Teaching to PreK-5 ELs’ Learning Styles

The term learning styles refers to the belief that every student has a unique approach to learning.  A student’s learning style refers to the way that he/she processes and retains information. Although English learners (ELs) may be literate in their home languages, they might experience many challenges when acquiring English because they are accustomed to learning through a different style. How does an ESL or classroom teacher differentiate instruction for the myriad learning styles of their students?

In my experience, ELs are usually visual or kinesthetic learners when they first learn English, despite the style they exhibited when learning in their home language. Many teachers, especially in the upper grades, teach students using an auditory learning style. This can be very difficult for beginning ELs who are not yet able to understand academic language.

Most articles on learning styles list seven of the most common types found in classrooms. I have chosen four styles that I find common in most elementary-age ELs. Teachers can support ELs by combining the four learning styles mentioned below in the same unit. Try this unit on pond culture with many downloadable activities as an example of how to combine styles into a single unit of study.

Here are four learning styles that are the most commonly found in elementary-age  ELs, with a few ideas for activities for beginning ELs.

Auditory Learners
Students who prefer this style will be able to recall what they hear and will prefer oral instructions. They learn by listening and speaking. These students  are phonetic readers who enjoy oral and choral reading, and listening to recorded books. They learn best by doing the following:

  • interviewing, debating
  • participating in oral discussions
  • singing songs
  • listening to stories
  • reciting poems & riddles
  • hearing verbal instructions
  • acting out skits and plays

ELs who are auditory learners will benefit from learning in cooperative groups where they interact orally with classmates. Directions and content information should be accompanied by visual support. Try this activity based on Little Red Riding Hood. Have your students write interview questions and act out the story.

Visual Learners
Visual learners will be able to recall what they see and will prefer written instructions. These students are sight readers who enjoy reading silently. They do best if the information they learn is accompanied by visuals. They enjoy observing and enjoy working with the following:

  • computer graphics
  • maps, graphs, charts, diagrams and graphic organizers
  • cartoons
  • posters
  • videos
  • board games
  • text with a lot of visuals

I think all ELs learn best when they have visual cues to accompany the words that they hear. They can benefit from all of the activities listed above. Investing in tablets and computers in the classroom will be beneficial to ELs who are visual learners. This lesson on the Polar Region blends computer research with the recreation of the polar region’s animals on a classroom mural.

Tactile Learners
Students with this strength learn best by engaging in hands-on activities. They understand directions that they write and will learn best through manipulatives. Try using the Language Experience Approach (LEA) when teaching these students to read. These students will  learn best by

  • drawing
  • playing board games
  • making dioramas
  • making models
  • following instructions to make something
  • craft activities

Beginning ELs who prefer this approach will benefit from drawing and labeling pictures and any other hands-on activities. Try this thematic unit on kites  that will support students who prefer a tactile approach to learning.

Kinesthetic Learners
Kinesthetic learners also learn by touching or manipulating objects. In addition, they need to involve their whole body in learning. Total Physical Response (TPR) is a good ESL method for them. These students learn best by

  • singing songs with gestures and movement
  • playing games that involve their whole body
  • making models
  • following instructions to make something
  • setting up experiments
  • acting out skits and plays

ELs who favor this approach may have difficulty sitting still and will benefit from moving around the room to work at learning stations. Take your students outside to learn action verbs.

Additional Resources

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to Teaching to PreK-5 ELs’ Learning Styles

  1. Jeremy D. Slagoski says:

    All of the activities you have listed are great ideas for diversifying one’s approach to teaching. However, the evidence suggests that we should not be teaching to these learning styles. For more details on how the evidence does not support teaching to learning styles, I recommend reading the following study:
    Kirschner, P.A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006
    If you do not have access to Elsevier, then you can access a summary at http://www.eltresearchbites.com/201703-busting-the-learning-styles-myth/

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