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Learning styles in language learning

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Published: Fri, 05 May 2017

Chapter 2 Literature Review

In this chapter, the author briefly reviewed the literature related to this study. notion of learning styles including definition of the key terms, categories of learning styles, and Oxford’s theory on language learning styles were first reviewed. Then the author examined the gender and foreign language learning theories related to learning styles. Finally, the author reviewed previous studies that have been made on the relationship between learning styles and second or foreign language learning both abroad and home.

2.1 Theories Related to Learning Styles

This section includes definitions of different terms of learning styles, categories of learning styles and Oxford’s theory of language learning styles.

2.1.1 Different Terms Regarding Learning Styles

The definitions of styles and learning styles are first reviewed, and then cognitive styles and learning styles are differentiated in this part.

2.1.1.1 Definitions of Styles and Learning Styles

  • Styles

Before reviewing the literature of learning styles, it is necessary to know the definition of “styles”. The concept of “styles” was first put forward by cognitive psychologists. Brown (2002: 104) defines style as “a term that refers to consistent and rather enduring tendencies or preferences within an individual.” Therefore, styles are those general characteristics of intellectual functioning (and personality type, as well) that especially pertain to one as an individual, that differentiate one from someone else.

  • Learning Styles

Regarding studies of learning styles, the most serious problem is the confusion of its definitions. In the past two decades, the learning styles has been used in various and sometimes confusing ways in the literature. It is very common to hear different opinions on its definitions based on different findings in this comparatively new research field of learning styles, for each study defines it from particular perspectives. However, there is not an agree-upon definition of learning styles. Learning styles can be defined in the following ways.

Keefe (1979, cited in Brown, 2002:10) defines learning styles 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.”Dunn et al. (1978:11) defines learning styles as “the way in which each person absorbs and retains information and/or skills; regardless of how that process is described, it is dramatically different for each person”.

Sims & Sims (1990, cited in Reid, 2002) put forward that learning styles are typical ways a person behaves, feels, and processes information in learning situations. Therefore, learning style is demonstrated in that pattern of behavior and performance by which an individual approaches educational experience. Oxford et al. (1991) briefly defines the learning style as the general approaches students used to learn a new subject or tackle a new problem.

Claxton and Murrell (1987, cited in Eliason, 2002: 19-20) use an onion metaphor in which the layers of the onion represent “layers” of learning styles: basic personality characteristics form the core; information-processing characteristics form the second layer; social interaction characteristics form a third layer; instructional preferences form the fourth and outermost layer. Claxton and Murrell postulate that the core of the onion represents the most stable characteristics, with each successive layer being progressively more amenable to change.

Tan Dingliang (1995: 12) defines learning styles as: “the way that a learner often adopts in the learning process, which includes the learning strategies that have been stabilized within a learner, the preference of some teaching stimuli and learning tendency.”

Reid (1995) summarizes definitions of learning styles as internally based characteristics of individuals for the intake or understanding of new information. Essentially learning styles are based upon how a person perceives and processes information to facilitate learning. Among these definitions, Kinsella’ definition of learning styles is widely accepted (Reid, 2002). Kinsella (1994, cited in Reid, 2002) concludes that learning style is an individual’s natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills which persist regardless of teaching methods or content area. Kinsella also emphasizes that “everyone has a learning style, but each person’s is as unique as a signature. Each signature appears to be influenced by both nature and nurture; it is a biological and developmental set of characteristics.” (1994, cited in Reid, 2002: 171)

2.1.1.2 Cognitive Styles and Learning Styles

The second problem about the study on learning styles is the confusion of the meanings of the terms of learning styles and cognitive styles as they are often used interchangeably in research. The clarification of the two terms will be helpful to better understand learning styles.

Messick’s (1984) definition of cognitive styles has been widely cited. He defines cognitive styles as “consistent individual differences in preferred ways of organizing and processing information and experience.” Cognitive styles are “characteristic self-consistent mode of functioning which individual shows in their perceptual and intellectual activities” (Stern, ! 983: 373). According to Tan Dingliang (1995) and Kang Shumin (2003), cognitive styles mainly refer to the ways of information processing, that is, individual’s typical ways of processing perception, memory and thinking.

Brown (2002: 104) suggests that “the way we learn things in general and the particular attack we make on a problem seem to hinge on a rather amorphous link between personality and cognition; this link is referred to as cognitive style”. According to Brown (2002), when cognitive styles are specially related to an educational context, where affective and physiological factors are intermingled, they are usually more generally referred to as learning styles. Thus from this perspective, learning styles are regarded as a subset of cognitive styles. Meanwhile, cognitive styles can sometimes be seen as a subset of learning styles. Keefe (1986) reports that learning styles include not only cognitive processes, but also integrate affective and physiological behaviors that assist learners to perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment.

Renzulli & David Yun Dai (2001) differentiate the two terms in detail: cognitive styles are mainly concerned in psychological domain, while learning styles are mainly proposed by researchers of educational field; researchers of cognitive styles adopt a more positive approach, whereas researchers of learning styles focus on a more phenomenological perspective. Regarding the methodology, performance-based measure is usually used by cognitive styles researchers, while self-report is the measure that learning styles researchers primarily use.

2.1.2 Categories of Learning Styles

Confusion also exists in the literature on categories of learning styles for many same or similar factors researched under the same name. Reid (1995) divides learning-style research into three major categories: cognitive styles, sensory learning styles, and personality learning styles.

2.1.2.1 Cognitive Learning Styles

Cognitive learning styles which include field-independent/field-dependent, analytic/global, reflective/impulsive learning styles, and Kolb experiential learning model, belong to the aspects of psychology. Among them researches on field -independent/field-dependent (FI/FD) attract the most attention of SLA domain (Ellis, 1994).

According to Reid (1995), field-independent learners learn more effectively step by step, or sequentially, beginning with analyzing facts and proceeding to ideas. They see the trees instead of the forest; whereas field-dependent (field-sensitive) learners learn more effectively in contexts, holistically, intuitively, and are especially sensitive to human relationships and interactions. They see the forest instead of the trees. Chapelle (1995) explains that FI/FD refers to how people perceive and memorize information. Reid (1995) defines that analytic learners learn more effectively individually; prefer setting own goals, and respond to a sequential, linear, step-by-step presentation of materials; whereas global (relational) learners learn more effectively through concrete experience, and by interactions with others.

According to Reid (1995), if learners can learn more effectively given time to consider options before responding, they are reflective learners; and they are often more accurate language learners; whereas if learners can learn more effectively being able to respond immediately and to take risks, they are impulsive learners; and they are often more fluent language learners.

Kolb (1984) categorizes his experiential learning model of perception (concrete experiences and abstract conceptualization) and process (reflective observation and active experimentation) into four learner types which are converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator. Converger (common sense learner) learns more effectively when she or he is able to perceive abstractly and to process actively. Diverger (innovative learner) learns more effectively when she or he is able to perceive concretely and to process reflectively. Assimilator (analytic learner) learns more effectively when she or he is able to perceive abstractly and to process reflectively. Accommodator (dynamic learner) learns more effectively when she or he is able to perceive concretely and to process actively.

2.1.2.2 Sensory Learning Styles

According to Reid (1995), sensory learning styles include two dimensions:

Perceptual learning styles and environmental learning styles. Perceptual learning styles contain four types of learning styles which are auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic styles. Auditory learners learn more effectively through the ears; visual learners learn more effectively through the eyes (seeing); tactile learners learn more effectively through touch (hands-on); kinesthetic learners learn more effective through concrete complete body experiences (whole-body movement). Physical and sociological styles belong to the environmental learning styles. Physical learners learn more effectively when such variables as temperature, sound, light, food, mobility, time, and classroom/study arrangement are considered. Sociological learners learn more effectively when such variables as group, individual, pair and team work, or levels of teacher authority are considered.

2.1.2.3 Affective/Temperament Learning Styles

Learning styles of this type are based on affect, personality, tolerance of ambiguity and brain hemisphere. Myer and Briggs (1987, cited in Reid, 1995) report that affective and personality factors influence learners’ learning styles a great deal. Mayer-Briggs team tested four dichotomous styles of functioning in their Mayer and Briggs Temperament Styles (MBTI) which include extraversion-introversion, sensing-perception, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving. According to Reid (1995), extroverted and introverted styles belong to extraversion-introversion. Extroverted learner learns more effectively through concrete experience, contract with the outside world, and relationships with others; whereas introverted learner learns more effectively in individual, independent situations that are more involved with ideas and concepts. Sensing-perception contains sensing and perception styles. Sensing learner learns more effectively from reports of observable facts and happenings; prefers physical, sense-based input. Conversely, perception learner learns more effectively from meaningful experiences and from relationships with others. In thinking-feeling styles, thinking learner learns more effectively from impersonal circumstances and logical consequence; whereas feeling learner learns more effectively from personalized circumstances and social values. And in judging-perceiving styles, judging learner learns more effectively by reflection, and analysis, and processes that involve closure; conversely, perceiving learner learns more effectively through negotiation, feeling, and inductive processes that postpone closure.

Reid (1995) suggests that tolerance of ambiguity styles also belong to the affective/temperament learning styles. Ambiguity-tolerant learner learns more effectively when opportunities for experiment and risk, as well as interaction, are present; whereas ambiguity-intolerant learners learns more effectively when in less flexible, less risky, more structured situations.

Reid (1995) also claims that whether the learner is left-brained or right-brained will influence learner’s learning styles. Left-brained learners tend toward visual, analytic, reflective, self-reliant learning; conversely, right-brained learners tend toward auditory, global/relational, impulsive, interactive learning.

2.1.3 Oxford’s Language Learning Styles Theory

Oxford and Burry-stock (1995) put forward the most significant styles for ESL/EFL learning which include global/analytic, field-independent/field-dependent, feeling/thinking, impulsive/reflective, intuitive-random/concrete-sequential, closure-oriented/open, extroverted/introverted, and visual/auditory/hands-on styles. They suggest that each style preference offers significant benefits for learning and that the important thing for learners is to identify the style preferences and to apply them whenever possible.

Oxford (1991, cited in Kang Shumin, 2003) groups all the above learning styles into three categories: sensory learning styles (visual, auditory, and hands-on), cognitive learning styles (intuitive-random and concrete-sequential, closure-oriented/open and global/analytic), and personality learning styles (extroverted and introverted).

2.1.3.1 Sensory Learning Styles

  • Visual styles
  • Visual students enjoy reading and they prefer material in a classroom environment to be presented in a visual format such as books, board work, and handouts.

  • Auditory styles
  • Auditory students enjoy lectures, conversations and oral directions. They prefer material in a classroom environment that is presented as auditory input such as radio, oral instruction, oral communication and audiotape.

  • Hands-on styles
  • Hands-on students like lots of movement and enjoy working with collages, flashcards, and tangible objects. They prefer to be physically involved with tasks, tending to prefer activities such as Total physical Response (TPR) and role-play.

    Oxford et al (1992) find that sensory preferences (visual, auditory, and hands-on) are very important in the multicultural ESL/EFL classroom. Reid (1987) also argues that ESL/EFL students from different cultures vary significantly in their sensory preferences. Those with Asian cultural backgrounds, for instance, are often highly visual, while Hispanics tend to be auditory. Students from non-Western cultures where hands-on experiences are valued often prefer a corresponding learning style.

2.1.3.2 Cognitive Learning Styles

  • Intuitive-random/concrete-sequential styles
  • Intuitive-random ESL/EFL students prefer to develop a mental picture of the second language in an abstract, random manner in search of the underlying language system. In the absence of comprehensive knowledge of the target language, intuitive-random style learners typically employ speculative and predictive strategies.

    Concrete-sequential ESL/EFL students prefer rigidly performed, strictly planned and adhered to sequential classes. They like language learning materials and techniques that involve combinations of sound, movement, sight, and touch, and that can be applied in a concrete, sequential, linear manner.

  • Closure-Oriented/Open-oriented styles
  • Closure-oriented ESL/EFL students perform more effectively if presented with structured activities and more time. Typically, they favor carefully planned and completed tasks, as opposed to ambiguity and uncertainty in a classroom environment.

    Open-oriented ESL/EFL students favor a more open and flexible schedule, demonstrating a high degree of tolerance towards ambiguity in the classroom. Typically, they approach a language assignment or a class activity as though it were an entertaining game, and they do not worry about not comprehending everything, and do no feel the need to come to rapid conclusions about the topic.

  • Global/Analytic Styles
  • The global style ESL/EFL students typically employ a holistic view early in the learning process, into which they fit more detailed information as learning progresses. They typically look at several aspects of the topic at the same time, constantly making corrections between the theoretical aspects and practical applications as they learn, and make substantial use of analogies. Moreover this type of learner employs holistic strategies to solve problems including guessing and paraphrasing, favoring a search for the general idea rather than for accuracy. Ellis (1989) argues that “global learners” prefer experiential learning and learning through communication.

    The analytic style ESL/EFL students have no trouble picking out significant details from a welter of background items. They typically focus their attention more narrowly on pieces of information, how in the hierarchical structure, preferring detail rather than the overall picture. They are orientated towards rules tending to focus on step-by-step presentation of material. Typically, theoretical and practical aspects are learned separately. Moreover, this type of learner employs language strategies that favor exact wording rather than guessing or paraphrasing-in their aim of achieving accuracy. Ellis (1989) suggests that “analytic learners” prefer formal, individual learning in a classroom environment.

2.1.3.3 Personality Learning Styles

  • Extroversion/Introversion
  • The dimension of styles particularly influences classroom management, especially grouping of students. Extroverted students perform most productively in a group environment, enjoying activities that involve other students, such as role-play, conversation and other interaction favoring social goals as opposed to impersonal rewards. Conversely, introverted students are stimulated most by their own inner world of ideas and feelings. They like working alone or else in a pair with someone they know well. They dislike lots of continuous group work in the ESL/EFL classroom. This contrast is somewhat similar to the categories of group/individual style made by Reid (1987).

2.2 Gender Differences in Language Learning Styles

Many investigations show that males and females learn differently. Where do the gender differences come from? Several sources can be postulated for gender differences in language learning styles. Among these are brain hemisphericity and socialization.

2.2.1 Gender Differences in Brain Hemisphericity

According to Oxford (2002), brain hemisphericity or lateralization (right, left and integrated) is a feature of many learning style surveys. Research on the two cerebral hemispheres indicates that each hemisphere may be responsible for a particular mode of thinking. The left hemisphere is associated with logical, analytical thought, with mathematical and linear processing of information. The right hemisphere perceives and remembers visual, tactile and auditory images and it is more efficient in processing holistic, integrative and emotional information (Brown, 1994). Each hemisphere deals with language differently. According to Willing (1988, cited in Oxford, 2002), right-hemisphere-dominant individuals–those whose right side of the brain typically dominates their thinking processes–tend to be more field dependent (less able to separate the details from a confusing background), global, and emotion-oriented. Willing (1988) and Leaver (1986) (cited in Oxford, 2002) claim that left-hemisphere-dominant people–those whose dominant brain hemisphere is the left–are more field-independent, analytic, and logical-oriented.

Some researchers such as Spring & Deutsch (1989) and Elias (1992) (cited in Oxford, 2002) find several sources of gender differences in brain dominance:

  • In men, the left hemisphere might be more lateralized (specialized) for verbal activity and the right hemisphere may be more lateralized for abstract or spatial processing.
  • Women might use both the left and the right hemispheres for both verbal and spatial activity, thus showing more integrated brain functioning and less hemispheric differentiation.
  • In women as compared to men, part of the corpus callosum (the bundle of brain fibers linking the left and right hemispheres) is bigger in relation to overall brain weight, allowing more information to be exchanged between the two hemispheres.
  • Based on such research findings, Oxford (2002) postulates that males might usually process language learning information more readily through the left-hemispheric, analytic mode, but females might more often process language learning data through an integration of left-and right-hemispheric modes. However, other researchers (e.g., Fausto-Sterling, 1985, cited in Oxford, 2002) oppose the idea that brain hemispheres are more integrated in females than in males or that brain hemispheric differences can make a significant difference. The prevailing opinion seems to be that there are indeed gender differences in brain hemisphericity that deserve consideration and further exploration. And our understanding of language learning style–for both ESL and foreign languages–would benefit if these differences were explored. (Oxford, 2002)

2.2.2 Gender Differences in Socialization

According to Tan (1995), the difference between males and females is a result of both nature and nurture. The explanation of gender differences that ignore sociological factors is incomplete. Oxford (2002) claims that socialization which is the way we bring up our young and integrate them into society through a vast network of social roles might also be a great influence on gender differences in language learning styles. Through gender socialization, different behaviors and attitudes are encouraged and discouraged in men and women. Parents respond differently to boy babies and girl babies from the first hour of life, and after that teach their children “sex-appropriate” behaviors (Bern, 1974, cited in Oxford, 2002). Socialization process takes place not only within family, but also within school. School exercises much influence on the creation of gendered attitudes and behaviors. In school, teachers support the previous socialization patterns, paying more attention to aggressive, disruptive boys than to girls with identical behavior, and responding to passive and dependent girls–although teachers prefer the behavior of girls (Serbin & O’Leary, 1975, cited in Oxford, 2002). In school, curriculum materials, teachers expectations, educational tracking, and peer relations encourage girls and boys to learn gender-related skills and self-concepts.

2.3 Relationship between Learning Styles and Foreign Language Learning

Ellis (1994) points out that all learners analyze input and store information about the L2 in much the same way. However, he also admits that it is true that learners vary enormously in both the way they set about leaning an L2 and also in what they actually succeed in learning. Therefore, he regards the study of individual learner differences (IDs) as an important area of work in second language acquisition (SLA) research. He (1994:473) sets up a basic framework for investigating individual learner differences to guide the examinations of IDs.

2.3.1 Framework for Investigating Individual Learner Differences

In his framework for investigating individual learner differences, Ellis (1994: 473) identifies three sets of interrelating variables (see Figure 2.1). The first set consists of IDs, which are of three main types: beliefs about language learning, affective states and general factors. General factors include age, language aptitude, learning style, motivation and personality. The second set of variables consists of the different strategies that a learner employs to learn and use the L2. The learner strategies encompass learning strategies and use strategies. The third set concerns language learning outcomes which can be considered in terms of overall L2 proficiency, achievement with regard to L2 performance on a particular task, and rate of acquisition. The inner part of the triangle is learning processes and mechanisms, so positioned for they are largely hidden.

These three sets of variables are interrelated. ID research until now has concentrated on investigating the effects of different ID variables on learner proficiency, achievement, or rate of progress, measured in terms of performance on some kind of language test (Ellis, 1994). “The general factors constitute major areas of influences on learning and can be ranged along a continuum according to how mutable they are” (Ellis, 1994: 472). According to Liu Runqing (1995) and Ellis (1994) the main general factors that have received the most attention in SLA research are age, language aptitude, learning style, motivation and personality. Learners’ beliefs and affective states are likely to have a direct effect on L2 learning, but they themselves may be influenced by a number of general factors relating to learners’ ability and desire to learn and the way they choose to go about learning (Ellis, 1994).

Individual learner differences-beliefs about language learning-affective states -general factors Learning processes N and mechanisms(2)(3) Learner strategies , Language learning outcomes-on proficiency-on achievement-on rate of acquisition

2.3.2 The Role of Learning Styles in Foreign Language Learning

Reid (1995) provides some fundamentals of learning styles. She claims that learning styles in the ESL/EFL classrooms is based on six hypotheses: (1) Every person, students and teachers alike, has a learning style and learning strengths and weaknesses; (2) Learning styles are often described as opposite, but actually they exist on wide continuum; (3) Learning styles are value-neutral; that is, no one style is better than others (but it is true that there are students with some learning styles work better than those with some other learning styles); (4) Students must be encouraged to “stretch” their learning styles so that they will be more empowered in a variety of learning situations; (5) Students’ strategies are often linked to their learning styles; (6) Teachers should allow their students to become aware of their learning strengths and weaknesses.

McCarthy (1980) claims that the learning styles theory impacts education in the following three aspects: instruction, curriculum and assessment.

  • (1) Instruction–Teachers should design their instruction methods to connect with students’ learning styles, using various combinations of experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Instructors can introduce a wide variety of experiential elements into the classroom, such as sound, music, visuals, movement, experience, and even talking.

    (2) Curriculum–Educators must place emphasis on intuition, feeling, sensing, and imagination, in addition to the traditional skills of analysis, reason, and sequential problem solving.

    (3) Assessment–Teachers should employ a variety of assessment techniques, focusing on the development of “whole brain” capacity and each of the different learning styles.

    Ellis (1994) concludes that learners clearly differ enormously in their preferred approach to L2 learning, but it is impossible to say which learning style works best. And quite possibly it is learners who display flexibility who are most successful, but there is no real evidence yet for such a conclusion.

2.4 Previous Researches on Learning Styles and Foreign Language Learning Abroad and Home

2.4.1 Previous Researches Done in the West

When learning styles were initially introduced, the distinction between field independence (FI) and field dependence (FD) has attracted the most attention in SLA research (Ellis, 1994). The results of many studies show that people tend to be dominant in one mode of Fl/FD or the other. According to Ellis (1989), both FI/FD learners can gain language success in SLA and the embedded-figures tests have little or no relationships with the language achievement. Brown (2002) provides an explanation that FI may be important to both classroom learning and performance on paper-and-pencil tests and he believes that FI/FD is considered to be contextualized and variable within one person. In other words, the utilization of FI or FD of individual learners depends on the context of learning. Nevertheless, no evidence has been found to prove such consideration.

Meanwhile, many researchers study individual’ learning style preferences from other dimensions. The following are some of the most representative ones.

Dunn (1975, cited in Tan Dingliang, 1995: 19-20) develops the Learning Style Inventory. The learning style elements identified in the SLI are: 1) Environmental stimulus which includes the individual learner’s preference toward a quiet or noisy environment, a formal or casual seating design, and the preference of light and temperature. 2) Emotional stimulus. This domain mainly concerns whether individual learner possesses a high degree of motivation, persistence and responsibility as well as whether he prefers highly structured learning materials. 3) Sociological stimulus. This category contains factors such as whether individual learner prefers to study as a member of a team and whether he depends on authority to confirm his judgment and whether he likes to study in routines. 4) Physiological stimulus. This sort contains the perceptual preferences of individual learner, i.e., his tendency to auditory, visual, tactile or kinesthetic patterns and his mobility while learning and his tendency to the time of learning such as morning and afternoon. According to Kinsella (1994, cited in Reid, 2002), Dunn and Dunn add the psychological stimulus in 1979. This category contains the individual learner’s preference toward right or left hemisphere learning style which includes factors such as analytical/global, reflective/impulsive learning styles, etc. The Dunn’s model is very important for it representing the complexity of variables which potentially influence students’ distinct approaches to learning comprehensively. Many researchers developed their studies based on Dunn’s model.

Reid (1987) classifies learners into six different types in accordance of their style differences, namely, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, group and individual types. Based on her own theory, Reid conducts a study in 1987 to investigate the preferred learning styles of students with different language backgrounds. The research reports that learners’ preferences often differ significantly from those of native speakers of US. They show a general preference for kinesthetic and tactile learning styles (with the exception of the Japanese), and they view group learning style as a negative one. Proficiency level is irrelevant to learning style preferences. However, no matter which background a learner comes from, the longer he stays in the US, the more his learning styles resemble the native speakers. Melton (1990) uses Reid’s Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire to examine the six learning styles of 331 Chines


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