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Learning styles or learning preferences refer to certain way(s) learners prefer in accomplishing a task, getting involved in a learning situation or trying 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 directing learning behavior (Cornett,1983), 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), which is divided into six categories, the first one contains visual, auditory or hands-on styles, the second one contains extroverted and introverted styles, the third one contains abstract-intuitive and concrete, step-in-step styles, while the fourth one contains open and closure-oriented styles, the fifth contains global and particular styles, synthesizing and analytic styles.
As we can see above, the framework is based on five dimensions: (a) the use of physical senses, for example, visual, auditory or hands-on styles, (b) the difference in communicating with people, for example, styles of extraversion or styles of introversion, and (c) the way to handle possibilities, for example, intuitive-random or. concrete-sequential styles, (d) the way to deal with tasks, for example, closure-oriented or open styles, and (e) the way to develop ideas , for example, global or analytic styles).
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 take in new information through reading aloud, especially when they are dealing with new material. Learners of this category benefit from hearing audio-tapes, lectures and class discussions; visual learners remember and understand information and instructions better when they read them, and benefit from seeing words in written forms in books and on the blackboard. Learners of this category should note down lectures and oral directions so as to remember the information; tactile learners learn best by touching and working with materials , and physical movement facilitate their memorization of new information. By writing notes or instructions, they can remember information; kinesthetic learners get the most out of learning by experience, by being involved in classroom practices. Active participation in activities, field trips and role playing can help them remember information and a combination of stimuli (e.g. audio tape combined with an activity) to understand new material (Zakaria& Abudullah, 2009) is also quite beneficial to them.
Extroverted learners are those who fancy interacting with others, and have many friends, and they enjoy social networking and get most of their energy from interaction with others; whereas introverted learners are those who enjoy solitude, work alone and prefer just a few but good friends (Ehrman and Oxford, 1989; Leaver et al., 2005; Oxford, 2001). Intuitive-random people are abstract, speculative thinkers and they do not believe in the sequence of things; concrete-sequential people are practical and present-focused individuals who fancy doing things step by step (Ehrman and Leaver, 2003; Oxford, 1995b). Closure-oriented people take work in a serious and systematic order, and they prefer neatness and aim for clarity; whereas open learners choose to negotiating and prefer non-closure; they can bear ambiguity, and thus take L2 learning less seriously (Oxford, 2001). Global people focus on the general idea rather than details by putting together the input they receive, whereas analytic people are particular and focus on details, aim for perfect and accurate work, and enjoy analyzing logically and contrasting during 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 which learners can modify and extend with some effort. Nel (2008) suggested that learning style preferences are reflection of learners' history and development of second language learning, and thus may not be easy to change in a short span of time. However, since most people can process new material through different perceptual channels at the same time, it is suggested by recent research that perceptual learning style reported by learners may result from contextual environment in which learning style survey is carried out. 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, there is also a possibility that learners can be encouraged to adopt approaches which they are not used to in the past in the learning .Therefore, it seems that learner styles have a relatively fixed structure, but the structure is subject to experiences and the demands of the situation, and therefore can be changed and adapted (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 the relationship 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 visual style can help learners create mental imagery and thus has a great correlation with his or her future ideal L2 self and motivated behavior. Tae-Young Kim (2009a) extended continued to explore the relationship among auditory and kinesthetic learning styles and L2 motivation system. He confirmed that there is a significant relationship among the learner's auditory learning style preference, imagination, and ideal L2 self as shown by statistics and that learners' visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles and ideal L2 self can meaningfully predict learners' motivated behavior. In addition, he provided valid evidence through empirical studies that the three learning style preferences can affect how learners create their ideal L2 self, and among the three styles, visual sensitivity has the most influence. Later, Yang and Kim (2011) examines persistent learning styles and the L2 motivation of high school students from China, Japan, Korea and Sweden, and their study suggests that there is a need for taking context into consideration in researching the role of the perceptual learning style and the ideal L2 self in initiating and maintaining L2 motivation. The result of the study showed that Learners' ideal L2 self and motivated L2 behavior have strong correlation with their visual and auditory learning styles; however, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles are not meaningful predictors of motivated L2 behavior because learners' ideal L2 self may serve as an intervening variable. The above studies provide implications for teaching: classroom teachers should encourage L2 learners to use a number of learning styles to fully develop their mental imagery in creating future L2 selves and that they should adequately use teaching materials to bring their visual and auditory channels into full play, and in this way help learners create their ideal L2 selves.
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 the use of learning strategies are directly linked to the learner's perpetual learning styles and related to other personality factors. It is proposed by some researchers that learners of a certain learning style have a tendency to use certain learning strategies and avoid others (e.g. Oxford, 1990b). Many empirical studies also suggested that learning styles may have a significant impact on learners'choices of learning strategy despite the fact that the research instruments and contexts are different in various researches, for example, 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 found significant influence of learners' learning style on the language learning strategies they prefer; Carson and Longhini (2002) utilize Oxford's SILL and the Style Analysis Survey(SAS) to investigate the relationship between language learning styles and strategies used by the researcher in a naturalistic setting and conclude the same findings; Littlemore (2001) investigated the relationship between different communication strategy and the holistic/analytic cognitive styles, and the research results showed that the participants used much more conceptual CSs than linguistic CSs ,and that in the area of conceptual CSs, holistic participants have a great tendency than analytic participants to employ holistic CSs, while analytic participants have a great tendency than holistic participants to use analytic CSs; Li and Qin(2006)'s study analyze both quantitative and qualitative data and investigate the relationship between learning styles and language learning strategies in the Chinese EFL context ,and the result also show that learning styles significantly influence on learners' learning strategy choices. Since the two variables are closely related as shown above, theoretically speaking, learning strategy can help comprehend the basic idea of a seemingly abstract and random learning styles and practically speaking, an understanding of learners' style preferences may help learners figure out 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(Li& Qin, 2006). 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 and in this way teachers 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 and learner autonomy. Kolb (1984) suggested that learning styles and self-directness are closely related. In his study, he indicates the link between self-directed learning and four of the learning styles and the study concludes 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 tend to be independent and that they can adapt to different learning tasks. Felder (1996), Robotham (1995), and others have also indicated that autonomous learning and learning styles appear to be related. However, they do not reach an agreement on how exactly the relationship between the two variables is. Some researchers such as Ware (2003) reported that autonomy is related to certain learning styles while others, including Robotham (1995), are in favor of the idea that learner self-directedness reflects the flexibility and adaptability of learners, and further claim that highly self-directed or autonomous learners are capable of using skills from different 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 structured sample of 249 responses, and the results showed a significant positive relationship between the number of learning styles learners preferred and scores of learner autonomy profile, which confirms the point that learners' flexibility and adaptability in using skills from various learning styles in accordance with their needs and situations is closely related to learners' autonomy. This result also demonstrates how important it is for learners to be adaptable and flexible with a great number of learning styles in the process of learning. The study further points out that instructors should firstly understand students' learning styles and then create learning opportunities that stress the learning styles preferred by them (i.e., Collaborative, Dependent, Independent, and Participant), and then try to link their teaching strategies with students' learning styles and dig out the potential of learning styles as well as enlarge students' repertoire of learning style repertoire; and in the mean time, learners should realize that it is their responsibility to maximize the learning process and they must command their own learning instead of merely relying on the system to determine every bit of learning events. Considering this point, researchers recommend that future studies should delve into relationships between GRSLSS scores and the twenty-two components of the LAP.
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. Several researches on L2 language learning styles that put emphasis on the ways adults or young adults (university students) use in dealing with their language learning have found that learning styles are related to fields of study or occupation in second language learning (Ehrman and Oxford, 1989; Li and Qin, 2006;), In addition, it is also demonstrated that the even groups in the same field of study prefer different sensory/perceptual and personality styles for language learning even in the studies using the same instrument. And it is suggested that this may be caused differences in terms of different culture background among learners. Several studies in ESL/EFL settings have also identified that culture has a large impact on the learning style preferences of many learners from a certain cultural background (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) research into university EAP students' learning style preferences in different fields of study from tertiary education in Greece by using the Style Analysis Survey. Results showed that learners in all eight fields choose the visual, intuitive and global styles the most, but they vary in terms of the closure-oriented, extroverted, and concrete-sequential ones; while the hands-on, open, and analytic styles are either minor ones or negative ones used by students, and the auditory and introverted styles are not positive in different fields. It is concluded from this study that foreign language instructors who care about learner-centered issues and have challenged general methods in teaching should be informed of teaching suggestions that use certain language learning strategies and teaching activities that are listed in the study. It is pointed out that further studies should also concentrate on whether students' attested styles go with the different types of strategies they use in the different fields of study and on whether teaching styles suit the students' learning styles in different areas. Further examination on the above two aspects will raise teachers' awareness of how to enhance the effective and learner friendly learning environment in different fields of study.
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.