Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Halloween Special: Saints and sinners

Me and my colleague the EAP archivist sometimes talk about the fact we feel like frauds in the classroom. Here we are, teaching EAP to graduate students, in a respectable university and yet we're secretly know-nothings, hopeless amateurs who have somehow lucked our way into these jobs. And just like the little boy pointing at the naked king, eventually one of our students will say "you don't know what you're doing, do you, -why on earth are you teaching?!" Or perhaps ask a innocent grammar question which will leave my  confidence unravelling on the classroom floor, as I flail about before their eyes.

This is very silly. Both me and she are experienced teachers with MAs and DELTAs who work in good jobs and who have absolutely no reason to think like this -yet we do, and we're not alone.

This week I discovered the name of this feeling, (thanks to wonderful Ed Yong). It's quite common, -and not just among teachers. Impostor syndrome, apparently even affects incredibly successful people like writer Maya Angelou and the excellent comedian Tina Fey who says she sometimes hears a voice in her head saying "I'm a fraud. Oh god, they're onto me! I'm a fraud!"

Another of my colleagues (Dan) suggests that if you're worried about whether you're doing it right, then you probably are. The teachers who just assume they are and who don't question themselves and what they do in the classroom are probably the ones to worry about.

This idea is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and was investigated in a paper called "unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognising one's own incompetence lead to inflated self assessment." Dunning and Kruger asked individuals to rate how funny jokes were, and then to rate how good they themselves were at judging how funny jokes were. they also asked professional comedians to rate the jokes and compared the subjects estimates with these. The interesting finding was that those people who were terrible at estimating how funny a joke was, were also terrible at estimating how terrible they were at estimating.  They also tested logical reasoning and grammar ability:

the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humour, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd [my italics]
As an interesting aside, the results showed that highly competent people often under estimated their own competence. Dunning and Kruger suspect that the highly competent assumed that other people were as competent as them. They invited the best and worst candidates back to mark other candidates' results and then reassess their own ability. What happened? Well the competent cohort revised their estimate of their own ability upwards, getting it more in line with reality. However, those who were poor at estimating, when confronted with the evidence of their lack of competence, continued to estimate their  ability as being much higher than it actually was.


ok so this is really tenuously linked to Halloween, I admit!

Read more about DK effect here, -a blog in which Dr. Dunning actually posts a comment.


Friday, 26 October 2012

Can horses do maths?

Imagine if one day with a new class I pulled you aside and said "listen, there are a couple of special students in here".  You're intrigued and I tell you, "on the entrance tests we also tested for IQ and these five students did incredibly well!" while handing you a list with the names of five students. Would you be surprised if these students ended the course with great marks?

Now imagine I told you that I had selected those students at random. That's impossible, you think, not only did those students do the best on the test, but they were also the best in class. Moreover, the only person who knew that the students were 'special' was you, the teacher.

Clever Hans  was a horse who could do maths. Hans' owner used to ask Hans maths questions and Hans would bang his hoof to answer. This amazed people who saw it. The horse was not only capable of understanding human language but also of answering complex (for a horse) questions!

Hans actually couldn't do maths, not at all, but he was fairly clever. When Carl Stumpf investigated and subjected the horse and owner to various control tests he discovered that Hans was picking up on subtle messages being given by the questioner. The owner's body language (leaning forward, raising his eyebrows, etc) were all giving Hans the hints he needed to produce the right answer.

Han's owner himself had no idea he was giving these unconscious messages. And teachers are similarly unconscious of the fact that our expectations can shape student performance. This is called the Pygmalion effect and it was researched in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobson who suggest that students will conform to our expectations of them. Students for who teachers hold high expectations will achieve highly and vice-versa. The effect was more apparent in younger children, but all children selected as being  "special" showed greater gains than the other students. 

So how does this happen? According to this video there are four things which teachers do which affect students. Firstly they are nicer to those students for which they have high expectations. Secondly, they teach them more. That is they give more time and input to these students. Thirdly, teachers give "good" students more chances to respond in class and finally the teachers give more positive feedback to "good" students and conversely "are willing to accept low quality responses" from students who they expect less from.  
In class this week I was thinking about a group of boys who sit together, who I have come to see as perhaps not as capable and perhaps not as hardworking as others. It then struck me that these kids are actually in the highest level class, and are also students of a public university, meaning that they  certainly have above average English ability nationally and are in the top third for the University as a whole. Despite this, I'd somehow mentally pigeon-holed them. I now need to reevaluate my attitude towards these students because I'm pretty sure I'm probably guilty of having lower expectations for them, which could, according to this research,  actually lead to them doing worse. 

Once the perception is in place, confirmation bias will do the rest. Every time a 'good' student forgets homework you will think, -ah well they probably had a good reason to, while you will be less charitable about the a student who you perceive to be less able 'Oh, well it's not surprising he'd forget his homework!". In the same way when a student who we perceive has lower ability, answers a question we may think 'wow, impressive -for her.' As Mark Twain put it "give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep 'till noon."

I haven't seen much criticism of this theory so if you know any please direct me to it. I do wonder about the Hawthorne (observer) effect and if teachers could have been influenced to 'make sure' those students who were predicted to do well would do well, (or conversely how bad it would look for the teacher if they didn't). This study by Claiborn failed to replicate the findings. Though Smith and Luginbuhl (1976, 265) claim that "the effect is observed often enough that its importance should not be discounted."
On a related note, this doesn't just apply to teachers and students it likely also applies to your job and how your boss sees you. If your boss sees you as being a capable and reliable member of staff then you'll probably conform to those stereotypes to some extent. You'll also be given more responsibility and probably more nuanced feedback when you get things wrong. conversely, if your boss sees you as slightly less capable or a bit unreliable then they may well be what you become.

So, no, horses can't do maths, but teachers' attitudes towards their students can affect students in quite remarkable ways. 

update: See how far we've come!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Why we need evidence part 2: How we know what isn't so

Are you more likely to die from a car accident or from cancer? And just how much more likely is the one than the other

While writing this post, the excellent 'EFL teachers shouldn't prefer blonds' appeared. It is definitely worth a read and gets right at the heart of what I'll talk about here, even mentioning the availability error.
The availability error/heuristic means that people tend to favour information that is more available to them.  For example, If you ask people whether they are more likely to die from a car accident or cancer many people would suggest that they were perhaps about equal, after all cars are very dangerous. Of course, people dying of cancer doesn't make the news very often and so the fact that you are over 10 times more likely to die of cancer than being in a car accident, isn't as 'available'. Similarly, people may worry about terrorists or shark attacks, but the likelyhood or either of these happening to you is so remote as to be almost meaningless. That said, both of these are still more likely than winning the lottery, but in the UK round 2 million play it every week.  

As Andrew Walkley points out, the same goes for teachers (and material writers) understanding of language. We think we know what people say, we think we know how people talk but actually we often have no idea. We think we know which words are 'common' and which are less so but as this game shows, we probably get it wrong as often as we get it right (thanks to Rachel for the link). This is because humans don't do statistics very well.  

For example, imagine if I told you I was going to spend a lesson teaching students about the the word 'just'. you may be horrified at my wasting so much time on a word like that. However examining Nottingham's corpus of spoken English reveals that "just" is the 31st most commonly used word in Spoken English (O'Keffee et al 2007: 35). Other words are "yeah" (no.12), "mm" (37) and "er" (38).

Generally our intuition about language is wrong. What we end up teaching students is what Lewis calls "TEFLese" (2001: vii) and Stubbs notes that many learners may be able to 'speak grammatically, yet not sound native like' (2006:115) As long ago as 1998 this approach was being questioned:

Working on educated guesswork or hunches when writing dialogues and transactions for coursebooks or when selecting language to teach is highly questionable. (williams 1998:53)
For example, maybe today you taught a class.  And depending on where you work (China, Korea and Japan, yes, I'm looking at you!) perhaps the class featured a dialogue like the following:
A: Hi, How are you?
B: I'm fine thank you, and you?
A: I'm fine too, thank you.
Now it's easy to pick fault with this for being unnatural, but what about this one (Nunan and Lockwood in Carter et al 2005:79):

Patient: Could I make an appointment to see the doctor please?
Receptionist: certainly, who do you usually see?
Patient: Dr Cullen
Receptionist: I'm sorry but Dr Cullen has got patients all day. would Dr. Maley do?
Patient: Sure
Receptionist: OK then. When would you like to come?
Patient: Could I come at four o'clock?
Receptionist: four o'clock? Fine. Could I have your name please?

If you're like me then you have probably taught this kind of thing before. It looks pretty authentic, doesn't it? Certainly better than the 1st example. Yet reality looks quite a bit different (Burns at al 1996 in Carter et al 2005:80):
Receptionist: Sorry to keep you waiting.
Patient: That's alright um I'm just calling to confirm an appointment with Dr X for the first of October
Receptionist: oh...
Patient: Because it was so far in advance I was told to.
Receptionist: I see what you mean, to see if she's going to be in that day.
Patient: That's right
Receptionist: Oh we may not know yet.
Patient: Oh I see.
Receptionist: First of October...Edith....yes.
Patient: Yes
Receptionist: There she is OK you made one. What's your name?
Patient: At nine fift...
Receptionist: Got it got it.
Now whether or not we expose students to this kind of dialogue is an argument I'm not going to get into here, but the point is that despite what we think we know, we are often very bad at judging what actually is.

And if we have no idea about how language is really used how can we expect to make the best use of our students' time? This is where the evidence discovered by corpus linguistics is invaluable to teachers. Computers don't suffer from the availability error. Corpus has revolutionised dictionaries, textbooks and language teaching. But it has only managed this because we were so wrong, so often. If our intuitions about language had been largely correct, it's doubtful corpus would have made the impression that it has.


Carter, R. Hughes, R and McCarthy, M (2005) telling tales: The spoken language and materials development in Tomlinson, B (Ed.), Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge University Press 67-88.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove:Language Teaching Publications.

Williams, M. (1998) Language Taught for Meetings and Language Used in Meetings: Is there Anything in Common Applied Linguistics 9/1: 45-58

Stubbs, M. (2006) language Corpora. In Davies, A. & Elder, C. (2006) (eds.) The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Malden M.A. Blackwell. 106-132

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why we need Evidence: part.1 'it works!'

Teaching isn't the most rigorous of professions.  It's not glamorous and usually not very well paid. Most of the teachers I meet do it because they love the job, and they love the students.  It's often said that teaching is "an art not a science".  There might be some truth in this. But is evidence unimportant?  I'm going to try to argue 'no' in a series of posts. 
It's difficult to prove much of anything in TEFL and there is very little for which  there is solid evidence. However, new techniques and approaches appear all the time and are taken up with vigour by teachers who become convinced that this time they have hit upon the holy grail of teaching -the method to rule them all!  They are sure that this time....this time...they have discovered the method that will turn their barely communicative disinterested students into fluent autonomous learners. Said teacher is convinced of the efficacy of the approach due to the stunning results it produces and the expressions of sheer joy on student faces. This position could be called the "It works- just look at their faces!" position. A few examples are the following:

"Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces" (2009 online) Richard Graham, founder of GenkiEnglish, presenting the 'evidence' that his method "really, really works"
"both kids and teachers told us it really works" Video extolling the virtues of Mindfulness training in classrooms.

Teachers using BrainGym continue to this day, despite all the evidence against it, continue to
insist that it works.
"In the final analysis, like any other methodology, [neuro-linguistic programming]NLP will work or not for an individual teacher because it is right for them and not because it is scientifically proven or not." (Harris 2002:37)
I cannot really say that these doubts have completely disappeared but I can say that ,little by little, I BELIEVE that the magic of NLP can actually come true. I am really conscious that the changes I am experiencing with myself and with my students in class...How do I know is it working? Because I can see it in my students´faces, gestures and attitudes (Esteve online)
Now some teacher might take me to task here saying "well how can we prove whether a method works or not in any scientific sense?"  This is a fair point and I agree but I have two caveats to add to it.  Firstly, if a method can't be proved to work, then we should resist saying that "it works".  Certainly we should not suggest that students' reactions or the way we feel about it constitute any kind of reliable evidence.  Secondly, though it may be difficult to prove that something works, it's relatively easy to prove that something doesn't work, -or can't work.  for example, NLP claims that you can tell a persons "learner style" by watching their eyes move and listening to the pitch of their voice.  BrainGym claims that children can children can massage their bodies to increase the oxygen supply to their brains.  Both of these claims are demonstrably false
Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit, is a good place for teachers to start.  In this case, the following principle might be useful:

wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

This is because people believe what they want to believe.  A teacher who likes a a particular activity/method/approach will find it easy to convince themselves that their students like it, or benefit from it.  Confirmation bias (i.e. recording the hits and forgetting the misses) will do the rest to convince a teacher that their method "really works".

But what does "work" mean here anyway?  If you want to test something then it's a good idea to have a clear idea of what it is you want to test.  Does "work" mean "make the students happy" or "allow me to skive off the lesson" or "make me, the teacher, feel good about myself" or "increases the chances the group of students will become more proficient"?  If you don't know what "works" means then it's meaningless to say that something works. 

no one is impervious to this kind of thinking, which is why we do need evidence that our practices work, or at least, the ability to weed-out those which really do not.  Fifty years ago teachers were making their students listen and repeat and declaring that "it really works!" and 20 years ago communicative language teaching came and that "really worked" too and now Dogme "really works!"  If all these methods work, why do we keep changing them?

part 2 is here
for more about GenkiEnglish read this.

NB:  If you want to read a blog which basically says everything I do, except funnier and before me, then check out this one.


Harris, T. 2002. ‘NLP: If it Works, use it … or is there Censorship Around?’ in HLT magazine retrieved September 23 2012 www.hltmag.co.uk/sep02/martsep023.rtf

Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A note on Mindfulness

When I saw that the most recent ELTchat topic was 'mindfulness' I was a bit worried because I'd never heard of it before. Being someone who likes to keep abreast of EFL developments, I thought I should check it out and so to Google went I.

My heart sank a little when I came across the world 'therapy' in  relation to this (the bizarre neuro-linguistic programming also comes from therapy/psychology) and sank further when I spied the word 'Buddhism'. I recalled Scott thornbury's article The Unbearable Lightness of EFL in which he notes:
An alternative to TEFL's lack of respectability is to construe it as a form of therapy.  Professional self-esteem is achieved by co-opting both the discourse and the procedures of certain new age practices, and by investing the teacher with an almost shamanistic function.(393:2001)

But what is "mindfulness"? Well if you drive to work then you probably have days where you get in your car and then you just seem to arrive at work, almost like you were on auto-pilot. This is known as 'automaticity', a feature of your amazing brain, and seemingly the opposite of 'mindfulness'.  Processing information is hard work for your brain.  Think about how you feel after marking a lot of badly written essays (as oppose to well collocated ones) or if you've recently met a lot of new people (social interactions are very tough on the brain). Switching your brain to auto-pilot for task you do regularly is a great way to save processing power. In fact most of what you do is done automatically by your brain.  
Take picking up a glass for example.  You brain has to work out the distance of the glass from you, the weight, the position of your thumb and fingers. It has to move the muscles in your arm, exert the exact amount of pressure so the glass doesn't drop from your fingers or get smashed to pieces in your grip.  This might seem pretty straight forward, but it's something you learn and something that becomes automatic.  If you had to focus and think about things like speaking, walking and moving then you wouldn't be able to do them. 

 Another good example is reading.  You are so good at reading that if you see a text in your native language you won't be able to stop yourself from starting to process it. The famous Stroop test is a good indicator of this. Try saying the colours of these two sets of words.  The second set will be harder than the first.
set 1
RedGreen, BlueYellow, Pink, Black, Gold

set 2
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black, Gold

Two different parts of your brain are competing here, the one automatically reading the word "red" and the one seeing the colour blue. 
For those promoting 'mindfulness', automaticity is painted as something of a bad thing.  This is a bit ironic as fluent speech, like fluent reading, requires automaticity, but let's put that to one side. Mindfulness teaches that we should pay attention "in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally" and pay attention to the here and now on a "moment-to-moment basis" (Ruth Baer)
The idea of paying attention to the presents needs unpicking. With what we know about the brain, what does it actually mean to pay attention to the present? Is it to focus more on what you're seeing and hearing? If so, isn't that just concentrating?  And which here and now does it refer to? The here and now just a second ago when you started this sentence or this one, now....or now....or now?  Also aren't students supposed to remember new language?  Probably unlikely if they are constantly trying to focus on everything that's happening in the here and now.  Leon Wieseltier  writes "'Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment' is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics"

Some people in ELTchat linked mindfulness to 'reflection', but reflection is a process of reviewing past events whereas mindfulness is a focus on the  now. I was also not clear as to whether mindfulness was for the teacher or the student, or both?  And what would you actually have the students do in class?  From this video it seems a lot like meditation.

In the video the teachers were saying that "it works". I'd like to deal with this idea in a separate post but briefly, students and teachers saying something "works" is not the same as something working. As with BrainGym, exercises may help student, with or without the posh name. Likewise, stopping, focusing and having students concentrate may be good things, but does that require a special term complete with an ancient philosophy?

In its defence, mindful teaching, as far as I'm aware doesn't have any expensive courses or materials nor can you become a 'master mind-filler' for only $2,000, (not yet anyway). In this sense, mindful teaching is not doing anyone any harm and the activities it promotes may even be helping some teachers and students. I don't really know enough about mindfulness to criticise it here and there is very little on the web about mindfulness & EFL so for the time being I'll have to suspend my judgement. 


Thornbury, S. 2001. ‘The unbearable lightnessof EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Brain bullshit

I've written about Learning styles and more recently Neuro-linguistic programming, and with the latter, felt that I had really reached the limit of silliness in ELT.  But low and behold, just as a I stagger, punch drunk away from my computer a new contender arrives.
If you're a fan of Ben Goldacre, then you'll have heard of BrainGym.  To recap, BrainGym is a series of exercises that kids do in schools around the UK and the US.  You might do these exercises in the middle of a class or at the start and it would look at bit like this.  The UK sense about science has criticised BrainGym claiming it "undermines science".  The exercises on their own would be fine, but they are wrapped up in bizarre pseudo scientific explanations such as that humans have "brain buttons" and rubbing them (micro-interventions) will supply the brain with oxygenated blood.  Or that BrainGym can help with connecting the electrical circuits in the body.  They also make all manner of specious claims, from the sublime (Working with computers will lead to dehydration) to the ridiculous (processed food contains no water). 
I thought having been debunked thoroughly, the EFL world was safe, but no, it seems that no idea is too ludicrous for us.  As I searched for articles on the very odd NLP, I came across a teacher talking abut how he uses BrainGym in his TEFL classes.  And he is not alone, Phillip Kerr talks about his DOS having used BrainGym in the classroom.   I'm sure these are very nice, well-meaning people, -but it does matter what we expose our students to. 
Let's be clear about this BrainGym, doesn't "work", it can't work unless we can substantially alter human physiology.  Doing the BrainGym exercises in class may have benefits for students, but they are not for the reasons BrainGym suggests. In fact, having students stand and and move their bodies would probably improve their ability to concentrate, after all, there is evidence that sitting for long periods might not be very good for us,  but standing up and moving is not BrainGym.  BrainGym is an expensive program built on nonsense. Rubbing your "brain buttons" does not increase blood flow to the brain and if you tell your students this you are lying to them.  Now, while I think teachers often get a lot of undeserved flack, shouldn't they be...erm...telling students the truth?
Unsurprisingly BrainGym seems inexorably linked to that other great lark, multiple intelligences and it's not surprising to see people promoting it are also "master practitioners of NLP".  I'm all for teachers trying new things and heavens knows EFL is a broad church but surely we have to demand a minimum level of accountability and ask that teachers have a little bit of healthy scepticism when it comes to choosing what to bring into the classroom.  By all means, do exercises in the classroom, it'll probably be good for students, but don't call it BrainGym.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Learning styles: facts and fictions

This article originally appeared in Modern English Teacher, volume 21 No.4.  Thanks to Dave Francis for allowing me to reproduce it here.  
 Learning styles (sometimes 'learner styles' hereafter LS) are pervasive in education and there are far too many articles examining the learning styles of various groups of students to reproduce here. However a quick search of Google scholar will bring up numerous articles examining the various LS of various groups, from Iranian freshmen to Taiwanese and Kuwaiti students. However, for the amount of attention they receive there is very little evidence of their efficacy:

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated (Pasler et al 2008:117).

 This essay will examine LS in the EFL literature and question whether they actually provide a useful tool for aiding students language learning or whether they are merely a pseudo-scientific distraction. Firstly, This essay will examine the theory of learning styles, focusing on the VAK model in particular. It will then examine references to LS in a small sample of EFL literature. Finally some of the problems with the theories of LS will be outlined.

What are learning styles?
The basic premise of LS is that 'individuals learn in different ways'(Nel 2008:51).  There is a large body of literature related to the various types, whether they be visual, audio or, kinesthetic, (VAK) left brained or right brained, concrete or communicative, levelers or sharpners, plungers or non-committers, convergers or divergers, the list, while not endless is certainly long!  The thrust of the various theories is that if a teacher caters to a student's particular LS then said student's learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.  

There does appear to be some conceptual confusion (Nel 2008) with regard to this term. Whereas for some, LS simply indicates the things different students prefer to do in order to learn,  For example, student A may use flash cards and student B may like writing lots of notes. For others LS indicates a scientific theory relating to 'the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others' (Dunn & Griggs, 1988:3). There is quite a difference here between that which is preferential and that which is biologically constrained. This paper will specifically deal with latter of these two notions, though it is possible that the vagueness of the concept has actually aided its popularity, as a wide range of activities can be grouped under one catch-all term.   

weak and strong forms

It is useful to divide LS into two versions, for the sake of criticism. The first can be termed the 'weak' version in which it is posited that all students learn in different ways and while one student can find a activity enjoyable or an explanation clear, another student can find the same activity dull and the same explanation confusing (Pashler et al 2008:116). Also, as noted earlier, students have their own favourite ways of learning. All of this is relatively uncontroversial and probably quite familiar to most teachers. The 'strong' version however moves from this position to suggesting that not only do students learn differently, but that that difference is attributable to a certain biological difference within each student. Furthermore this difference can be reliably discovered through testing (often in the form of self-report questionnaires)  and that a teacher can then target lessons to suit the students particular LS which will in turn accelerate a student's ability to learn. In this version, LS is presented as a complete and well defined theory. This view of learning is as problematic as it is popular.  


References to LS

The weak form can sometimes be used as a wedge to introduce the strong form. Alternatively, criticism can be deflected by appealing to the more general and 'common sense' ideas of the weak form while the strong form is pushed as being a legitimate technique. An example of this can be seen in 'the practice of English language teaching' in which Harmer, despite noting that the claims of this theory have not 'been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation'(2007:93)  suggests carrying out computer based tests of students' multiple intelligences. Harmer notes that the Coffield study has severely criticised learning styles including the following quote '[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments' (Coffield et al 2004:140) Yet continues to promote learning styles claiming that they are useful for making teachers aware  of  'self-evident truths, - namely that different students react differently to different stimulus' (2007:93). While it may be the case that learners learn differently, it does not follow that therefore LS are the answer to this. nor is it at all clear why teachers need to be made aware of things which are 'self evident'. The same tact is employed elsewhere in the section:

         It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all - or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)

 Understanding that students are individuals is quite a different thing from employing specific LS tests and classroom practices. In the above quote Harmer refers to evidence based criticisms of LS and yet dismisses these criticism, without evidence, merely by asserting that 'this is not the case'.  

Thornbury is more damning of LS noting that there is little evidence 'that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that preference in one area predicts success in language learning.' (2006:116-7) Yet despite Thornbury's  caution LS are presented uncritically in a large amount of EFL literature, or criticisms are brushed away, as with  Nel (2008) who after acknowledging the conceptual confusion in LS and listing criticism of LS, then goes on to suggest, similarly to Harmer, that teachers should still test their students to find out their LS in order to 'maximise the learning opportunities of their students'(2008:57). However, as the next section will show, even if we accept LS as a legitimate theory, it is hard to see how it's implementation would actually aid students learning in any way. Ellis is equally critical of the research noting that his original conclusion of their limited worth did not require updating for the second edition, published 14 years later. He also apologies for the lengthy treatment of LS noting that this merely reflected the huge amount of "attention it has received from researchers"(2008:671-2).

 The evidence problem

There is very little credible research to support LS (Coffield et al 2004:140). Specifically in the field of L2 acquisition Ellis notes that there is uncertainty over whether "any useful generalisations can be based on the research undertaken to date"(2008:669 ) Pashler et al. (2008:116)  in relation to research on the subject which reaches an acceptable level of credibility note that :

only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings... several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis

Despite this there is a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types. Another unfortunate trend as noted is, when faced with disappointing results, or criticism of LS,  some in the EFL world seem reluctant to accept them, possibly noting that there is not enough research yet or that the ideas are still, on some level, useful.

It is also worth noting that what I have mainly described (VAK) is just one version of the LS theory. Coffield et al note that 'learning style researchers do not speak with one voice' (2004:140) For example is a pragmatist the opposite of a theorist or a reflector?  It depends on which theory you choose. The proliferation of theories, all lacking direct comparability and each with their own technical terms, 'is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field.' (Coffield 2004:136)

 Another issue is, as Pashler et al (2008) point out, the subject being taught may well define which approach to the content is best. Whereas they give geometry as an example, for EFL perhaps the idea of a listening lesson for non-audio learners would be sufficient to highlight the absurdness of LS. Or perhaps trying to think of ways to teach reading to non-visual learners.  But if moving around the classroom with bits of text or reading out loud comes to mind, I have to admit I despair for our profession.

The feasibility problem
Another problem with LS is that even if it were a viable theory, it is doubtful that it would be of any use to use in the EFL field. As Harmer notes (2001:90) different intelligences mean some learning tasks might 'not be appropriate for all of our students.'  He then suggests activities which might appeal to different types. There is something of a catch 22 here though which seems to remove all the supposed benefits of the approach. If we imagine a class with three learners, with LS X,Y and Z doing an activity targeted at style X will perhaps be less than optimal for Y and Z. so any benefit of supposed accelerated learning is instantly lost when we are inclusive. Any benefit gleaned from knowing the student's LS would be lost. We could divide the students up by their individual LS as we divide students up by ability now but the cost of 'interventions built around learning styles' would be huge as students would need to be tested, customized materials made and teacher's retrained. (Pashler et.al 2008 116) And how would we know which version of LS to use in the first place?   Can we ethical test students for their optimum VAK LS while ignoring their right-brain/left brain potential?  But that's not all, some students may, according to the theory, have two LS or a mix of all 3 (in the VAK model). You maybe for example be 30% visual and 70% kinaesthetic.  If the purpose of this knowledge is to inform a teachers about the method of delivery it is hard to see how it is anything but general to the point of useless. Even if LS could be proved to be effective, the benefits would have considerable to make up for these costs. Is it not infinitely more sensible to spend this time teaching all these students language in as engaging a way as is possible? 


Students have a limited amount of time in the classroom. We um and ah over whether to schedule practice tests in class time, whether to use a whole hour for review and whether the students are getting enough practice time. Despite this we seem perfectly happy to throw away lesson time on something which is untested and probably completely useless. Pashler et al (2000:117) recommend (as Coffield et al cited earlier) due to the problems citing in this essay, use of LS at present is an 'unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.'

 There is also the question of the massive amounts of research time that is wasted on this kind of thing. Not only the researchers' and their subjects time, but the time of the trainee teacher, keenly devouring article after article on 'getting the best out of kinaesthetic learners.' Then there are the hours wasted by the likes of Coffield et al and Pashler et al debunking these ideas only to leave us back where we started knowing no more about teaching than we did before.  This time could have been spent teaching students more language, researching better ways for students to retain language or reading articles which actually tell us something of use. Not only are we wasting our student's time but we're also making ourselves look foolish. Worse, we risk the students, who may well also be teachers, uncritically adopting these ideas and spreading them in their home nations.


Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., (2004) 'Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review' London; Learning and Skills Network.

 Dunn, R. and Griggs, S. 1988. Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

 Harmer J. 2007 The Practice of English language Teaching Essex: Pearson Education Limited

 Nel, C. 2008. 'Learning styles'. In Griffiths, C. 2008 (Ed.). The good language learner: A tribute to Joan Rubin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 Pashler, H.,  McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008 'Learning Styles: Concepts and evidence' Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9/3, 105-119

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A to Z of ELT Oxford: Macmillan