How long do you spend brushing your front teeth compared to your back teeth? Are you one of those people who scrub their tongues? Do you keep the tap running throughout or do you only turn it on at the end to wash the minty foam out of your mouth? What about flossing? What about the total time you spend, from start to finish?
There are so many tiny variables that I’d be willing to bet that you have an entirely different routine to the majority of the people you know.
Thinking about how we brush our teeth is illuminating. It’s something we all do on a regular basis, but it’s also something that is subtly different from person to person.
So, why would language learning be any different?
In fact, presuming a “one-size-fits-all” approach to language learning is pretty illogical when you think about it. We don’t all have the same brain. Our working memory, long term memory, problem solving abilities, reward seeking impulses, attention levels and sense of creativity are all subtly different. This means that we respond to stimuli in slightly different ways. Essentially, we all have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as things we excel at and things we struggle with. So, it would be strange to presume there was only one type of learner.
However, when was the last time you asked yourself: What type of learner am I?
When we ask this question, we automatically enter an area of educational research that seeks to categorise learners by the techniques that are most effective at helping them retain new information. There are numerous systems that have been devised to account for learning differences, but one of the most popular and enduring is the VARK model.
VARK is an acronym for the four types of learners it identifies: Visual, Auditory, Read/write and Kinesthetic. Each of these categories correspond to various preferences in how we acquire new information.
This article is going to explain those preferences and how you can use them to your advantage.
Why is this useful?
Learning a little about the different ways of acquiring and retaining new information has many real world applications. It’s possible that you’ve been conditioned to learn in a certain way. Maybe you’ve found this to be effective, or maybe you have not. Opening your eyes to the different ways you could learn enables you to make choices about how you access information.
Are you attempting to learn languages by reading long passages from grammar books? Are you focusing on diagrams, tables and charts to learn specific forms? Are you spending hours listening to podcasts and songs in your target language? Each of these typify specific learning methods that may, or may not, benefit your strengths as a learner.
How to use this information
We’re going to look at the four learning types outlined in the VARK model and learn a little bit about the types of tasks that are best suited to them. But how can you, as a language student, best capitalise on this information?
This is an opportunity for you to analyse your learning routine and introduce, if necessary, subtle variations in the types of materials you encounter. Do you focus predominantly on one type of task? Is this hindering your ability to learn new information quickly and efficiently?
Following each definition, we’ll look at some very typical tasks or activities that would particularly benefit that specific style of learner. Try these tasks out and report back in the comments below.
Who knows, maybe it’ll revolutionise your learning routine?
This type of learner has a preference for information presented in maps, diagrams, charts and graphs. They’re particularly receptive to the use of symbols (arrows, circles and hierarchies) to visually depict the link between various units of language.
Despite the name, however, it does not include the simple use of photographs, still pictures or video. Instead, think of a visual learner as someone who would automatically “map out” complicated information on a plain sheet of paper using bubbles, lines, arrows and different coloured inks to show the relationship between the various components.
Technique to try out: Mind mapping.
Instructions: Attempt to learn fifty new words of vocabulary in your target language by mind mapping the information on a page using coloured pens or pencils. How many can you remember afterwards?
As the name suggests, these types of learners respond particularly well to information that is heard or spoken. This may include attending lectures, being involved in group discussions, listening to the radio or a podcast, and even chatting online or using email. In fact, the “conversational” tone of most informal digital communication actually lends itself to this style of learning.
Auditory learners can often be identified by their habit of asking themselves a question out loud in order to get a better grasp of it. By doing this, they are helping themselves understand what it means simply by verbalising it.
Technique to try out: Recording your own voice.
Instructions: Use your mobile phone to record fifty new words of vocabulary and then listen to it as you walk to work or school. How many can you remember afterwards?
This third type of learner excels at information that is displayed as words. The preference emphasises reading and writing in all forms, but manuals, reports, essays and assignments are particularly effective. Unlike the Visual learner, the Read/write learner does not need symbols, signs and hierarchical structures to absorb written information easily.
It’s typical that this type of learner will be a keen user of dictionaries (online and physical), will love using Wikipedia (a predominantly text based resource) and will benefit from using Powerpoint presentations to learn new information.
Technique to try out: Using a dictionary.
Instructions: Try to learn fifty new words of vocabulary by looking up and reading the definitions in a dictionary. How many can you remember afterwards?
Learners who fall into the Kinesthetic category thrive when confronted with physical experience and practice (whether simulated or not). The key to making learning work for them is to connect it with reality, movement, the physical world and personal experiences.
These learners want to grasp, hold, play with and manipulate physical representations of the topic at hand. They learn by doing and by applying information to real (or adequately simulated) situations. Demonstrations, videos and movies of “real” things work particularly well. However, Kinesthetic learners also show a preference for writing and speaking assignments, if they’re connected to real world situations.
Technique to try out: Using real objects.
Instructions: Assemble fifty small objects from around your house that you would like to learn in your target language and go through each one in turn. You can do this by looking up the name and attempting to learn the word while holding the object. How many can you remember afterwards?
Of course, none of us fit precisely and exclusively into just one of these categories. We all have strengths in some and weaknesses in others. What this means is that we can vary the way we learn new information, flitting between Visual, Auditory, Read/write or Kinesthetic techniques as the situation demands.
As we become more aware of where our preferences lie, we can alter material to enable our brains to be more receptive to it. For example, taking a long piece of text (Read/write) and mind mapping it onto a piece of plain paper (Visual) or taking physical objects (Kinesthetic) and reading their names out loud to help us to remember the language (Auditory).
What about you?
Do you know which type of learner you are? What did you think of the learning techniques mentioned in this article? Let us know by adding a comment below at the end of the article.