Homeschoolers have the same challenge as any teacher; how to teach children according to the ways they best learn.
One popular approach to helping children grasp educational material most effectively and retain that information is through understanding the child's learning style, or approach to learning.
Learning styles have been the basis for best-practice teaching within the public school arena for many years, and are featured in the most popular homeschooling literature, including Cathy Duffy's 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, Mary Pride's Complete Guide to Getting Started in Homeschooling, and many others.
Learning Styles Overview
There are a number of different learning styles, but the three most prominent are:
- Visual - Learn through seeing. Tend to think in terms of pictures, and use visual cues to organize and retain information.
- Auditory - Learn by hearing. Need to talk through things and hear things verbally to process information.
- Kinesthetic - Learn by moving, doing, and touching. Use experience and activity to understand and remember information.
By teaching according to their child's learning style, parents make learning more enjoyable, and the goal for most homeschoolers is to not just educate, but develop a love for learning in their children. Here are some characteristics of and tools for working with each of the three learning styles.
Does your child like bright, stimulating colors? Does she scribble or doodle during homeschool lessons? Do you find your child always wanting to watch someone demonstrate how to do something before he tries it? If so, your child may be a visual learner. Homeschoolers can help increase the likelihood of their children engaging with and retaining information by finding out their child's learning style and incorporating elements of that style into their teaching. The following are characteristics of visual learners:
- Think in terms of images or pictures
- Prefer visual displays such as tables, diagrams, videos, etc.
- Find it easier to remember faces than names
- Write things down to remember them
- Remember what was seen or written
- Have vivid imaginations
- Like to classify or organize according to color
- Conscious of appearance
- Enjoy reading and books
- Like to make lists
- Lose interest if they can't picture what is being communicated
- Use visual words in speech: "Can I see you a minute?", "Show me", and "Watch this".
Approximately 30-35% of the population are visual learners, according to Cynthia Tobias, learning styles researcher and founder of Apple St. In order to find out if you or your child is in that population, click here to take an 80 question learning styles inventory. For a shorter inventory, click here.
With very little effort, parents can incorporate simple things into their teaching which will appeal to the visual learner. The following are some simple ideas:
- Use bright colors in folders, notebooks, and presentations
- Allow the child to use color coded highlighters
- Use flashcards in presentation of material and for studying
- Utilize videos and computer programs (or online websites) to supplement new material
- Use descriptive language and visual metaphors
- Sketch out or draw the concept you are teaching
- Create charts and graphs of information being studied
- Use outlines and agendas to organize assignments
- Have the child make a drawing notebook and draw concepts as they are taught
- Use illustrated books and textbooks, and review photos and diagrams
- Have your child create a lapbook
Roanoke homeschooler Beth Hoover works to incorporate visually stimulating elements into her child's environment, to support her daughter's visual learning style. Her favorite method is to put educational materials up in the kitchen area where they spend most of their time; for example, she put a world map on the wall, and her daughter found Romania while eating a meal.
Contributor Laura Grace Weldon calls this "subversive" geography and has had similar positive results.
Simple ideas such as these can make learning more enjoyable for the visual learner and can increase the likelihood of the child internalizing what is taught.
"My child never stops talking"
"I can't watch a movie with her because she asks so many questions"
"He interrupts me constantly"
If you have ever said any of these statements, it is likely you have an auditory learner on your hands! Auditory learners learn best by hearing information out loud.
Homeschoolers are in the perfect position to incorporate elements into their teaching that support their child's learning style, because all aspects of education can be tailored to the child's individual needs. The following are characteristics of auditory learners:
- Talk constantly, to themselves and others
- Have a knack for foreign language
- Read slowly, often with reading aloud to themselves
- Talk through what they are thinking
- Hum or sing frequently
- Interrupt often
- Say the sound of the word as they write it
- Enjoy the performing arts
- Blurt out answers as soon as they think of them
- Ask lots of questions
- Enjoy music and display musical talent
- Repeat what someone says so they can remember it
- Have strong language skills with large vocabularies
- Remember names, but forget faces
- Use hearing words, like "Tell me what you want me to do", "Listen", and "Could I talk with you for a minute?"
Parents can help increase their auditory learner's chance of success by incorporating some simple steps into their teaching that complement how this child best learns.
Here are ways homeschoolers can support auditory learners:
- Use phonics to teach reading
- Use auditory CDs and books on CD to teach lessons
- Give oral reports and have students answer questions orally
- Have the child "narrate" a story or concept - repeat back what he heard and understood
- Use audiobooks and read books aloud, even those children old enough to read on their own
- Have the child explain a new concept to someone else
- Use voice recorders to play back lessons
- Use music, poetry or rhythm to convey new concepts
- After teaching for 10 minutes, use an egg timer to allow the student 3 minutes to talk to a peer or sibling about what he just heard
- Encourage discussion, brainstorming, and questions
- Use emphasis and emotion when teaching
- Use rhymes, mneumonic devices, and other auditory devices
- Repeat what you say to facilitate memorization
- Provide regular intervals throughout teaching for the child to ask questions and speak orally
- Make up or learn songs to teach new concepts
- Use study groups with other students
Does your child never stop moving?
Does she like to get her hands on things and tend to "jump right in" to try out an activity?
If so, your child may be a kinesthetic learner. Kinesthetic learners process information best by doing; by touching, feeling, and experiencing, rather than hearing or seeing.
Another way of thinking of kinesthetic learners, according to Cynthia Tobias, learning styles author and researcher, is that they are "born to move". Preschoolers and young children all tend to be kinesthetic learners, with other learning styles (visual, auditory, etc.) emerging later. The following are characteristics of kinesthetic learners:
- Move around constantly
- Lose interest if they can't do something active
- Enjoy physical activities
- Like lots of space in which to work and play
- Move their hands when they talk
- Have difficulty sitting still for extended periods of time
- Move quickly from one thing to the next
- Tend to be sensitive to the physical world, how things feel, clothing, etc.
- Notice and appreciate texture
- Enjoy physical activities and sports
- Impatiently want to get to the "bottom line" rather than listen to details or explanations
- Think or process best when moving around
- Take frequent breaks when studying
- Do not spend a lot of time reading
- Prefer non-desk positions for studying, such as lying on the bed
- Uses experiential words, such as "What do you want me to do" or "Let me try"
There is a growing consensus that a number of public school students labeled as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are, in fact, simply kinesthetic learners who are not given the opportunity to move.
Fortunately, homeschooling is the perfect scenario for a "born to move" kid; each day can be tailored directly to the child's needs for movement and experiential learning.
The following are some simple ways to encourage a child to process kinesthetically:
- Use ergonomic, comfortable chairs for times the child works at a desk
- Do lessons away from a desk - on the bed, on the floor, or wherever the child is comfortable
- Use lots of experiments in science
- Use math manipulatives
- Play games to reinforce learning, such as phonics Bingo, Uno for math, etc.
- Take frequent breaks from teaching to allow the child to move
- Teach lessons while the child is swinging on the swing set
- Read a book while the child plays with clay or colors
- Teach a new concept while going on a walk
- Design activities and projects to be done in short spurts
- Allow the child to stand or rock in a rocking chair during lessons
- Use physical movement to teach concepts, such as having the child shoot a basket for each multiplication table he says out loud
- Have children act out a new concept
- Use hands-on learning tools such as blocks, puzzles, globes, models, felt boards, abacus, play-dough, markers and crayons, scissors, 3-D letters, etc.
- Have child clap or tap out numbers or syllables for words
By appealing to your child's learning style, you will make learning more enjoyable for him or her, and will increase the chances of your child incorporating and remembering new knowledge. To find out more about learning styles, check out How to Maximize Your Child's Learning Ability by Dr. Lauren Bradway and Barbara Albers Hill.
Learning Styles Research
With such widespread popularity and strong support for teaching according to a child's style of learning, shouldn't homeschoolers jump on the learning styles bandwagon and ride all the way to academic success?
Despite popular belief, the answer to that question is not an unequivocal "yes", and recent research has muddied the waters of what was previously thought to be a clear-cut "win" in educational approaches.
A study from December 2009 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that virtually all of research which claims that students learn best according to specific learning styles fails to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. In other words, after examining all of the major studies related to learning styles, researchers found that science has yet to demonstrate that students learn better when taught according to their own learning style.
So what does this mean? Should homeschoolers ditch the idea of teaching according to a child's learning style all together?
Although this research is impacting the world of public education, as the community (validly) questions whether funding and support should continue to be given to learning-style based assessments whose efficacy are not backed by scientific evidence, homeschoolers have little to lose from identifying their child's learning style and incorporating elements into their teaching which support that learning style for the following reasons:
- The problem was methodology, not outcomes. The main problem the December 2009 study found with the learning styles research was with its methodology, namely that the studies did not have experimental research designs with a crossover interaction between learning style and method of teaching, that would demonstrate internal validity. More simply, the research design did not show a cause and effect relationship between using a learning styles approach and improved learning by students. The issue was not primarily that the outcome of the learning styles research did not show any positive outcomes (although there were some studies that did not show positive outcomes), but that any positive outcomes could not be accurately attributed to the intervention itself (in other words, the improved learning could have come from other factors than the learning style approach). Future studies that use a better experimental design may demonstrate the efficacy of the learning styles hypothesis.
- The research setting was in classrooms, not homeschools. The bulk of the research investigated applied learning styles to a classroom environment. The application of learning styles in a homeschool setting, with an individual child, is completely different from the broad-scale integration of a classroom learning style methodology, and would need to be the subject of future research before definitive conclusions can be reached about the effectiveness of the learning styles hypothesis with homeschoolers.
- There is little to lose when teaching according to learning style. Identifying your child's learning style is quick and easy, it costs no money, and it takes very little time to incorporate simple steps into your teaching that support your child's preference for learning. At worst, teaching with your child's learning style in mind will simply present the material in a format that is more palatable and more enjoyable to your child - building the relationship between you and reinforcing the idea that learning is a positive experience.
This most recent research simply supports a principle that homeschoolers know well: There is no "magic pill" of education that will help all kids be successful.
The good news is that homeschoolers are masters at flexibility and creativity; forging individualized approaches that work for their particular child, rather than following any educational trends or packaged method. And while learning styles are clearly not a blueprint for educational success, they can be a useful tool in the homeschooler's toolbox to support schooling efforts personalized for each learner.
Tobias, C. U. Every Child Can Succeed: Teaching Them the Way They Learn. Presentation given on June 11, 2010 at the Virginia Homeschool Convention in Richmond.