5 Learning Styles: How to Tailor ESL Lessons to the Different Types of Students

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How can you get the best from your students?

Every student is different, so how can you teach them in the most effective way?

One way to create engaging lesson plans is to develop lessons with an awareness of your students´ favourite styles of learning.

In this article, we will look at different styles of learning and the best approach to take for each type of student, plus you’ll get 15 recommended activities.

The 5 Learning Styles of ESL Students
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What Are Learning Styles?

Not all students learn the same way. Some students have success with some methods, other students have more success with other methods.

We can break these different ways of learning up into 5 learning styles:

The 5 Learning Styles

  • visual
  • aural
  • verbal
  • logic
  • kinesthetic

It is helpful to be aware of which category (or categories) your students fall into. Knowing this will help you to get the most out of your students and enable you to work with them, not against them.

Bear in mind, there is no “right” way to learn; think of it as more of a preference.

Students will still be able to learn with other styles that aren’t particularly suited to them but it’s more akin to swimming upstream rather than letting the current carry you down.

Let’s look at these 5 learning styles as well as some recommended activities for each one.

Visual Learners

Visual learners are very good at remembering what they see and excel at creating pictures in their mind.

Make sure to use lots of images and videos in your class. This is easier to do with vocabulary as you can show photos or picture cards of the words.

It is especially important in grammar classes to show diagrams and visual ways of representing concepts rather than just a wall of text on the board!

Recommended Activities for Visual Learners

Pictionary

Pictionary is a great game to use with visual learners and is extremely simple!

  1. The teacher starts drawing something on the board.
  2. The first student to say what it is wins that round.
  3. The student who won then gets a turn to draw.

This game gives students the chance to not only guess the words but also have fun drawing as well!

Flashcards

Flashcards are incredibly effective for drilling vocabulary into memory with visual learners. You can use them in an activity as simple as this:

  1. Grab a selection of flashcards for the vocabulary you’ve used in the lesson.
  2. Pick one student at a time and hold up a card. (e.g. a picture of an apple)
  3. This student has to say what is on the card in English.
  4. Once the student gets it, move on to the next one.
  5. If a student doesn’t get it then offer it up to the rest of the class to guess.

You can either make these flashcards yourself or buy some premade flashcards to save some time!

Download free printable flashcard sets in our ESL worksheets section.

Describe the Picture

This is a great way to learn prepositions in a fun way:

  1. Have a picture with lots of things happening. The more vivid, the better.
  2. Choose one student at a time to describe what is happening in the picture.

With younger students, bright pictures with lots of things happening will be useful as there is a lot for them to describe.

For more advanced students you can choose pictures that are more subtle to increase the difficulty.

Aural Learners

Aural learners work best when they are using their ears and listening.

Using music is a great way of working with these types of students. Use songs to teach vocabulary, explain concepts yourself (rather than having them read about them) and have students listen for key information from audio recordings.

Using poetry, rhythm and anything else related to sound is also a great idea to get the most from these types of learners.

Find great listening activities and games for ESL lessons here.

Recommended Activities for Aural Learners

Guess Who

In this game, the students must listen for key information to find out who a chosen person is:

  1. The teacher or a chosen student is selected to be “it”.
  2. This person has a series of pre-written statements about a character. For example, if the character is Barack Obama then the statements would be things like “I am a man.” “I was president of the U.S.A” etc.
  3. The chosen person must read through these statements one at a time.
  4. The other students must guess who this person is.
  5. Whoever guesses correctly is the next person to be “it”.

In order to make this easier, you can print out pictures of the characters so that the students don’t have so many possibilities.

News Reporter

For this activity, your students will need to listen to a short piece of audio, listen for key details and make notes:

  1. Play a piece of audio, it could be an interview, a news report or a short story etc.
  2. Students must listen and make notes about the most important parts.
  3. Once the audio has finished, repeat it once if students need to hear it again.
  4. Quiz students on various pieces of information, e.g. “Which country was being talked about?”

Don’t make the audio too long otherwise you risk fatiguing your students. It’s also a good idea to make sure you quiz a varied selection of students so that everyone gets a fair turn to answer.

Poem Chant

Using songs or chants are a great way to get students having fun with the sounds of the language:

  1. Choose a poem or song that utilises onomatopoeia. (The Congo is a great choice for this!) 
  2. Have the students sing along with you.
  3. Make sure to give emphasis to words like boom and bang!

To test individual students, you could even get them to do one line each after you’ve done a few practice rounds together.

Verbal Learners

Verbal learners learn most effectively when using words. These words can be either written or spoken and as such these students prefer explanations over being shown something visually.

Traditional lectures and discussions work very well with these types of students and are happy discussing topics and asking questions.

Recommended Activities for Verbal Learners

Timed Discussion

This is a great activity for building confidence in speaking!

  1. The student is given a topic card. E.g. “Talk about your favourite place.” “What’s your favourite band or artist?”
  2. The student has a certain amount of time to prepare some ideas for what they will say.
  3. The student then has to talk about that topic for a chosen amount of time.

When starting out with this activity, make sure to give more time for preparation and less time for the presentation. 5 minutes of preparation time and 1 minute of the presentation should be plenty. 

With time you can reduce the preparation time and/or increase the presentation time.

Get a huge list of 100 “Would you rather…” questions to start a discussion.

Talk About Your Weekend

This activity is a better choice if your students are happy talking but maybe are a bit nervous speaking in front of a class:

  1. Split the class into pairs.
  2. Students need to discuss their weekend with their partner.
  3. Use only English!

You need to be observant with this type of activity. Keep an eye on each student’s talk time. 

If you are finding some students are much more talkative than their partners, maybe set a time limit for how long each student can talk for before switching. This ensures that everyone gets a fair chance to practise.

Word Search, Crosswords, etc.

As well as speaking, you can use activities such as word searches, crosswords, and writing exercises.

These all require the use of vocabulary and grammar. So, they will engage your students’ verbal learning style too.

The bonus is that unlike conversation, which needs to be monitored in class, these activities can be set for homework.

Logic Learners

These students work best when presented with things like numbers, patterns and problem-solving.

Don’t just lecture them about things and ask them to memorise what is being said. Get them figuring out patterns for themselves and engaging their brains!

This works for both grammar (things such as conjugation) as well as learning vocabulary by breaking words up and looking at the patterns that make them up.

Recommended Activities for Logic Learners

Odd One Out

This is an activity that focuses on analysing a group of words and focusing on details. Perfect for these types of learners!

  1. Take a group of 3 words that are similar e.g. fixing, mending, repairing.
  2. Add a 4th word that is different to the others e.g. reducing.
  3. Students then have to find the odd one out.

To vary the difficulty level you can simply change how different the odd word is. 

In our example above we could make it harder by changing the 4th word to something closer in meaning such as building.

We could also make things easier by making the difference greater e.g. freezing.

Riddles

Riddles are great fun in any language. They can be used in your English lessons too. Use it either in vocabulary lessons or with grammar lessons.

Here is a classic riddle that could be used to teach certain verbs:

The sun bakes them,
The hand breaks them,
The foot treads on them,
And the mouth tastes them.
What are they?

Give your students a set time to figure it out, and make sure they don’t give it away to others when they’re finished!

If your students are struggling then feel free to give them a clue. For example “g__pes” for the above riddle.

In case you still haven’t got it, it was grapes 😉

Murder Mystery

This is a game that involves a great deal of wit to determine who the culprit of a fictitious murder was:

  1. Explain that we are now at a pretend party. All of the students are playing characters and someone has been killed! The aim is to find the “murderer”.
  2. Give students a card with details of their character. Include things such as: name, age, backstory, reasons for being at the party etc.
  3. One of these students is the murderer and they must try to keep it a secret!
  4. Students will then ask each other questions about what is written on their card. 
  5. After a time period, students will write down who they think is the murderer.

It may take some time to set up the first time but once you have all of the cards made, this game is much easier the next time.

Remember that although the “murderer” is trying not to get caught, they must still answer the questions about their card truthfully.

Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners work best when they are engaging their body, using gestures and movements etc.

Implementing Total Physical Response is ideal to get the best from these students. Total Physical Response (TPR) is a teaching method that links language with body movement.

For example, if you are teaching the phrase “brush my teeth” then do the action of brushing your teeth with your hands at the same time.

Not only is this extremely successful with some students, it’s also very fun, which is great for younger students.

Recommended Activities for Kinesthetic Learners

Simon Says

This classic game is great for kinesthetic learners, this is how we play:

  1. The students stand up and face the teacher.
  2. The teacher says “Simon says” + an action. E.g. “jump”.
  3. The students must then perform the action that the teacher says.

If things are getting too easy then include the rule where students should only do what you say if you say “Simon says…”.

E.g. if the teacher just says “jump” and a student jumps then you can joke and say “Simon didn’t say!”

Charades

In case you haven’t played charades before, this is how to play:

  1. Select a student to be “it”.
  2. Give this student a word (e.g. red)
  3. Without speaking, this student has to get the other students to guess the word.
  4. They can elicit the answer by using body movements, pointing to things in the room etc. Basically anything, as long as they do not speak.
  5. Whoever guesses the answer first gets to be “it” in the next round.

This is a great game for beginners as it works better with beginner vocabulary (e.g. run, sit, 4 etc.) 

Beware, you may struggle with more complex vocabulary… (try acting out the word situational!)

What’s in the Box?

This is a great game for engaging your students’ sense of touch:

  1. Find a box and fill it with items such as shapes, fruit etc. 
  2. The box needs to be covered on all sides (so you can’t see in) but needs a hole for a hand to fit.
  3. One at a time, students will place their hand in and try to guess what they are holding.
  4. After they have guessed, they can bring the object out to see if they were right.

Learning Styles Inventories

Ok, so now we know about the different styles of learning. How do we know which ones our students are though? This is where learning style inventories come in.

A learning style inventory is used to find out which style is most effective or preferable for a chosen student.

These inventories usually consist of questionnaires, a list of questions where the answers to these questions determine which style is the best fit.

VARK Learning Style Questionnaire

This model was developed by Neil Fleming and separates the learners into 4 groups: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic.

In 1987, Fleming designed the Vark Questionnaire for users to find out which group they are, and discover more about their style.

Learning Style Inventory (LSI)

Kolb’s Learning style inventory is slightly different. His model breaks learning preference into 2 continuums:

Abstract conceptualization / Concrete experience

Active experimentation / Reflective observation

Using a questionnaire, a person can find out which learning preference they have and increase the effectiveness of their learning.

Learning Styles Profiler (LSP)

Lastly, Chris J. Jackson created the hybrid model of learning in personality which is what The Learning Style Profiler (LSP) is based on. 

Jackson says that other things influence learning styles, such as experience and personal choice. 

This profiler focuses more on how people learn in a workplace environment, so would be better suited to business students.

Conclusion

So there we have it. The different styles of learning and how to find out which one your students are.

I would recommend experimenting with these to get the best results. You may find that your students don’t fit so neatly into little boxes. Maybe some of them are a mixture of more than one style.

That being said, thinking in terms of these styles and inventories will raise your awareness of your students learning style, which will most likely lead to better results.

Happy teaching!

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