Learning Styles: Do They Make a Difference?

In the How to Homeschool a Boy series (the three previous posts), I talked about some of the things I learned through the homeschooling years. One of the first things I learned about was learning styles, or preferred ways of taking in information.

Learning Styles: Do they really make a difference? Can they be a roadmap to better teaching?
Can learning styles be a roadmap to better teaching?

A slow start

Because I was educated in relatively traditional public schools, the only method of in-school learning I’d been exposed to was textbook/workbook-based. That meant that when I began learning about homeschooling, those were the sort of educational materials that looked familiar. The first year of homeschooling I saved up and dutifully purchased a horribly expensive complete one-year curriculum — textbooks, workbooks, teacher’s manuals (all designed for classroom use).

Just a couple of months in, it was clear that the material was not only cumbersome and time-consuming, significant chunks of it were simply not working. My bright, happy little boy who had been so excited about starting school was starting to dread each day and even dislike history, which he’d formerly loved. Something had to change. 

Scrapping what didn’t work

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
This is the books we used to teach all our boys to read. Our grandchildren have used it too.

There wasn’t a lot to read on homeschooling at that time, but I knew that there was no way we could do twelve years of school using these materials and methods. Looking back to my own school years, I remembered that the primary way I’d learned anything was through reading real books, writing, and doing projects. I put all but the math from the expensive curriculum on the shelf, started Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, and mapped out a literature-based plan for studying history and science.

It was at that point that I came across information about learning styles that  made me feel even more confident about moving forward without textbooks and workbooks. Although I learned mostly through seeing, I discovered that not everyone does. Some students learn more easily by hearing and others by doing (learning styles or preferences can get more complicated than that, but these three aptitudes are a simple starting point). To me, learning styles were like looking at a road map — a reminder that there are often alternate routes to the same destination. 

Learning styles in real life

Looking back at the previous posts on teaching boys, you might notice that there were differences in the things that each boy asked me to share. One asked me to see something interesting he had found (keyword is SEE); another wanted me to see what he had done and watch what he could do with it (keyword is DO); and the other wanted me to hear something that inspired him (keyword is HEAR).

Those keywords correspond to specific learning styles or preferences:

  • “See” indicates a preference for learning visually, including through reading, art, graphics, illustrations, charts, diagrams, maps, and other visual materials. Because traditional school materials tend to be designed for this type of learner, a visual student may be thought of as “smart.” This student tends to be a naturally good speller because he or she remembers how a word looks (as Charlotte Mason advised, they can “look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.”)
  • “Do” indicates a preference for learning by doing. The kinesthetic (hands-on) learner is often described as a “wiggle-worm” and can end up labeled with some sort of learning difficulty. This learner can benefit from math with counters (blocks, beans, etc.), writing on a chalkboard (large motions and discernible friction), and frequent changes of posture (sitting, standing, walking on a treadmill, etc.). This student often struggles with spelling because he or she doesn’t remember what it looks like, but can benefit from chalkboard or sand tray spelling and the oral method mentioned below.
  • “Hear” indicates a preference and aptitude for learning by hearing. An auditory learner sometimes seems noisier than his siblings and may have a higher than average musical aptitude. This student tends to enjoy audiobooks, reading aloud, thinking aloud, and experimenting with noises and sound effects (even when reading “silently”). Spelling can often be improved by implementing old-fashioned oral spelling methods

Each of the boys in the previous posts has a noticeable difference in the way he approaches learning. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of intaking information or that he is stuck taking in information only through his dominant learning preference. Ideally, information can be presented and understood through multiple senses. However, even in adulthood interests and activities still tend to be approached through each one’s preferred method. 

Teaching that helps students learn

Once I observed that my oldest son was not processing information in the same way I did (I’m a verbal/visual learner), what I was reading about learning styles made sense. Our son had an almost uncanny ability to remember everything he heard, but seemed to easily forget or be distracted from things he read. It was obvious that teaching him using only my learning style was not going to be very effective. His auditory strength and preference encouraged us to read aloud more and led us to greater use of audio resources and discussion as part of the learning process.

As the other boys joined us in formal lessons, it was clear that although they  were not primarily auditory, they benefitted from all the reading aloud and discussion, as well as copywork, personal reading, and hands-on projects. They were learning happily and well, though our homeschool didn’t look anything like the public school classrooms I’d left behind.

I worried a bit about not doing textbook/workbook school until I came across Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake, a book that introduced me to Charlotte Mason-style education. That book, along with much of what I was reading about classical education and brain development gave me peace that the path we were on was an educationally, scientifically, and historically sound path. Learning styles weren’t everything I needed to know, but understanding that differences existed helped me create a lifestyle of learning atmosphere and find routes for each boy to learn well.

Cultivate a taste for lifelong learning

You probably know where I’m going with this. It’s important to meet each of your children where they are, and to enjoy their strengths and help strengthen their weaknesses. Don’t feel that you must be locked into a curriculum that looks like the one you learned with. Choose real books that spark interest and nourish the soul. Copy, write, illustrate, dramatize, and/or talk about them. Make connections. Learn by seeing, hearing, and doing. Let each student go farther in subjects they find interesting. Let them teach the rest of the family things they learn in their own special areas. As your children learn and grow, you’ll find yourself developing areas of learning you didn’t even realize you had missed in school (this is fun!).

As you accept who each of your children are and appreciate their individual gifts, you will grow and help them to grow. And by being willing to let each child learn, explore, and share in ways that fit their own inborn aptitudes and preferences, and by letting them share what they learn with the rest of the family, you can help to forge a relationship that will stand the test of time. Trust me, it’s worth it.


Addendum: A couple of people have wondered if I had only three sons, and the answer is “no.” Our other son is married, so he usually manages to escape being featured as an illustration;-). However, I’ll note that yesterday he sent me a beta version of the new software he’s developing and asked me to look at it and help test it. He’s a gifted visual learner, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing his projects as well. So — four boys in all, plus two lovely DILs, and I love them every one (with apologies to Tiny Tim).

More on learning styles

  • The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias
  • EducationPlanner offers a brief questionnaire to determine learning style.
  • For an interesting perspective on learning, you might enjoy Of Daffodils and Diesels.

1 Response

  1. May 29, 2019

    […] perfect (surprise!), but he has gifts, knowledge, and skills your children need. The fact that he does things differently from you is a benefit, not a liability, and children’s lives are richer for having two loving […]

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