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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 32

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Learning Preferences in EFL
by Gabriel H. D-az Maggioli

Everybody deserves to be given the chance to learn; and every human being is able to learn, if the tools for success are provided. This article presents a method by which learning styles and preferences can be addressed to avoid teaching/learning style conflict, and to empower learners by boosting their confidence and self-esteem-and that of their teachers as well. The basis for the article has been my own experience with the method, and that of other colleagues who teach EFL in situations as different as over-populated public schools, private EFL schools, and teacher education programs.

Starting out

The fact that we all learn in different ways is generally acknowledged. But just how different are we? Classifications abound which can be brought down to a basic difference in the working of our brain, that is, whether we are left or right hemisphere dominant. An individual with a left-brain access mode will process information in a one-at-a-time way, look at details, to see the logic in everything, and have an interest in syntax and synthesis. An individual with a right-hemisphere access mode will use all-at-once processing to get "the whole" before the parts, understanding the world via connecting clusters of facts. Other classifications have expanded on this basic difference by focusing on social, affective, or motivational aspects. (See Figure 1 .)

The interdisciplinary nature of language teaching has allowed us to borrow from other fields, such as Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) to understand how people learn. It is from this field that we have taken a classification system which, in our particular situation, has helped shape our teaching practices.

In reviewing NLP literature, we found a surprising connection between the classification of individuals into visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic as well as the distinction between analytic and global learners.

We found that the failure experienced by some of our learners was due to the fact that we were not catering to their sensory preferences, even though we had been working with the "two sides of the brain." Thus, we set out to discover how our students learned. First of all, we had interviews with our students to discuss everyday topics as well as learning problems they were experiencing in their classes. During the interviews we gathered information about their eye movement and listened carefully to the kind of language they used in order to figure out their preferences. (A visual-dominant learner will tend to use words such as "see," "notice," etc.)

Students were also asked to keep learning logs, writing down their reflections on how to solve linguistic problems in class. We studied these logs in order to find out whether learners used the visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic channel to access or recall information.

Likewise, we observed student behavior in carrying out class tasks. For example, when asked to copy something on the chalkboard, a visually-oriented student at beginner level tended to look at her copybook and place a full stop after each word she wrote on the chalkboard.

Last of all we administered a self-rating questionnaire in which students were asked to rate the way in which they learned best. We explained to them that there were no right or wrong answers and that they should concentrate on what they actually found most effective in learning, but not what they thought the teacher would want to hear. (See figure 2 )

Learner types

Our classification of learners into sensory preferences looks like this:

The visual learner

  • Understands orders if told rather than shown.
  • Likes to work quickly and finish early.
  • Is always looking intently at the interlocutor.
  • Tends to follow the teacher with his/her eyes while the teacher moves around the classroom.
  • Recalls information by visualizing the source.
  • Always notices details.
  • Tends to avoid oral production and when asked to speak, will keep his/her production to a minimum.
  • Is very neat in the presentation of written work and tries to keep an orderly learning environment.

The auditory learner

  • Is generally regarded as the "nice but naughty" student in the group.
  • Cannot stop chattering, whispering, etc.
  • Is a good storyteller.
  • Can be very bright at oral work, but his/her performance on tests is mediocre.
  • Is generally a group leader (S/he knows how to listen to others)

The tactile learner

  • Needs to SEE and HEAR and DO in order to learn.
  • Generally has a kind of tic (e.g., twisting a strand of hair).
  • Is overly familiar with everybody.
  • Has a short concentration span.
  • Finds it difficult to understand abstract symbols (e.g., timelines, diagrams, etc.).
  • Needs "hands on" activities in order to understand.

The kinesthetic learner

  • Feels s/he is two sizes bigger that the desk.
  • Prefers baggy clothes.
  • Needs periods of reflection between tasks.
  • MUST move. Good at sports and physical tasks.
  • Generally writes words over and over and is not neat.
  • Has both the power of breaking down the language into bits and pieces and putting those pieces back together in a "big picture" style.
  • Uses movement and rhythmic routines in order to learn.

After having classified learners according to their sensory preference, we set out to find activities which would enable them to use their innate capacities to benefit their learning.

We then drew up a list of activities for each sensory preference. The list looked very much like this:

Visual learners:

  • Working with pictures, posters, etc.
  • Realia
  • Video
  • Flash cards, card games, etc.
  • Cuisenaire rods
  • Timelines, charts, grids, diagrams.

Auditory learners:

  • Any kind of work with audiocassettes, including Counseling/Learning (CLL) techniques
  • Songs, poems, rhymes, jazz chants, etc.

Tactile learners:

  • Cuisenaire rods, manual arts, card games, board games
  • Working with maps
  • Magnet board/flannel board
  • Framing posters for abstract symbols
  • Working with cards, slips of paper, etc.

Kinesthetic learners:

  • Games like "Simon says."
  • TPR activities
  • Classroom tasks (giving out handouts, etc.)
  • Blackboard work
  • Races, competitions, etc.,
  • Board games

Turning points

After drawing up this list we started planning our classes around the idea of having at least one of these activities included in the lesson plan, a task which sometimes forced us to write plans which were either too long, or too difficult to carry out, exhausting both teachers and students.

Besides the structuring of the overall class plan into four stages, we decided to give each specific task the same format in order to achieve a true balance in our teaching. In other words, each classroom task, activity, and procedure would draw upon each of the four sensory preferences.

We also decided to start adopting this format for every activity we could think of to progressively build a bank of activities for all teachers to use.

Each of the four stages of the plan was well thought out, and a rationale was offered so as to facilitate building the tasks. If the specific procedure did not comply with the objective for that stage, then it could be adapted or discarded. This proved to be a most useful way of approaching our job since it started us thinking about the true value of our actions in the class to ensure that the student was the center of our attention.

The first stage of the task (and class) is the hook . Taking the students' backgrounds into account, the teacher helps the learners understand the purpose of the task so they can approach it in a focused and self-directed way. In offering the students a new experience, the teacher tried to establish a community of learners in the class. It is at this stage that the teacher helps students set realistic goals for themselves.

The second stage is mediation where the teacher shows the significance of the task proposed and helps learners discover its value. In presenting the task to students the teacher inspires them by making them feel they can do it. This is achieved through a systematic approach to problem solving and the use of creative thinking activities. Hence, the main aim of this stage is to have students reflect on the task and to show them the steps that must be taken to complete it.

In the third stage, application , the teacher provides opportunities for the learners to perceive that a change has occurred as a result of having learned something new. It is at this stage that the teacher works within Vygotsky's zone of proximal development and tries to stretch students to the next stage (but not so much that they feel anxious, or so little that they feel frustrated). Likewise, the teacher tries to keep a balance between analytic and global activities to help students conceptualize and make generalizations. Engrained at this stage is a belief in optimistic alternatives -there is always a solution-and an awareness that mistakes are normal, natural, and necessary.

The last stage has been termed personalization and it is here that students realize that what they have learned will be useful for future tasks. This gives the learning experience the transcendence it deserves. This stage is appropriate for project work and other peer-mediated activities. It is also appropriate for the development of metacognative awareness and the manipulation of metacognative knowledge: reflection on what learners have learned, and how they have done so.


Our school has been using the approach systematically for the past two years and results are evident. Our activity plans have finally taken the following format:

The Looping Loops Lesson Plan










FOLLOW-UP IDEAS: ...........................................................................


SOURCES/ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: ...............................................


Every activity is given a name so as to make it more memorable for the teachers using it. Follow-up ideas are also entered in the plan for the benefit of other teachers. A rationale is entered whenever we feel an activity may not be very clear or its true value has been challenged either by other teachers or the learners themselves. Finally, there is a place for acknowledgments in case we adapt someone else's activity or get help from others in devising it.

The appendix 1 includes a selection of some of the activities which have worked well in our classes. They have helped teachers and students create a healthy learning atmosphere where everybody knows that s/he is respected and there are opportunities to learn.

The students' performance has improved greatly, and teachers have discovered that working in this cooperative and inquisitive manner helps them grow not only as professionals but also as individuals. The spirit in our classes is that of sharing and caring for others. In each classroom we have put up a modified version of the most famous lines from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech: "Don't ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." It reads:


Gabriel H. D-az Maggioli is a teacher, teacher educator, and EFL materials writer. He has lectured in learning styles in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Canada, and the United States.



  • Diaz, C. H. 1994. Children of a lesser God: Helping underachievers succeed. URUTESOL Newsletter, 3, 1.
  • O'Connor, J. and S. Seymour. 1990. Introducing neurolinguistic programming. New York: Crucible.
  • Oxford, R. L. 1990. Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. New York: Newbury House.
  • Wilkin, H. and D. Goodenough. l981. Cognitive styles: Essence and origins. New York: International Universities Press Inc.

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 32

Figure 1

A Brief Guide to Learning Styles and Style Preferences

Analytic Global
Avoids social/emotional Has a feel for the
subtleties social setting and emotional states.
Get at details through analysis Go for the main ideas
Introverted Extroverted
Energized by their inner world Energetic and outgoing
Reflective Active
Understands before experiencing Experiences before understands
Focuses on thoughts and
Likes interaction
Concrete Intuitive
Sequential and concrete Non- sequential and abstract
Step-by-step processing Gets the "big picture"
Grounded in the present Grounded in the future
Thinking Feeling
Interested in the system Considerate
Decisions based on logic Sensitive to self and others
Closure-oriented Open- oriented
Plans Flexible
Organizes Indecisive
Sets goals Playful
Systematic Spontaneous
Hard-working "Have Fun."
Decisive Tentative, an explorer
Jumps to conclusions quickly Learning is a game

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figure 2

What is your learning line?

Read the following statements and indicate how much they apply to you: 1 = not much; 2 = a little; 3 = a lot
Remember there are no right or wrong answers.
  1. I enjoy learning in class with my friends.
  2. I like to learn on my own by studying and thinking.
  3. I want the teacher to correct all my mistakes.
  4. I enjoy working in groups in class.
  5. I like to have a neat and orderly desk.
  6. I think that a good teacher should be friendly.
  7. I think that a good teacher is demanding.
  8. A good teacher brings games to play in class.
  9. I like to tell jokes.
  10. I like to talk to the teacher outside class.
  11. I generally decorate the inside of my notebook cover with drawings.
  12. I like music and rhythm in order to learn better.
  13. I feel better when I have my own books and materials.
  14. I like to do things with my hands (like crafts or pottery).
  15. I talk too much in class.
  16. My classmates think I am funny and friendly.
  17. My classmates think I am shy.
  18. My teachers think I am a very good student.
  19. My teachers think I never study.
  20. My teachers think I move too much in class.
  21. I like to read in my free time.
  22. I like to talk to friends and tell jokes in my free time.
  23. I like to practise sports in my free time.
  24. While I am studying, I frequently stop and do other things.

For the teacher
Individuals who scored high in:

*2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 16, 21
*1, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 18, 22
*8, 10, 11, 14, 19, 20, 23, 2


Mainly visual
Mainly Auditory
Mainly tactile/kinesthetic

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appendix 1

Activities for classroom use

Word to Picture



Timing: 30 minutes
Level: All
Preparation: select a collection of pictures depicting various landscapes (one picture per student)
Aims: to create memorable, personal associations with new vocabulary items and to foster cooperation.
1. Hook
Display the pictures and allow students time to choose one they feel they can truly connect with. Then let students observe the picture and try to create a sequence of sounds for it. In pairs, students describe their pictures by giving their sound sequence only.
2. Mediation
The teacher explains to the students that words can have associations, and their meaning is best recalled when those associations, are personal. Give some examples from your own experience, and invite students to do the same.
3. Application
Students choose new words they would like to learn. Ask them to keep their choice to a maximum of 10. They then write each word on a piece of paper, and pin it to an item in the picture to which they can associate the word. In groups, students tell each other about their associations. If students are used to keeping a learning log or a class dictionary, the words could be added to them.
4. Personalization
Students work in groups again, this time writing a collective story using some of the words they have learned and one or more of the pictures.

Colorful Music



Timing: 15-20 minutes
Level: Beginners
Preparation: Select some song excerpts where colors are mentioned. Prepare a set of color pencils for each student and a set of color flashcards (1 per color).
Aims: to explore feelings and perceptions via music and to show students ways in which they can use their senses in order to understand.
1. Hook
Play the song excerpts to the class and ask them which one they like best.
2. Mediation
Focus student attention on the colors. Show the flashcards with the names of the different colors and ask them to put them on the walls around the classroom. Ask them which one they like best.
3. Application
Play the song excerpts again. Whenever a color is mentioned, ask students to stand under the corresponding flashcard. Do this as many times as necessary to make sure the words are understood. If possible, have a further recording of the excerpts in jumbled order to avoid dependence on memory (remember this is primarily for auditory students) at this stage where comprehension is the aim.
4. Personalization
After students can recognize the colors, pass out the sets of color pencils and, while playing the excerpts again, ask them to draw something inspired by the music using the color mentioned in the song. Share with the group.
True beginners feel they can cope with the new language since they can understand real English.

Sentence Walk



Timing: 15 minutes
Level: Elementary
Preparation: A4 size paper (Tabloid) and jumbo markers
Aims: to practice syntax and help kinesthetic learners conceptualize.
1. Hook
After having worked with a story or presented a linguistic point through a story, ask students to come to the blackboard and write one or more words that they remember from the story.
2. Mediation
Show students how they can combine words from the blackboard into sentences. Have some students give you sentences from the blackboard. Then give each student five sheets of paper and ask them to write a word per sheet. It may be the case that there are important words which students have left out, so be prepared to write up to five words yourself.
3. Application
Ask students to work in groups of up to five individuals. They put their words on the floor and the aim is to walk on the words to make different sentences. While one student is "walking a sentence" the others read the words out loud, and at the end, repeat the sentence. Later, all words are put together, and groups compete to make the longest sentence.
4. Personalization
After a few sentences have been "walked," tell students to pick up their words and form groups of five. In groups, they should try to form sentences with the words they have. Allow any possible combination even if it is not related to the story dealt with in class.

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 32
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