the view from the signpost: learning styles

Discovering that some popular teaching approaches (Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats) have less-than-robust support from research has prompted teachers to pay more attention to the evidence for their classroom practice. Teachers don’t have much time to plough through complex research findings. What they want are summaries, signposts to point them in the right direction. But research is a work in progress. Findings are often not clear-cut but contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous. So it’s not surprising that some signposts – ‘do use synthetic phonics, ‘don’t use Learning Styles’ – often spark heated discussion. The discussions often cover the same ground. In this post, I want look at some recurring issues in debates about synthetic phonics (SP) and Learning Styles (LS).

Take-home messages

Synthetic phonics is an approach to teaching reading that begins by developing children’s awareness of the phonemes within words, links the phonemes with corresponding graphemes, and uses the grapheme-phoneme correspondence to decode the written word. Overall, the reading acquisition research suggests that SP is the most efficient method we’ve found to date of teaching reading. So the take-home message is ‘do use synthetic phonics’.

What most teachers mean by Learning Styles is a specific model developed by Fleming and Mills (1992) derived from the theory behind Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It proposes that students learn better in their preferred sensory modality – visual, aural, read/write or kinaesthetic (VARK). (The modalities are often reduced in practice to VAK – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.) But ‘learning styles’ is also a generic term for a multitude of instructional models used in education and training. Coffield et al (2004) identified no fewer than 71 of them. Coffield et al’s evaluation didn’t include the VARK or VAK models, but a close relative – Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles Questionnaire – didn’t fare too well when tested against Coffield’s reliability and validity criteria (p.139). Other models did better, including Allinson and Hayes Cognitive Styles Index that met all the criteria.

The take-home message for teachers from Coffield and other reviews is that given the variation in validity and reliability between learning styles models, it isn’t worth teachers investing time and effort in using any learning style approach to teaching. So far so good. If the take-home messages are clear, why the heated debate?

Lumping and splitting

‘Lumping’ and ‘splitting’ refer to different ways in which people categorise specific examples; they’re terms used mainly by taxonomists. ‘Lumpers’ tend to use broad categories and ‘splitters’ narrow ones. Synthetic phonics proponents rightly emphasise precision in the way systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) is used to teach children to read. SSP is a systematic not a scattergun approach, it involves building up words from phonemes not breaking words down to phonemes, and developing phonemic awareness rather than looking at pictures or word shapes. SSP advocates are ‘splitters’ extraordinaire – in respect of SSP practice at least. Learning styles critics, by contrast, tend to lump all learning styles together, often failing to make a distinction between LS models.

SP proponents also become ‘lumpers’ where other approaches to reading acquisition are concerned. Whether it’s whole language, whole words or mixed methods, it makes no difference… it’s not SSP. And both SSP proponents and LS critics are often ‘lumpers’ in respect of the research behind the particular take-home message they’ve embraced so enthusiastically. So what? Why does lumping or splitting matter?

Lumping all non-SSP reading methods together or all learning styles models together matters because the take-home messages from the research are merely signposts pointing busy practitioners in the right direction, not detailed maps of the territory. The signposts tell us very little about the research itself. Peering at the research through the spectacles of the take-home message is likely to produce a distorted view.

The distorted view from the signpost

The research process consists of several stages, including those illustrated in the diagram below.
theory to application
Each stage might include several elements. Some of the elements might eventually emerge as robust (green), others might be turn out to be flawed (red). The point of the research is to find out which is which. At any given time it will probably be unclear whether some components at each stage of the research process are flawed or not. Uncertainty is an integral part of scientific research. The history of science is littered with findings initially dismissed as rubbish that later ushered in a sea-change in thinking, and others that have been greeted as the Next Big Thing that have since been consigned to the trash.

Some of the SP and LS research findings have been contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous. That’s par for the course. Despite the contradictions, unclear results and ambiguities, there might be general agreement about which way the signposts for practitioners are pointing. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to work backwards from the signpost and make assumptions about the research. In the diagram, there’s enough uncertainty in the research findings to put a question mark over all potential applications. But all that question mark itself tells us is that there’s uncertainty involved. A minor tweak to the theory could explain the contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous results and then it would be green lights all the way down.

But why does that matter to teachers? It’s the signposts that are important to them, not the finer points of research methodology or statistical analysis. It matters because some of the teachers who are the most committed supporters of SP or critics of LS are also the most vociferous advocates of evidence-based practice.

Evidence: contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous?

Decades of research into reading acquisition broadly support the use of synthetic phonics for teaching reading, although many of the research findings aren’t unambiguous. One example is the study carried out in Clackmannanshire by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson. The overall conclusion is that SP leads to big improvements in reading and spelling, but closer inspection of the results shows they are not entirely clear-cut, and the study’s methodology has been criticised. But you’re unlikely to know that if you rely on SP advocates for an evaluation of the evidence. Personally, I can’t see a problem with saying ‘the research evidence broadly supports the use of synthetic phonics for teaching reading’ and leaving it at that.

The evidence relating to learning styles models is also not watertight, although in this case, it suggests they are mostly not effective. But again, you’re unlikely to find out about the ambiguities from learning styles critics. Tom Bennett, for example, doesn’t like learning styles – as he makes abundantly clear in a TES blog post entitled “Zombie bølløcks: World War VAK isn’t over yet.”

The post is about the VAK Learning Styles model. But in the ‘Voodoo teaching’ chapter of his book Teacher Proof, Bennett concludes about learning styles in general “it is of course, complete rubbish as far as I can see” (p.147). Then he hedges his bets in a footnote; “IN MY OPINION”.

Tom’s an influential figure – government behaviour adviser, driving force behind the ResearchEd conferences and a frequent commentator on educational issues in the press. He’s entitled to lump together all learning styles models if he wants to and to write colourful opinion pieces about them if he gets the chance, but presenting the evidence in terms of his opinion, and missing out evidence that doesn’t support his opinion is misleading. It’s also at odds with an evidence-based approach to practice. Saying there’s mixed evidence for the effectiveness of learning styles models doesn’t take more words than implying there’s none.

So why don’t supporters in the case of SP, or critics in the case of LS, say what the evidence says, rather than what the signposts say? I’d hazard a guess it’s because they’re worried that teachers will see contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous evidence as providing a loophole that gives them licence to carry on with their pet pedagogies regardless. But the risk of looking at the signpost rather than the evidence is that one set of dominant opinions will be replaced by another.

In the next few posts, I’ll be looking more closely at the learning styles evidence and what some prominent critics have to say about it.


David Didau responded to my thoughts about signposts and learning styles on his blog. Our discussion in the comments section revealed that he and I use the term ‘evidence’ to mean different things. Using words in different ways. Could explain everything.

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Council.

Fleming, N. & Mills, C. (1992). Not another invention, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy. Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 246.

is systematic synthetic phonics generating neuromyths?

A recent Twitter discussion about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) was sparked by a note to parents of children in a reception class, advising them what to do if their children got stuck on a word when reading. The first suggestion was “encourage them to sound out unfamiliar words in units of sound (e.g. ch/sh/ai/ea) and to try to blend them”. If that failed “can they use the pictures for any clues?” Two other strategies followed. The ensuing discussion began by questioning the wisdom of using pictures for clues and then went off at many tangents – not uncommon in conversations about SSP.
richard adams reading clues

SSP proponents are, rightly, keen on evidence. The body of evidence supporting SSP is convincing but it’s not the easiest to locate; much of the research predates the internet by decades or is behind a paywall. References are often to books, magazine articles or anecdote; not to be discounted, but not what usually passes for research. As a consequence it’s quite a challenge to build up an overview of the evidence for SSP that’s free of speculation, misunderstandings and theory that’s been superseded. The tangents that came up in this particular discussion are, I suggest, the result of assuming that if something is true for SSP in particular it must also be true for reading, perception, development or biology in general. Here are some of the inferences that came up in the discussion.

You can’t guess a word from a picture
Children’s books are renowned for their illustrations. Good illustrations can support or extend the information in the text, showing readers what a chalet, a mountain stream or a pine tree looks like, for example. Author and artist usually have detailed discussions about illustrations to ensure that the book forms an integrated whole and is not just a text with embellishments.

If the child is learning to read, pictures can serve to focus attention (which could be wandering anywhere) on the content of the text and can have a weak priming effect, increasing the likelihood of the child accessing relevant words. If the picture shows someone climbing a mountain path in the snow, the text is unlikely to contain words about sun, sand and ice-creams.

I understand why SSP proponents object to the child being instructed to guess a particular word by looking at a picture; the guess is likely to be wrong and the child distracted from decoding the word. But some teachers don’t seem to be keen on illustrations per se. As one teacher put it “often superficial time consuming detract from learning”.

Cues are clues are guesswork
The note to parents referred to ‘clues’ in the pictures. One contributor cited a blogpost that claimed “with ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from”. Clues and cues are often used interchangeably in discussions about phonics on social media. That’s understandable; the words have similar meanings and a slip on the keyboard can transform one into the other. But in a discussion about reading methods, the distinction between guessing, clues and cues is an important one.

Guessing involves drawing conclusions in the absence of enough information to give you a good chance of being right; it’s haphazard, speculative. A clue is a piece of information that points you in a particular direction. A cue has a more specific meaning depending on context; e.g. theatrical cues, social cues, sensory cues. In reading research, a cue is a piece of information about something the observer is interested in or a property of a thing to be attended to. It could be the beginning sound or end letter of a word, or an image representing the word. Cues are directly related to the matter in hand, clues are more indirectly related, guessing is a stab in the dark.

The distinction is important because if teachers are using the terms cue and clue interchangeably and assuming they both involve guessing there’s a risk they’ll mistakenly dismiss references to ‘cues’ in reading research as guessing or clues, which they are not.

Reading isn’t natural
Another distinction that came up in the discussion was the idea of natural vs. non-natural behaviours. One argument for children needing to be actively taught to read rather than picking it up as they go along is that reading, unlike walking and talking, isn’t a ‘natural’ skill. The argument goes that reading is a relatively recent technological development so we couldn’t possibly have evolved mechanisms for reading in the same way as we have evolved mechanisms for walking and talking. One proponent of this idea is Diane McGuinness, an influential figure in the world of synthetic phonics.

The argument rests on three assumptions. The first is that we have evolved specific mechanisms for walking and talking but not for reading. The ideas that evolution has an aim or purpose and that if everybody does something we must have evolved a dedicated mechanism to do it, are strongly contested by those who argue instead that we can do what our anatomy and physiology enable us to do (see arguments over Chomsky’s linguistic theory). But you wouldn’t know about that long-standing controversy from reading McGuinness’s books or comments from SSP proponents.

The second assumption is that children learn to walk and talk without much effort or input from others. One teacher called the natural/non-natural distinction “pretty damn obvious”. But sometimes the pretty damn obvious isn’t quite so obvious when you look at what’s actually going on. By the time they start school, the average child will have rehearsed walking and talking for thousands of hours. And most toddlers experience a considerable input from others when developing their walking and talking skills even if they don’t have what one contributor referred to as a “WEIRDo Western mother”. Children who’ve experienced extreme neglect (such as those raised in the notorious Romanian orphanages) tend to show significant developmental delays.

The third assumption is that learning to use technological developments requires direct instruction. Whether it does or not depends on the complexity of the task. Pointy sticks and heavy stones are technologies used in foraging and hunting, but most small children can figure out for themselves how to use them – as do chimps and crows. Is the use of sticks and stones by crows, chimps or hunter-gatherers natural or non-natural? A bicycle is a man-made technology more complex than sticks and stones, but most people are able to figure out how to ride a bike simply by watching others do it, even if a bit of practice is needed before they can do it themselves. Is learning to ride a bike with a bit of support from your mum or dad natural or non-natural?

Reading English is a more complex task than riding a bike because of the number of letter-sound correspondences. You’d need a fair amount of watching and listening to written language being read aloud to be able to read for yourself. And you’d need considerable instruction and practice before being able to fly a fighter jet because the technology is massively more complex than that involved in bicycles and alphabetic scripts.

One teacher asked “are you really going to go for the continuum fallacy here?” No idea why he considers a continuum a fallacy. In the natural/non-natural distinction used by SSP proponents there are three continua involved;

• the complexity of the task
• the length of rehearsal time required to master the task, and
• the extent of input from others that’s required.

Some children learn to read simply by being read to, reading for themselves and asking for help with words they don’t recognise. But because reading is a complex task, for most children learning to read by immersion like that would take thousands of hours of rehearsal. It makes far more sense to cut to the chase and use explicit instruction. In principle, learning to fly a fighter jet would be possible through trial-and-error, but it would be a stupidly costly approach to training pilots.

Technology is non-biological
I was told by several teachers that reading, riding a bike and flying an aircraft weren’t biological functions. I fail to see how they can’t be, since all involve human beings using their brain and body. It then occurred to me that the teachers are equating ‘biological’ with ‘natural’ or with the human body alone. In other words, if you acquire a skill that involves only body parts (e.g. walking or talking) it’s biological. If it involves anything other than a body part it’s not biological. Not sure where that leaves hunting with wooden spears, making baskets or weaving woolen fabric using a wooden loom and shuttle.

Teaching and learning are interchangeable
Another tangent was whether or not learning is involved in sleeping, eating and drinking. I contended that it is; newborns do not sleep, eat or drink in the same way as most of them will be sleeping, eating or drinking nine months later. One teacher kept telling me they don’t need to be taught to do those things. I can see why teachers often conflate teaching and learning, but they are not two sides of the same coin. You can teach children things but they might fail to learn them. And children can learn things that nobody has taught them. It’s debatable whether or not parents shaping a baby’s sleeping routine, spoon feeding them or giving them a sippy cup instead of a bottle count as teaching, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of learning going on.

What’s true for most is true for all
I was also told by one teacher that all babies crawl (an assertion he later modified) and by a school governor that they can all suckle (an assertion that wasn’t modified). Sweeping generalisations like this coming from people working in education is worrying. Children vary. They vary a lot. Even if only 0.1% of children do or don’t do something, that would involve 8 000 children in English schools. Some and most are not all or none and teachers of all people should be aware of that.

A core factor in children learning to read is the complexity of the task. If the task is a complex one, like reading, most children are likely to learn more quickly and effectively if you teach them explicitly. You can’t infer from that that all children are the same, they all learn in the same way or that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Nor can you infer from a tenuous argument used to justify the use of SSP that distinctions between natural and non-natural or biological and technological are clear, obvious, valid or helpful. The evidence that supports SSP is the evidence that supports SSP. It doesn’t provide a general theory for language, education or human development.