style survey is conducted. What's more, Little and Singleton (1990) argue that there is a likelihood that adult learners can be taught to find their own preferences and adapt their learning approach to meet the requirements of a particular task. In addition, it is also possible that learners can be encouraged to incorporate approaches which they are not used to in the past in the learning Therefore, it seems that learner styles have structure, but the structure is responsive to experiences and the demands of the situation (process) to allow change and to enable adaptive behavior (Cassidy, 2004)
3 Recent researches on learning styles
Over the past fifteen years, there are a lot of studies probing into learning styles. Generally speaking, some researchers try to focus on learning styles of learners of specific groups and find the relationship of learning styles and motivated behavior; some try to find the relationship between learners' learning styles and their use of learning strategies; while others seek to find the correlation between learning styles and learner autonomy; in addition, some other researchers identify the relationship between learning styles and cultural, field factors.
3.1 Learning styles and motivation
Some recent researchers try to identify the relationship between learning style and learners' motivated behavior, for example, Al-Shehri (2009) investigated the relationship among the learner's visual learning style, imagination, ideal L2 self, and motivated L2 behavior and found that the learner's visual style has a strong correlation with his or her ideal L2 self and motivated L2 behavior through creating mental imagery. Tae-Young Kim (2009a) continued to explore the relationship among auditory and kinesthetic learning styles and L2 motivation system by extending Al-Shehri's (2009) research. He confirmed the statistically significant relationship among the learner's auditory learning style preference, imagination, and ideal L2 self and found that learners' visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles and ideal L2 self are meaningful predictors of motivated L2 behavior. In addition, he provided empirically valid evidence that the three learning style preferences can affect the process in which the ideal L2 self is created, among which visual sensitivity is the most influential one. Later, Yang and Kim (2011) examines Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Swedish high school students' dynamic interface of perceptual learning styles and the L2 motivational self system and by comparing the results with the findings of Al-Shehri (2009) and Tae-Young Kim (2009a), their study identifies the need for a more contextualized perspective on the role of the perceptual learning style and the ideal L2 self in the initiation and maintenance of L2 motivation. The result showed that Learners' ideal L2 self and motivated L2 behavior are significantly correlated with their visual and auditory learning styles, and that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles are not meaningful predictors of motivated L2 behavior with the ideal L2 self functioning as an intervening variable, which indicate that educators, L2 professionals as well as classroom practitioners should encourage L2 learners to employ a variety of learning styles to maximize their mental imagery of future L2 selves and that they should make adequate use of teaching materials so as to help learners create their ideal L2 selves by stimulating their visual and auditory channels.
3.2 Learning styles and learning strategies
There are also studies investigating the relationship between learning styles and learning strategies. Brown (1994) pointed out that learning strategies are directly linked to the learner's innate learning styles and other personality-related factors. It is proposed that learning style incline learners to use certain learning strategies while avoiding others (Oxford, 1990b). Many empirical studies also suggested that learning styles may have a significant impact on learners'choices of learning strategy despite the different research instruments and contexts concerned. In a qualitative study of 20 Foreign Service Institute (FSI) students, Ehrman and Oxford (1995) explored the relationship between learning styles and learning strategies through semi-structured interviews and also found learners' learning styles significantly influence their choices of language learning strategies. Carson and Longhini (2002) investigated the relationship between language learning styles and strategies of the diarist/researcher in a naturalistic setting by utilizing Oxford's SILL and the Style Analysis Survey (SAS) to compare categories in the diary entries and conclude the same findings. Littlemore (2001) related different communication strategy preferences (CSs) to the holistic/analytic cognitive style dimension and the research results showed that the participants used considerably more conceptual CSs than linguistic CSs. Within the domain of conceptual CSs, holistic participants were significantly more likely than analytic participants to use holistic CSs, and analytic participants were significantly more likely than holistic participants to use analytic CSs. Li and Qin(2006)'s study focuses on the relationship between learning styles and language learning strategies in the EFL context in China by analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data and the result also show that learning styles have a significant influence on learners' learning strategy choices. Therefore, theoretically speaking, learning strategy can help comprehend the fundamental elements of a particular learning style which may appear to be arbitrary and random on the surface; and practically speaking, an understanding of learners' style preferences may help them see why they prefer using certain learning strategies and not others, which, on the one hand, would help learners develop the flexibilities to deal with different learning contexts , and on the other hand, would allow teachers to adopt appropriate teaching methods to best suit the learning styles of the students. I remember when I was a student, I never enjoyed group work, and I always felt puzzled why teachers always asked us to do group work, and felt rather uncomfortable working with other people. I would rather figure out things all by myself. I believe this may have something to do with me being an introvert person, which is also a piece of evidence for the argument in this part. It is suggested that future research should continue to investigate the relationship between learning style variables and other cognitive, affective and personality variables to predict foreign language learning results, and in this way we will get a more insightful analysis of foreign language learning.
3.3 Learning styles and learner autonomy
In addition, several researchers explore the relationship of learning styles to learner autonomy. Kolb (1984) proposed in his theory of growth and development a relationship between learning styles and self-directedness. In a study using his Adaptive Style Inventory, he indicates that there is a relationship between self-directed learning and four of the learning styles and that a high degree of self-directness is closely related to all the learning styles. His point was further asserted by Long(1990) who argues that self-directed learners are autonomous, as well as flexible and adaptive. Felder (1996), Robotham (1995), and others have also indicated that there appears to be a link between self-directed learning and learning styles, although there is no general consensus on the exact nature of that link. And Ware (2003) reported that self-directedness is associated with some of the learning styles while others, including and Robotham (1995), support the idea that learner self-directedness embodies flexibility and adaptability, and further claim that highly self-directed or autonomous learners tend to be able to utilize skills from all the learning styles so as to effectively process information. Based on the findings of these researches, Ng and Confessore(2010) examined the relationship of learning styles to learner autonomy by distributing the Learner Autonomy Profile(LAP) and Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Styles Scales(GRSLSS) to learners from a range of academic departments in public and private universities in Malaysia and analyzing a stratified structured sample of 249 responses, and the results showed a significant positive relationship between the number of preferred learning styles and learner autonomy profile scores, which provides evidence that learners who are flexible in using different learning styles according to their needs and situations are found to be more autonomous. Results of this study also reflect the importance of being comfortable with a variety of learning styles when approaching learning. The study further points out that by understanding and planning learning opportunities that emphasize the learning styles preferred by students (i.e., Collaborative, Dependent, Independent, and Participant), instructors can match their teaching strategies with students' learning styles and expand the potential of learning styles and develop students' learning style repertoire. In the mean time, learners should realize that it is their responsibility to maximize the learning process and they must take control of their own learning rather than simply depending on the system to decide all aspects of learning events. In light of this, it is recommended that a more detailed study be undertaken in which the relationships of GRSLSS scores and the twenty-two components of the LAP are examined.
3.4 Learning styles and cultural, field factors
Last but not least, researchers investigate the relation between learning style preferences and culture factors as well as fields of study. A number of studies on L2 language learning styles that have been concerned with the ways adults or young adults (university students) approach their language learning have researched the link between learning styles and fields of study or occupation in second language learning. For their research, some scholars have used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator/MBTI (Ehrman and Oxford, 1989; Li and Qin, 2006;), and researched personality preferences, and others Reid's Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire/PLSPQ (Reid, 1987), and investigated perceptual learning style preferences. Furthermore, some other L2 specialists have used Oxford's Style Analysis Survey (SAS) (Carson and Longhini, 2002; Chi, 2001; Gallin, 1999, both cited in Cohen, 2003). Differences in the above studies indicate that the learning style preferences of adult language learners are influenced by their educational and occupational engagements. However, it is also shown that the groups belonging to the same field of study in the above studies differ in their sensory/perceptual and personality preferences for language learning, even in the studies using the same instrument, which may result from existing cultural and educational/instructional differences among the respondents. Indeed a number of studies in ESL/EFL settings have identified that culture plays a significant role in the learning style preferences of many members of a culture (Reid, 1987).Taking myself as an example, I would prefer visual and kinesthetic styles of learning, and learning by observing a model with others during the learning process, so I feel uneasy doing group work and figuring out the answers through cooperative work here, which, as I observe, students here are quite used to. Recently, Joycey and Kantaridou(2010) investigate learning style preferences of 1616 university students learning foreign languages for academic purposes across eight fields of study in a given educational and cultural context, namely, tertiary education in Greece by using the Style Analysis Survey. Results showed that the visual, intuitive-random and global styles constitute major preferences in all eight fields, the closure-oriented, extroverted, and concrete-sequential styles vary between major or minor preferences, the hands-on, open, and analytic styles show a variation between minor and negative preferences, and the auditory and introverted styles are negative in all fields. It is concluded that foreign language instructors who are sensitive to learner-centered issues and have questioned generalised teaching approaches should be made aware of more informed teaching suggestions that employ specific language learning strategies and teaching activities as listed in the study. It is pointed out that further studies should also be directed into whether students' attested styles actually match the types of strategies they use in the different fields of study as well as into whether teaching styles match the attested student learning styles. Such further examination will lead to increased teacher awareness of how to make lessons more effective and more learner-friendly.
In this paper, firstly, key terms of learning styles are defined, and secondly, studies on learning styles are elaborated, in which the relationship between learning styles and learner autonomy, learning strategies as well as cultural and field factors are identified. Though, very few learners are flexible enough to meet the demands of learning situations very different from their preferred style, it is suggested that teachers can develop students' repertoire of learning styles through some instruction. It is hoped in the future, researchers will focus more on this issue, so that learners' learning styles can be made best use in language teaching.