Learning style

Suppose you are visiting a foreign country whose language you don't speak or read. You have landed at the airport and your contact person, whose name you don't know, is not there to meet you. To top it off, your luggage is missing. It's 3:00 A.M. and no one in the sparsely staffed airport speaks English. What should you do? There is obviously no single solution to this multifaceted problem. Your solution will be based to a great extent on the styles you happen to bring to bear. For example, if you are tolerant of ambiguity, you will not easily get flustered by your unfortunate circumstances. If you are reflective, you will exercise patience and not jump quickly to a conclusion about how to approach the situation. If you are field independent, you will focus on the necessary and relevant details and not be distracted by surrounding but irrelevant details.

The way we learn things in general and the way we attack a problem seem to hinge on a rather amorphous link between personality and cognition; this link is referred to as cognitive style.When cognitive styles are specifically related to an educational context, where affective and physiological factors are intermingled, they are usually more generally referred to as learning styles.

Learning styles might be thought of as "cognitive, affective, and physiological traits that are relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment" (Keefe 1979). Or, more simply, as "a general predisposition, voluntary or not, toward processing information in a particular way" (Skehan 1991: 288). In the enormous task of learning a second language, one that so deeply involves affective factors, a study of learning style brings important variables to the forefront. Such styles can contribute significantly to the construction of a unified theory of second language acquisition.

Learning styles mediate between emotion and cognition, as you will soon discover. For example, a reflective style invariably grows out of a reflective personality or a reflective mood. An impulsive style, on the other hand, usually arises out of an impulsive emotional state. People's styles are determined by the way they internalize their total environment, and since that internalization process is not strictly cognitive, we find that physical, affective, and cognitive domains merge in learning styles. Some would claim that styles are stable traits in adults. This is a questionable view. It would appear that individuals show general tendencies toward one style or another, but that differing contexts will evoke differing styles in the same individual. Perhaps an "intelligent" and "successful" person is one who is "bicognitive"one who can manipulate both ends of a style continuum.

If I were to try to enumerate all the learning styles that educators and psychologists have identified, a very long list would emerge. From early research byAusubel (1968) and Hill (1972), to recent research by Reid (1995), Ehrman (1996), and Cohen (1998), literally dozens of different styles have been identified. These include just about every imaginable sensory, communicative, cultural, affective, cognitive, and intellectual factor. A select few of those styles have emerged in second language research as potentially significant contributors to successful acquisition.

Field Independence (FI)

Do you remember, in those coloring books you pored over as a child, a picture of a forest scene with exotic trees and flowers, and a caption saying, "Find the hidden monkeys in the trees." If you looked carefully, you soon began to spot them, some upside-down, some sideways, some high and some low, a dozen or so monkeys camouflaged by the lines of what at first sight looked like just leaves and trees. The ability to find those hidden monkeys hinged upon your field independentstyle: your ability to perceive a particular, relevant item or factor in a "field" of distracting items. In general psychological terms, that "field" may be perceptual, or it may be more abstract and refer to a set of thoughts, ideas, or feelings from which your task is to perceive specific relevant subsets. Field dependenceis, conversely, the tendency to be "dependent" on the total field so that the parts embedded within the field are not easily perceived, although that total field is perceived more clearly as a unified whole. Field dependence is synonymous with field sensitivity,a term that may carry a more positive connotation.

A field independent (FI) style enables you to distinguish parts from a whole, to concentrate on something (like reading a book in a noisy train station), to analyze separate variables without the contamination of neighboring variables. On the other hand, too much FI may result in cognitive "tunnel vision": you see only the parts and not their relationship to the whole."You can't see the forest for the trees," as the saying goes. Seen in this light, development of a field dependent (FD) style has positive effects: you perceive the whole picture, the larger view, the general configuration of a problem or idea or event. It is clear, then, that both FI and FD are necessary for most of the cognitive and effective problems we face.

The literature on FI/D has shown that FI increases as a child matures to adulthood, that a person tends to be dominant in one mode or the other, and that FI/D is a relatively stable trait in adulthood. It has been found in Western culture that males tend to be more FI, and that FI is related to one of the three main factors traditionally used to define intelligence (the analytical factor), but not to the other two factors (verbal-comprehension and attention-concentration). Cross-culturally, the extent of the development of a FI/D style as children mature is a factor of the type of society and home in which the child is reared. Authoritarian or agrarian societies, which are usually highly socialized and utilize strict rearing practices, tend to produce more FD. A democratic, industrialized, competitive society with freer rearing norms tends to produce more FI persons.

Affectively, persons who are more predominantly FI tend to be generally more independent, competitive, and self-confident. FD persons tend to be more socialized, to derive their self-identity from persons around them, and are usually more empathic and perceptive of the feelings and thoughts of others.

How does all this relate to second language learning? Two conflicting hypotheses have emerged. First, we could conclude that FI is closely related to classroom learning that involves analysis, attention to details, and mastering of exercises, drills, and other focused activities. Indeed, recent research supports such a hypothesis. Naiman et al. (1978) found in a study of English-speaking eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders who were learning French in Toronto that FI correlated positively and significantly with language success in the classroom. Other studies (L. Hansen 1984, Hansen &Stansfleld 1983, Stansfield & Hansen 1981) found relatively strong evidence in groups of adult second language learners of a relationship between FI and cloze test performance, which in some respects requires analytical abilities.

Chapelle and Roberts (1986) found support for the correlation of a FI style with language success as measured both by traditional, analytic, paper-and-pencil tests and by an oral interview. (The latter findingthe correlation with the oral interviewwas a bit surprising in light of the second of our two hypotheses, to be taken up below.) Abraham (1985) found that second language learners who were FI performed better in deductive lessons, while those with FD styles were more successful with inductive lesson designs. Still other studies (Chapelle & Green 1992, Alptekin & Atakan 1990, Chapelle & Abraham 1990) provide further evidence of superiority of a FI style for second language success. More recently, Elliott (1995a, 1995b) found a moderate correlation between FI and pronunciation accuracy. And in a review of several decades of research on FI/D, Hoffman (1997) concluded that "further research .. . should be pursued before the hypothesis that there is a relationship between FD/I and SLA is abandoned."

The second of the conflicting hypotheses proposes that primarily FD persons will, by virtue of their empathy, social outreach, and perception of other people, be successful in learning the communicative aspects of a second language. While no one denies the plausibility of this second hypothesis, little empirical evidence has been gathered to support it. The principal reason for the dearth of such evidence is the absence of a true test of FD. The standard test of FI requires subjects to discern small geometric shapes embedded in larger geometric designs. A high score on such embedded-figures tests indicates FI, but a low score does not necessarily imply relatively high FD. (This latter fact has unfortunately not been recognized by all who have interpreted results of embedded-figures tests.) So we are left with no standardized means of measuring FD, and thus the second hypothesis has been confirmed largely through anecdotal or observational evidence.

The two hypotheses could be seen as paradoxical: How could FD be most important on the one hand and FI equally important? The answer to the paradox would appear to be that clearly both styles are important. The two hypotheses deal with two different kinds of language learning. One kind of learning implies natural, face-to-face communication, the kind of communication that occurs too rarely in the average language classroom. The second kind of learning involves the familiar classroom activities: drills, exercises, tests, and so forth. It is most likely that "natural" language learning in the "field," beyond the constraints of the classroom, requires a FD style, and the classroom type of learning requires, conversely, a FI style.

There is some research to support such a conclusion. Guiora et al. (1972b) showed that empathy is related to language acquisition, and though one could argue with some of their experimental design factors (see H.D. Brown 1973), the conclusion seems reasonable and also supportable by observational evidence and intuition. Some pilot studies of FI/D (Brown 1977a) indicated that FI correlated negatively with informal oral interviews of adult English learners in the United States. And so it would appear that FI/D might provide one construct that differentiates "classroom" (tutored) second language learning from "natural" (untutored) second language learning.

FI/D may also prove to be a valuable tool for differentiating child and adult language acquisition. The child, more predominantly FD, may have a cognitive style advantage over the more FI adult. Stephen Krashen (1977) has suggested that adults use more "monitoring," or "learning," strategies (conscious attention to forms) for language acquisition, while children utilize strategies of "acquisition" (subconscious attention to functions). This distinction between acquisition and learning could well be explicated by the FI/D dichotomy.

FI/D has been conceived by psychological researchers as a construct in which a person is relatively stable. Unfortunately, there seems to be little room in such research for considering the possibility that FI/D is contextualized and variable. Logically and observationally, FI/D is quite variable within one person. Depending upon the context of learning, individual learners can vary their utilization of FI or FD. If a task requires FI, individuals may invoke their FI style; if it requires FD, they may invoke a FD style. Such ambiguities fueled Griffiths and Sheen's (1992: 133) passionate attempt to discredit the whole FI construct, where they concluded that this "theoretically flawed" notion "does not have, and has never had, any relevance for second language learning."

Carol Chapelle (1992; see also Chapelle & Green 1992), in a more balanced and optimistic viewpoint on the relevance of FI to communicative language ability, exposed flaws in Griffiths and Sheen's remarks and suggested, as did Hoffman (1997), avenues of future research. I surmise from Chapelle's comments that her optimism springs fromamong other thingsour acceptance of the view that FI and FD are not in complementary distribution within an individual. Some persons might be both highly FI and highly FD as contexts vary. Such variability is not without its parallels in almost every other psychological construct. A generally extroverted person might, for example, be relatively introverted at certain times. In second language learning, then, it may be incorrect to assume that learners should be either FI or FD; it is more likely that persons have general inclinations, but, given certain contexts, can exercise a sufficient degree of an appropriate style. The burden on the learner is to invoke the appropriate style for the context. The burden on the teacher is to understand the preferred styles of each learner and to sow the seeds for flexibility.

Left- and Right-Brain Functioning

We have already observed that left- and right-brain dominance is a potentially significant issue in developing a theory of second language acquisition. As the child's brain matures, various functions become lateral-ized to the left or right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is associated with logical, analytical thought, with mathematical and linear processing of information. The right hemisphere perceives and remembers visual, tactile, and auditory images; it is more efficient in processing holistic, integrative, and emotional information. Torrance (1980) lists several characteristics of left-and right-brain dominance. (Illustration - 2.3).

While we can cite many differences between left- and right-brain characteristics, it is important to remember that the left and right hemispheres operate together as a "team." Through the corpus collosum, messages are sent back and forth so that both hemispheres are involved in most of the neurological activity of the human brain. Most problem solving involves the capacities of both hemispheres, and often the best solutions to problems are those in which each hemisphere has participated optimally. We must also remember Scovel's (1982) warning that left- and right-brain differences tend to draw more attention than the research warrants at the present time.


Intellectual Remembers names Responds to verbal instructions and Explanations Experiments systematically and with control Makes objective judgments Planned and structured Prefers established, certain information Analytic reader Reliance on language in thinking and remembering Prefers talking and writing Prefers multiple-choice tests Controls feelings Not good at interpreting body language Rarely uses metaphors Favors logical problem solving  
Intuitive Remembers faces Responds to demonstrated, illustrated, or symbolic instructions Experiments randomly and with less restraint Makes subjective judgments Fluid and spontaneous Prefers elusive, uncertain information Synthesizing reader Reliance on images in thinking and remembering Prefers drawing and manipulating objects Prefers open-ended questions More free with feelings Good at interpreting body language Frequently uses metaphors Favors intuitive problem solving  
Left-brain dominance
Right-brain dominance  


Illustration 2.3 - Left- and right-brain characteristics


Nevertheless, the left-/right-brain construct helps to define another useful learning style continuum, with implications for second language learning and teaching. Danesi (1988), for example, used "neurological bimodality" to analyze the way in which various language teaching methods have failed: by appealing too strongly to left-brain processes, past methods were inadequately stimulating important right-brain processes in the language classroom. Krashen, Seliger, and Hartnett (1974) found support for the hypothesis that left-brain-dominant second language learners preferred a deductive style of teaching, while right-brain-dominant learners appeared to be more successful in an inductive classroom environment. Stevick (1982) concluded that left-brain-dominant second language learners are better at producing separate words, gathering the specifics of language, carrying out sequences of operations, and dealing with abstraction, classification, labeling, and reorganization. Right-brain-dominant learners, on the other hand, appear to deal better with whole images (not with reshuffling parts), with generalizations, with metaphors, and with emotional reactions and artistic expressions. The role of the right hemisphere in second language learning was noted above. This may suggest a greater need to perceive whole meanings in those early stages, and to analyze and monitor oneself more in the later stages.

You may be asking yourself how left- and right-brain functioning differs from FI and FD. While few studies have set out explicitly to correlate the two factors, intuitive observation of learners and conclusions from studies of both hemispheric preference and FI show a strong relationship. Thus, in dealing with either type of cognitive style, we are dealing with two styles that are highly parallel. Conclusions that were drawn above for FI and FD generally apply well for left- and right-brain functioning, respectively.

Ambiguity Tolerance

A third style concerns the degree to which you are cognitively willing to tolerate ideas and propositions that run counter to your own belief system or structure of knowledge. Some people are, for example, relatively open-minded in accepting ideologies and events and facts that contradict their own views; they are more content than others to entertain and even internalize contradictory propositions. Others, more closed-minded and dogmatic, tend to reject items that are contradictory or slightly incongruent with their existing system; they wish to see every proposition fit into an acceptable place in their cognitive organization, and if it does not fit, it is rejected.

Again, advantages and disadvantages are present in each style. The person who is tolerant of ambiguity is free to entertain a number of innovative and creative possibilities and not be cognitively or affectively disturbed by ambiguity and uncertainty. In second language learning a great amount of apparently contradictory information is encountered: words that differ from the native language, rules that not only differ but that are internally inconsistent because of certain "exceptions," and sometimes a whole cultural system that is distant from that of the native culture. Successful language learning necessitates tolerance of such ambiguities, at least for interim periods or stages, during which time ambiguous items are given a chance to become resolved. On the other hand, too much tolerance of ambiguity can have a detrimental effect. People can become "wishy-washy," accepting virtually every proposition before them, not efficiently subsuming necessary facts into their cognitive organizational structure. Such excess tolerance has the effect of hampering or preventing meaningful sub-sumption of ideas. Linguistic rules, for example, might not be effectively integrated into a whole system; rather, they may be gulped down in meaningless chunks learned by rote.

Intolerance of ambiguity also has its advantages and disadvantages. A certain intolerance at an optimal level enables one to guard against the wishy-washiness referred to above, to close off avenues of hopeless possibilities, to reject entirely contradictory material, and to deal with the reality of the system that one has built. But intolerance can close the mind too soon, especially if ambiguity is perceived as a threat; the result is a rigid, dogmatic, brittle mind that is too narrow to be creative. This may be particularly harmful in second language learning.

A few research findings are available on this style in second language learning. Naiman et al. (1978) found that ambiguity tolerance was one of only two significant factors in predicting the success of their high school learners of French in Toronto. Chapelle and Roberts (1986) measured tolerance of ambiguity in learners of English as a second language in Illinois. They found that learners with a high tolerance for ambiguity were slightly more successful in certain language tasks. These findings suggestthough not strongly sothat ambiguity tolerance may be an important factor in second language learning. The findings have intuitive appeal. It is hard to imagine a compartmentalizera person who sees everything in black and white with no shades of grayever being successful in the overwhelmingly ambiguous process of learning a second language.

Reflectivity and Impulsivity

It is common for us to show in our personalities certain tendencies toward reflectivitysometimes and impulsivityat other times. Psychological studies have been conducted to determine the degree to which, in the cognitive domain, a person tends to make either a quick or gambling (impulsive) guess at an answer to a problem or a slower, more calculated (reflective) decision. David Ewing (1977) refers to two styles that are closely related to the reflectivity/impulsivity (R/I) dimension: systematic and intuitive styles. An intuitive style implies an approach in which a person makes a number of different gambles on the basis of "hunches," with possibly several successive gambles before a solution is achieved. Systematic thinkers tend to weigh all the considerations in a problem, work out all the loopholes, and then, after extensive reflection, venture a solution.

The implications for language acquisition are numerous. It has been found that children who are conceptually reflective tend to make fewer errors in reading than impulsive children (Kagan 1965); however, impulsive persons are usually faster readers, and eventually master the "psycholinguistic guessing game" (Goodman 1970) of reading so that their impulsive style of reading may not necessarily deter comprehension. In another study (Kagan, Pearson & Welch 1966), inductive reasoning was found to be more effective with reflective persons, suggesting that generally reflective persons could benefit more from inductive learning situations. Virtually all research on R/I has used the Matching Familiar Figures Test (Kagan 1965; revised by Cairns & Cammock 1989), in which subjects are required to find, among numerous slightly different drawings of figures (people, ships, buildings, etc.), the drawing that matches the criterion figure. And most of the research to date on this cognitive style has looked at American, monolingual, English-speaking children.

A few studies have related R/I to second language learning. Doron (1973) found that among her sample of adult learners of ESL in the USA, reflective students were slower but more accurate than impulsive students in reading. In another study of adult ESL students, Abraham (1981) concluded that reflection was weakly related to performance on a proofreading task. Jamieson (1992) reported on yet another study of adult ESL learners. She found that "fast-accurate" learners, or good guessers, were better language learners as measured by the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language, but warned against assuming that impulsivity always implies accuracy. Some of her subjects were fast and inaccurate.

R/I has some important considerations for classroom second language learning and teaching. Teachers tend to judge mistakes too harshly, especially in the case of a learner with an impulsive style who may be more willing than a reflective person to gamble at an answer. On the other hand, a reflective person may require patience from the teacher, who must allow more time for the student to struggle with responses. It is also conceivable that those with impulsive styles may go through a number of rapid transitions of semigrammatical stages of SLA, with reflective persons tending to remain longer at a particular stage with "larger" leaps from stage to stage.

Visual and Auditory Styles

Yet another dimension of learning styleone that is salient in a formal classroom settingis the preference that learners show toward either visualor auditoryinput. Visual learners tend to prefer reading and studying charts, drawings, and other graphic information, while auditory learners prefer listening to lectures and audiotapes. Of course, most successful learners utilize both visual and auditory input, but slight preferences one way or the other may distinguish one learner from another, an important factor for classroom instruction.

In one study of adult learners of ESL, Joy Reid (1987) found some significant cross-cultural differences in visual and auditory styles. By means of a self-reporting questionnaire, the subjects rated their own preferences. The students rated statements like "When I read instructions, I learn them better" and "I learn more when I make drawings as I study" on a five-point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Among Reid's results: Korean students were significantly more visually oriented than native English-speaking Americans; Japanese students were the least auditory students, significantly less auditorily inclined than Chinese and Arabic students. Reid also found that some of the preferences of her subjects were a factor of gender, length of time in the US, academic field of study, and level of education. Such findings underscore the importance of recognizing learners' varying style preferences, but also of not assuming that they are easily predicted by cultural/linguistic backgrounds alone.

: 2015-09-07; : 604.


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