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LEARNING STYLES AND FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING

Learning Styles and Foreign Language Learning:


Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners

Cathy Vila
SH 456
Prof. Kristina Precious
Aquinas College

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Introduction
I have been working as a substitute teacher in a high school classroom in East Grand Rapids
teaching Honors Spanish 5/6 (Year 3) to sophomore students. Prior to this experience, I worked
for over a year in an elementary setting in a Spanish Immersion Kindergarten classroom as an
aide. I have become acutely aware from my working with children of both elementary and
secondary levels, that language learning can be an especially trying subject for some students. It
is with this in mind that I chose to address the topic of Learning Styles and Learning Profiles,
addressing the needs of diverse learners while focusing especially on the work of Carol Ann
Tomlinson. My goal in this effort is to learn more about the current research available and to
better my own teaching practice. In this paper I will share my research findings on Learning
Styles, Learning Profiles, and Carol Ann Tomlinson, my own research in my current two
classrooms of 59 sophomore high school students, and finally my conclusions on the use of
learning style inventories and methods in so far as determining the best language learning
experience I can offer my students.

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As a language teacher, I am committed to addressing the needs of diverse learners in my


classroom. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has issued a position
statement on diversity and language programs as follows:
ACTFL and its members are committed to developing and maintaining a teaching and
learning environment that reflects the broad diversity of American society. We welcome
teachers and students from diverse cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds to
language programs. We believe that all children should have the opportunity to learn other
languages and support full access for all students to language programs. In this effort,
ACTFL and its member organizations

Support a teaching and learning environment where diversity is appreciated and


respected

Advocate diverse language learning opportunities for all socio-economic levels in


urban, suburban, and rural communities

Work to develop, support, promote and enhance the language skills of Native
American and heritage language learners

Initiate and support efforts to recruit and retain a diverse teaching force in the
language profession

Work to ensure that the organizations structure, services, professional development,


and policies address the needs of our diverse profession

Promote awareness and differentiation of language instruction to accommodate


students diverse learning styles; exceptional learning needs; cultural, ethnic, and
linguistic backgrounds; and personal interests and goals

Encourage the selection and use of instructional materials that integrate multicultural
and diverse perspectives throughout the curriculum (ACTFL, 2015).

In any given classroom, there may be students who differ from each other in various
ways, including levels of motivation, goals for learning, aptitude, needs for instructional

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assistance, ethnic or national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, and linguistic or cultural
heritage. Even in a classroom such as mine at East Grand Rapids, or previously in my elementary
class in Jenison where the students appear to be relatively homogeneous in background and
goals they may still be very different students in other areas. Diversity includes the range of
academic, linguistic, physical, and emotional characteristics that each student brings to the
classroom. The challenge that I face in my classroom now, and any Spanish or foreign language
teacher faces is to recognize and help my students to appreciate that we are all different, and that
that is a good thing. We can learn from our differences, help each other, all while learning a
foreign language and culture. As a Spanish language teacher I will need to design differentiated
instruction so that each unique learner has opportunities to enhance thinking skills and learn how
to speak Spanish, as well as learn about the Hispanic culture around the world and grow an
appreciation for it.
As a new teacher, I decided to start from scratch and begin by becoming familiar with
and addressing the learning styles of the students in my class. I was intrigued by the idea of
learning styles, and initially I believed that identifying what my students learning styles were
was the way to begin getting to know them. Learning styles can be identified as visual, auditory,
or kinesthetic; they can be classified as holistic or linear learners. (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2016).
Our text also states that while we know that some learners thrive in a highly social and
interactive environment, others feel more comfortable and may do better when they can think
and learn alone. Some of our students need to touch, or move, in order to learn some benefit
most from our visuals and gestures when they are learning language, some children learn very
well just from listening (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2016). Learning styles are a general and actually
quite broad approach a learner uses to learn, however, the most important insight, perhaps,

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from this information is the realization that almost all of the students in our classes are different
from us, their teachers, and from each other, in a large variety of ways. (Curtain & Dahlberg,
2016)
I teach two classes that are one hour long each, and I have 30 students in one, and 29 in
the other. I decided I would need to do a couple of investigative activities in order to get to know
my students, to begin my journey working with the ACTFL guidelines as a foreign language
teacher, and most of all to be able to teach them well. First I administered a simple learning style
survey, (see Appendix A attached PDF). It is very short, but I thought it gave me and them a
general idea of what kind of a learner they were. Each style, visual, kinesthetic, or auditory, was
ranked from one to ten in the level that student used it. Then I had my students complete two
more tasks that would further my knowledge about them. First I had them write a paragraph
about themselves, include a picture of themselves, and then paste these on a sheet of colored
construction paper and design or draw on it as they wished (See Appendix B). Finally they filled
out a Learning Profile Card (See Appendix C), an idea I got researching online and reading the
ideas of Carol Ann Tomlinson on Learning Profiles. Then I got to work studying all the
information I had gathered on my students. I set myself up for a lot of work reviewing all of their
profile cards as well as their paragraph and picture information. I also had them add the results of
the Learning Style Inventory on the profile card to help me compile the information, and reduce
the amount of time I would need to analyze my findings. I will discuss more about my findings
later on in this paper.
Why did I decide to go to such lengths to get to know my students? First and foremost, I
know in my heart that if I want to teach them well, I need to establish a relationship with each
and every one of them. Just the act of having them do these tasks for me establishes the fact that

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I care, and that I want to get to know more about them. Secondly, I began to realize that just
knowing a childs learning style is only the beginning of knowing how to teach them well. The
ACTFL standard, Promote awareness and differentiation of language instruction to
accommodate students diverse learning styles; exceptional learning needs; cultural, ethnic, and
linguistic backgrounds; and personal interests and goals cannot be met from just a simple
Learning Styles inventory. (ACTFL, 2015).
I came upon the research of Carol Ann Tomlinson, and decided that I would learn more
about her ideas on differentiated instruction and learning profiles.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is an author of over 200 articles, book chapters, books, and an
expert on differentiated instruction. She was a public school teacher for 21 years, and spent 12
years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners
(CarolTomlinson.com, 2015). Her ideas broaden the term learning style. She says this term is
often used as a cover term for lots of things that are probably better called something
else.learning style, intelligence preference, culture-based learning approaches, and genderbased learning approaches (Varlas, 2010). She believes all the areas need to be carefully
considered to determine a Learning Profile of a student. This is her bottom line:
Bottom line: Its highly likely that we learn differently as a result of gender, culture,
perhaps neurological wiring, maybe just from a sort of learning preference or comfort
zone, or a combination of those factors. Settings that support learning in a variety of ways
are justified. And its highly likely that classrooms that make room for those differences
are more hospitable to learning. We may not yet know all the ways that work or precisely
how they work, but it does appear that making room for different approaches to learning
is worth the effort. (Varlas, 2010)

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The idea of using differentiation in teaching in which we alter teaching strategies,


content, assignments, and even the rules and structure of the classroom itself; has become very
much a mainstream concept in education. It seems to make sense to do this in any classroom, and
perhaps especially in a classroom of students who are learning a second language, which can be
very challenging. (Pappano, 2011). Tomlinson, in addressing the idea of differentiation, has what
she calls four non-negotiables in teaching: a high-quality curriculum with clear goals, the use
of data to monitor and provide feedback on student learning, the ability to recognize when
something isnt jelling and modify it to fit the students, and the creation of an environment in
which students are supported and challenged (Pappano, 2011). Tomlinson argues that teachers
must assess students readiness, interests, and learning profile, (which includes recognition of a
childs culture and background), in order to understand their needs with regard to specific lessons
and learning goals. Teachers should use this knowledge in selecting the best approach for each
child to learn. (Pappano, 2011). She suggests in an article addressing elementary school that
teachers differentiate these four elements in the class room, after they have a learning profile of
their students. (Tomlinson, 2000). I agree, and would argue that this could be applied for any age
of student, not just elementary. She suggests differentiating the content, by perhaps using reading
materials at varying levels or presenting ideas by both visually as well as orally. She also says
teachers should differentiate the process, suing tiered activities, providing centers, offering
manipulatives or varying the length of time for tasks. She suggest differentiating products, by
giving students options how to express required learning, allowing students to work alone or in
groups on their products, and finally to differentiate the learning environment, by making sure
there are quiet places, setting guidelines that meet individual needs, and developing routes that
allow students to get help when the teacher is not immediately available (Tomlinson, 2000).

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I did not realize that the approach known as learning styles has gone out of favor in
education. Tomlinson instead suggests her learning profile be used and she is very clear that it
is not a synonym for learning styles. Tomlinson told attendees at a recent ASCD annual
conference the following with regards to learning styles:
1. Neuroscientist say there is limited evidence that different people use different neural
networks to solve problems.
2. Psychologists discredit the theory because it is too diffuse, multiple models contrast
and compete with one another, and there is no randomized research to support
addressing learning styles in the classroom.
3. Sociologists present the criticism that Tomlinson said is most worth listening to. They
say labeling a kid is never neutral, drawing conclusions based on very little
information across cultures is problematic, and by generalizing, we may cause harm.
(Varlas, 2012)
From a presentation Tomlinson gave in 2012 at ASCD, I found an explicit list of
recommendations for what to do and what not to do regarding learning styles. First, what a
teacher should NOT do:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

Over promote learning styles as a concept in presentations/coaching,


Use/trust learning styles inventories unless they are reliable & valid,
Categorize learners by learning style,
Assign students to learning style tasks without good cause,
Generalize to an individual or to a group,
Assume there are no differences in the ways students approach learning,
Confuse learning style with learning profile,
Eliminate options for exploration and expression of content, Use learning style as a
proxy for differentiation. (Caroltomlinson.com, 2012)

Next are her recommendations for what teachers SHOULD do:

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1. Take care to explain the term learning profile and the role of learning styles in
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.

that umbrella concept.


Acknowledge & explain the concerns about learning styles by some experts.
Be clear that an individual learns differently in different contexts.
Offer varied ways to take in, explore, and express learning.
Teach in a variety of ways.
Emphasize the malleability of the brain & stress the value of students using all their
potentialeven while capitalizing on their strengths. (Caroltomlinson.com, 2012)

All of this research she has done, and her ideas about learning profiles, brings me back
to my own work in my Spanish language classroom. Did I make a mistake in doing a simple
Learning Styles Inventory? Well, Yes and No. The overwhelming majority of the children I
teach had the result of being classified more highly as visual learners, and scored lower on
auditory or kinesthetic styles. However, every child had some aspect of at least all three. It was
interesting for me to note that the children who did score higher on auditory were either musical
or excellent language speakers perhaps because of their better listening skills, and the kinesthetic
learners were often involved in sports activities. It made sense to me and to them. I did however;
explain clearly to my class that in no way does this activity pigeonhole them into one category of
learning style. I told them that this activity is only a small part of who they are as a learner, and
that it was just meant to be one of the ways that I would learn about them. Also, and very
importantly, this inventory can change with time. They should not think that in any way this is
who they are and how they learn, it was more a means for me just to get to know them
better, but not to label them.
I was much more pleased with the results of the profile card I gave them. On this card, I
specifically asked them the following questions: their favorite subjects in school, their interests
outside of school, where they like to sit in the classroom, and what their favorite thing about
Spanish class is. Finally, from their other project, the picture and paragraph that they mounted

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onto construction paper, I learned much more about them. It was absolutely fascinating for me to
learn about their backgrounds, their personal interests, the languages they speak, their culture,
their trips abroad, their families, and their friends. I found out I had a number of students who
spoke more than two languages, and one student who spoke five! This project brought home to
me the importance of getting to know them well.
From the information I received I was able to make immediate improvements to my
classroom environment as well as my teaching. I learned exactly where students liked to sit, and
from this information as well as my own intuition as to who should be where, I designed a new
seating chart. It has been a success! I have grouped my students into what I call families, and
they are to work together and help each other. We joke that there is a mam at each table, and
they call each other by using the names of relatives in Spanish. It has brought us closer as a class.
I also learned about gender differences, boys like to do different types of activities than the girls I
found out. The boys overwhelmingly enjoy more active learning and game playing, so I instilled
a weekly game of Kahoot on Friday as part of our review for upcoming quizzes and tests. They
are thrilled when I do this, and are engaged and actively participate. They do not even realize that
while they are having fun competing against each other I am assessing their learning, re-teaching
concepts they dont understand as we play, as well as preparing them for their test or quiz.
I also found out that I have many students who are musically talented, either singers or in
band and orchestra, these students love music. So, I began using songs to teach vocabulary,
verbs, and pronunciation. The most recent song is Estoy Aqu by Shakira, and it has been a
huge hit with the class. We used it for a phonetics competition between the boys and the girls to
see who can sing the lyrics best, pronouncing all the words in Spanish correctly, as they are fast.
The students did not realize at first that by learning the lyrics, we were also learning how to use
the verbs in the lyrics of the song. After we had sung it a few times, we went back and analyzed

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the use of the perfect present tense. We then took this a step further and did cultural research on
Shakira online as she is a very popular Colombian singer, and an active philanthropist who gives
money to build schools. My students really enjoyed this, and I found that I have a few talented
singers in my class. Music is a wonderful way for children of all ages to breach barriers, cultural
as well as personal, that may be present even in the classroom between students.
Using what I learned from my students Learning Profiles I not only incorporated changes
into my classroom environment, but I took what I learned and have designed a website with extra
features for those who may learn differently. It is there for those who want extra help, need more
time to review, or just have trouble staying awake and paying attention in class when I do need to
go into lecture mode. I try to keep my lectures short and interesting, but still, children
sometimes just do not capture the information. So, I take the major concepts that I find they have
the most difficulty with, most especially learning to conjugate verbs, and have been adding
videos to my web page. I find fun videos that review the concepts we learn in class that can
support their learning, and that they can watch from home. It has worked. I have had students tell
me how much they enjoy this, and I am also able to see the activity online from reports from my
webpage: sra.vila@weebly.com I have also included games such as my Kahoot, links to pages
of interest that can help them learn, and even motivating quotes to keep them inspired to
continue.
From the research I have done on Learning Styles, and the research on the philosophy of
Carol Tomlinson with Learning Profiles, I have come to the conclusion that I do agree with Ms.
Tomlinsons approach to teaching. In closing, I would like to say that I will follow her advice to
be wary of the reliability and validity of learning style surveys, to refrain from labeling my kids,
and to know that the same person will learn differently in different contexts. I will also, as she
suggests, concentrate on using multimodal approaches to teaching and learning, providing

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options for processing and demonstrating essential content, and finally, helping students get to
know themselves as learners, so that they can make their own decisions, wise decisions, about
how to approach their own learning. It is up to me; however, to get to know them first, I can only
teach them well if I do the work to build a good foundation in my classroom, and a healthy,
trusting, relationship with each and every one of my students. This philosophy of teaching
applies I believe, to any classroom, elementary, secondary, foreign language, or otherwise.

APPENDIX A attached email PDF


APPENDIX B
Here is a small sample of the activity the students did for me. They wrote a paragraph about
themselves, and along with a picture they made a little poster on construction paper. They also
took the learning styles inventory information as well as other profile information, and entered it
onto the card. I have stapled this card to their poster so that both can be seen. On the back of the
card they wrote what their favorite activity was in Spanish class. From this I learned so much
about them. It was an invaluable experience for me!

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APPENDIX C
A two sided Learning Profile card of my own design, based on an idea I found online.
Learning Profile Cards:
http://openingpaths.org/2014/01/learning--profile--cards

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References

ACTFL. Diversity and Inclusion in Language Programs, Web. 12 Dec. 2015.


Curtain, Helena Anderson, and Carol Ann Dahlberg. Languages and Learners: Making the
Match : World Language Instruction in K-8 Classrooms and beyond. Fifth ed. 2016.
Print.
Pappano, Laura. "Differentiated Instruction Reexamined Teachers Weigh the Value of Multiple
Lessons." Harvard Education Letter 27.3 (2011): 1-2. Harvard Graduate School of
Education. Harvard Education Publishing Group. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. "Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades." ERIC Digest
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education (200): 1-2. ERIC Digest.
Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
Varlas, Laura. "Carol Ann Tomlinson on Learning Styles." ASCD Inservice. ASCD Newsletters
and Publications, 15 June 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://inservice.ascd.org/carol-anntomlinson-on-learning-styles/>.
Varlas, Laura. "What You Need to Know About Learning Styles." ASCD Inservice. ASD
Newsletters and Publications, 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
<http>//http://inservice.ascd.org/learning-styles-1/