English Language Essays - Learning Styles

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An examination of learning styles and typologies in a language classroom.

'plan, teach / act, observe and reflect' Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg, 1990

The Observation

Myobservation was undertaken at the British Council in Kuwait/Gulf Region. The observation class was of mixed nationality ArabicLanguage speakers at Intermediate level. There were twenty students in total,80% males to 20% females. The class comprises of 30% students, 60% working orprofessional people & 10% homemakers & others. The age range isbetween 20 to 55 years. The class is halfway through a 6 months languagecourse. I observed and was involved in a 90 minute lesson focusing onvocabulary, reading and speaking. At the end the teacher answered my preparedquestionnaire.

The followingessay consists of a brief theoretical, analytical and practical examination of learningstyles and typologies in a language classroom and how best to plan for them. Itincludes an analysis of specific elements from the observed lesson put in thecontext of theory and intended future practise.

To support thelesson, the teacher used the white board, an overhead projector with onetransparency and three handouts. Whole class work focused on provision ofvocabulary and contextualisation of the material. The material was real andrelevant to contemporary interests and cultures. The teacher used discussionstarters to motivate and encourage student interest and involvement (asAllwright and Bailey advise, 1991) Responses were elicited from the class andsupported through teacher modelling of pronunciation and writing on the whiteboard. Individual work was limited. The teacher had established small groups(three to four students) aimed at balancing ethnic background and gender.

Research shows theimportance of understanding and catering for different learning styles andcognitive strategies. When a learning style is not catered for, the studentcan easily become 'bored and inattentive, do poorly on tests, getdiscouraged about the course, and may conclude that they are not good at thesubjects' (Zhenhui, 2001). Various parameters have been constructed fordefining student's preferred way of learning, such as Knowles (1982) concrete,analytical, communicative and authority-orientated learning styles (cited inRichards, 1994). Another defines the groups as auditory, visual andkinaesthetic learning styles (Krause et al, 2003, pp154-155) whilstfigure 1 gives a representation of student and teacher inter-reactionsdependent on learning styles. Some researchers such as Richards (1994, pp.59-77)consider an individuals culture as vital to understanding learning styles. Ladson-Billings(1995) advocates a method of Culturally Responsive Teaching which integratescultural points of reference through out the learning process. Others disagree(Kubes, 1998, cited in Krause) and cite more universal forms of learning.

This class wasboth interested and engaged in its learning. However, during the interview,the teacher expressed a wish that there was more time for individual tailoring.The teacher acknowledged that this would better cater for the range oflearning styles. More concrete resources (actual materials eg fruit, etc) andincreased use of visual aids (magazines, more transparencies, laminatedpictures) may also help to convey understanding and increase retention.

Two 'tests' wereused during the class - one was a linking exercise and one a reading exercise.The teacher finished the lesson with each student expressing an opinion on anarticle using the lessons language. Whilst these were not formal tests, theyinvolved assessment strategies. As Nunan points out (1990, p62) assessmentcontributes part of the information for student evaluation. As this infers, thetools for student assessment, be they observational, formative or summative,need to balance with an understanding of the 'bigger picture'. For example, thegoal may be to allow students to understand, practise and develop their own languageand learning strategies (see Hismanoglu's exploration of Language LearningStrategies, 2000) - be they direct or indirect strategies (Oxford, 1990, p9).Most students require clear and precise scaffolding (Vygotsky, in Krause, 2003,pp60-65) to develop their metacognitive practises for making meaning. Assessmentcan act as a benchmark to the success of the learning process and show theteacher areas that need to be covered again or in a different way.

There is no spacehere to do full justice to the impact of the learning environment upon studentsyet it needs inclusion for a balanced understanding of students learningstyles. Suffice it to say that, as Nunan and Lamb say (1996), the teacherneeds to aim for a safe, positive and progressive environment that encouragesstudent participation, thinking and risk-taking. Much as assessment is an endresult of reflection upon what one wants to define, the learning environmentshould be based upon a thorough understanding of theoretical aspects. Forexample, traditional teaching methods tended towards a unitary approach tointelligence. Contemporary theories, such as Gardner's work on multipleintelligences (cited in Krause et al, 2003) allow for the inclusion ofvariable factors that define a student's strengths and weaknesses. Many agreewith Wilson's (1998) assertion that Gardner's MI theory helps teachers createmorepersonalized and diversified instructional experiences and develops empoweredlearners (http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/mi/wilson1.htm)

This holisticapproach agrees with an understanding of other influences upon learning, Maslow'shierarchy of needs for example (see Figure 2), or Bronfenbrenner's (1979)ecological systems theory. These 'ecological' factors encourage moreintegrated forms of assessment and are particularly useful in understandingvarious forms of 'washback' (see Cushing Weigle, 2002) that may result. Othermore structured tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indications Survey, (Myers &McCaulley, 1985) may also have their place.

The teacher usedgender and ethnic background to balance the groups. The groups worked welltogether in a pro-social manner. However, Woods encourages consciousexamination of an educators own attitudes, especially when the may cause subconsciousactions and opinions to form (Woods, 1996). Should the two parameters ofgender and ethnicity become constraints, then they are not valid means of groupconstruction. Sometimes is appeared that not all group members contribute intheir cooperative learning. However, research has shown that even those who donot appear to be so communicative do benefit to a degree from the listening andprocessing that this format provides. It may be that they are better atworking individually and as such should have the opportunity to do so.

The teacher usedelements of the 3 P's approach - presentation, practise, production. However,as the lesson transcript shows, the language was expanded in what became moreof a Harmer-style engage - study - activate method.

I would like tolist the implications for my own teaching under the following points:

  • Use a wide range of teaching strategies and styles to ensure comprehension eg support spoken material with writing on the white board, leave the transparency up on the overhead projector, bring in concrete materials, provide visual clues, model your required responses, set short, realistic goals and review and recycle often. (Antonaros, 2005 ), role play, use song.
  • Use methods according to the area you wish to cover, the materials you have prepared and present concisely and precisely. If the area is suited best to direct instruction then use it, if student-centred instruction or co-operative groups then vary accordingly. Motivation and interest are paramount, but sound understanding is the goal.
  • Prepare your materials so that they are interesting, real, relevant, encourage thinking whilst supporting language development.
  • Take an action research approach to (for example Wright's, 1987, 2005) to develop a thorough understanding of my students learning and cognitive styles and my own attitudes.
  • Use active listening to understand, modelling to improve and discussion to encourage communication
  • Use teacher modelling strategies to develop the student's autonomous language learning skills as exemplified by Lowes and Target (1998) in Helping Students to Learn.
  • Providing a positive learning environment where mistakes are not derided
  • Assign homework that re-caps and therefore re-enforces the issues covered in the lesson.
  • Ensure equity in communication - make sure everyone has a chance to speak.

Everyteacher who has taught a group of grown-ups knows that some individuals may bereluctant to speak, especially when they realize or assume that other studentsare more fluent. (Turula,2002)


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