sImplications of Learning Styles in Second Language Acquisition
Mohammad Javad Moafi
There is little doubt that language learning is a multifaceted process affected by many factors whether internal or external. In terms of internal factors, Brown (2007), for instance, divide them into cognitive factors like learning styles, and learning strategies as well as affective factors including motivation, attitude, anxiety, self-esteem, types of personality, etc. In his taxonomy of individual differences affecting SLA, Ellis (2008) categorizes them into four areas: Abilities which includes intelligence, working memory, and language aptitude, Propensities including learning styles, motivation, anxiety, personality, and willingness to communicate, Learner cognitions such as learner belief, and finally learner actions like learning strategies. However, due to the time restriction, it is impossible to cover all of these factors once at a time. Therefore, this paper tries to focus on the learning styles as an internal cognitive variable affecting language learning.
Keywords: cognitive factors, learning styles, learning strategies
Definition and Basic Conceptual Issues
With the growing interest in the role of individual differences in language learning, learning styles are emphasized as well as one of the factors that account for some of the differences in how students learn. There is a considerable body of literature discussing the role of learning styles in SLA and most of these studies regard it as an important concept. But, what are “Learning Styles”?
In the literature, different scholars define learning styles in different ways. For instance, Keefe (1979, p. 4, as cited in Reid, 1987, p. 87) defines learning style as “characteristic, cognitive and psychological behaviors that served as relatively stable indicators how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment”. So, Keefe views the learning style as a fixed pattern responding to the environment. Reid (1995, p. viii, as cited in Dornyie, 2005), also, defines learning styles in this way: “An individual’s natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills.” (p. 121)
Learning styles are different from abilities. They can be distinguished from abilities in that they constitute preferences that orient a learner to how they approach the learning task rather than capacities that determine how well they learn (Ellis, 2008). As Sternberg (1995) asserts, ability refers to how well someone can do something, whereas style refers to how someone likes to do something. A second difference between styles and abilities is that abilities are unipolar (ranging from ‘little’ to ‘more’), whereas most styles are bipolar (forming a continuum between two poles with specific characteristics). Finally, the increase of ability improves task performance for all students, whereas the effect of style depends on the nature of the task (Riding, 2000, as cited in Dornyie, 2005).
Moreover, learning styles and cognitive styles are not the same, although they are used interchangeably in the literature (Dornyie, 2005). As (Riding & Sadler-Smith, 1997) define: “Cognitive style is frequently included under the umbrella term learning style, but as a construct it is much more pervasive, stable and deep seated than learning style.”(P. 200) According to Dornyie and Skehan (2003, p. 602), cognitive style is more restricted to information-processing preferences, while learning style embraces all aspects of learning. Therefore, the core of a learning style is the cognitive style, and when cognitive styles are specifically related to an educational context, where affective and physiological factors are involved, they are generally referred to as learning styles (Brown, 2007).
What is the significance of studying learning styles in the field of L2? Learning styles are an interesting concept for researchers because— unlike abilities—they do not reflect innate endowment that automatically leads to success. That is, styles are not used for distinguishing the talented from the untalented learners but rather they just refer to personal preferences. These preferences are not dichotomous. Rather, they represent a continuum from one extreme to another (e.g., being more holistic vs. being more analytic) and so there is no need for a value judgment to decide where a learner falls on the continuum: One can be successful in every style position—only in a different way (Dornyie, 2005).
Learning Styles Taxonomies
There are lots of learning styles models and taxonomies in the literature. Here, only some of them are mentioned.
Kolb’s learning style construct (1984), for example, is based on two main dimensions, concrete feeling vs. abstract thinking and active vs. reflective information processing. Based on the combination of the two style continuums, four basic learner types, or learning style patterns, emerge:
Divergers (concrete & reflective), who are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view. In formal learning situations, they prefer to work in groups, listening with an open mind to different points of view and receiving personalized feedback.
Assimilating (abstract & reflective), who are best at understanding a wide range of information and putting it into concise, logical form. They prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.
Converging (abstract & active) , who are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They prefer to experiment with new ideas, simulations, laboratory assignments, and practical applications.
Accommodating (concrete & active) , who have the ability to learn from primarily “hands-on” experience. They prefer to work with others to get assignments done, to set goals, to do field work, and to test out different approaches to completing a project.
In another classification, Ehrman and Leaver (2003) list nine cognitive styles related to second language acquisition. They can be enumerated as follows:
1. Field independence-dependence
2. Random (non-linear) vs. sequential (linear)
3. Global vs. particular
4. Inductive vs. deductive
5. Synthetic vs. analytic
6. Analogue vs. digital
7. Concrete vs. abstract
8. Leveling vs. sharpening
9. Impulsive vs. reflective
Reid (1995, as cited in Tuan, 2006), for instance, divides learning styles into three major categories: cognitive learning styles; sensory learning styles, and personality learning styles. Different types of cognitive learning styles are: field-independent vs. field-dependent (FID/FD), analytic vs. global, and reflective vs. impulsive are. In addition, sensory learning styles can be categorized into four main areas: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (movement-oriented), and tactile (touch-oriented). And finally, personality learning styles are also categorized into four types including extroverted vs. introverted, intuitive-random vs. sensing-sequential, thinking vs. feeling, and closure-oriented / judging vs. open / perceiving.
A very brief description may be given about the characteristics of sensory learning styles as well as FID and FD styles as two most preferred style models in the L2 literature.
Learners with different perceptual learning styles prefer different classroom activities. Sensory preferences refer to the physical, perceptual learning channels with which the student is the most comfortable. Visual students like to read and obtain a great deal from visual stimulation. For them, lectures, conversations, and oral directions without any visual backup can be very confusing. In contrast, auditory students are comfortable without visual input and therefore enjoy and profit from unembellished lectures, conversations, and oral directions. They are excited by classroom interactions in role-plays and similar activities. They sometimes, however, have difficulty with written work. Kinesthetic and tactile students like lots of movement and enjoy working with tangible objects, collages, and flashcards. Sitting at a desk for very long is not for them; they prefer to have frequent breaks and move around the room (Oxford, 2003).
Regarding field dependence-independence cognitive style, Ehrman and Leaver (2003) describe FI style in such a way that it addresses the degree to which an individual focuses on some aspect of experience and separates it from its background (the word ‘field’ is used for this kind of background). An FI person perceives analytically, analyzes and isolates relevant details, detects patterns, and critically evaluates data; while an FD one perceives holistically, tends to get lost in the stimuli and is unable to distinguish salient points.
Factors Shaping and Influencing Learning Styles
It seems that one of the misconceptions about the notion of learning styles is that many believe they are stable learning orientation comparing to learning strategies which are context-sensitive. It may stem from some of the definitions of the term. As mentioned before, Keefe views the learning style as a fixed pattern responding to the environment. Wong and Nunan (2011), also, believe that styles appear to be relatively stable and will be deployed by individuals regardless of the subject being studied or the skill being mastered. However, as discussed before, stability is one of the characteristics of cognitive style which is restricted to information-processing. With regard to learning styles, many studies show that they can change over one’s lifelong and can vary from one task or situation to another. Learners need to learn how to be flexible, despite their preferences. (Sternberg, 1995, 1997)
Culture seems to play a strong, possibly dominant, role in determining how an individual will prefer to learn. (Young, 2010) Regarding the role of culture in students’ learning preferences, Reid (1987) demonstrated that ESL students in USA varied significantly in their sensory preferences depending on their different culture backgrounds. Students from Asian cultures, for instance, were often visual, with Koreans being the most visual. She found that Hispanic learners were frequently auditory. Reid discovered that Japanese are very non-auditory. ESL students from a variety of cultures were tactile and kinesthetic in their sensory preferences.
Previous research has also shown that learning styles preferences are influenced by personality type, educational specialization, career choice, and current job role and also the nature of the tasks (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005). The role of gender, race, and geographic location in changing learning style preferences were also reported by some scholars such as Csapo and Hayen (2006). So, as Ellis (1992) mentions, learning styles reflect both nature and nurture.