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.

13 thoughts on “the view from the signpost: learning styles

  1. A fascinating post, thank you. I will follow the remainder of the series with great interest.

    A question I would ask is whether the “lumpers and splitters” model is one that you developed yourself. You didn’t reference it but I am curious. It strikes a chord with me as it seems to link to prototyping of concepts and also to Ayn Rand’s integration and differentiation. I am a fan of both.

    I find the issue to grow like topsy, and maybe it should be referred to as “bennetication”.

    It irritates me when you see an influential blogger/commentator make a statement such as “learning styles are rubbish and discredited and anyone suggesting otherwise should be sacked as incompetent”. They then quote an authority such as Dan Willingham and post a link to a video snippet online.

    When one watches the video one finds that Willingham is actually a splitter. He uses terms such as “likely and unlikely”, or “the evidence might suggest”. He also clarifies that the research he refers to is specifically about whether adapting teaching to suit an individuals VAK learning style is more effective. These fineries are lost on the lumpers which is surprising as they are often the same individuals who talk about “truth” and “fact” and “evidence based”.

    Your posts tend to raise more questions for me and this one is no exception. I wonder whether these influential lumpers are in fact so influential because they are lumpers and (goind back to concept formation) people may appreciate lumping as it makes cognition a little more comfortable.

    Another question for me is whether lumpers do so as a conscious strategy or whether they just find it convenient and are perhaps unaware.

    Look forward to the next instalment.

    If I show a complete and utter misunderstanding of the post, please let me know so that I don’t misrepresent the rest of the series.

    • Thanks Brian.

      Lumpers and splitters certainly didn’t originate with me, but allegedly with Darwin It’s a distinction often made by taxonomists, but also crops up in discussions about conceptual models. It certainly is linked to prototyping (as in Eleanor Rosch), but I’m not familiar enough with Ayn Rand’s thinking on the topic to comment.

      I think what Daniel Willingham does is first to split and then to generalise from a fine-grained definition. I’m planning a post exploring Willingham’s comments on the topic in more detail.

      I completely agree with your suggestion that lumpers might be more influential because they are lumpers. Conceptualising anything in a binary fashion poses significantly less cognitive load than having to tease out a complex network of inter-related factors, so binary concepts are more accessible and more memorable. I don’t get the impression that the SP proponents or LS critics use binary categorisation as an active strategy, but that they see any evidence at odds with their view as being of minor importance in the great scheme of things. I can understand that, but often changing one strand of a theory or reversing the causality of two correlated factors can completely transform a conceptual model.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Pingback: In praise of signposts | David Didau: The Learning Spy

  3. I find with synthetic phonics that I don’t really know what SSP is.

    Is it a ‘body of knowledge’ as Jim Rose said in the Rose Review in 2006, or as Sean Harford said in a tweet last week?

    “@HarfordSean: @ded6ajd @imagineinquiry @mazst @reachoutASC @MaryMyatt @mcladingbowl Re SSP? SSP is a body of knowledge-Ts should teach it how they see fit”

    Or is it a teaching method which has to be carried out very specifically (as described in the teaching principles put out by EFERI)?

    Click to access IFERI-INFORM-No.1-June-2015-The-Synthetic-Phonics-Teaching-Principles.pdf

    When the debate is about something as confusing as these two descriptions, it’s difficult to know exactly what is being debated.

      • Isn’t the specific teaching method based on Diane McGuinness’s belief in Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. This theory assumes that there are a universal pool of phonemes. Diane McGuinness assumes that all babies are sensitive to them and they acquire language by learning how to combine phonemes into words.

        BUT this theory has been shown to be wrong and scientists now think children learn language by paying attention to the meaning of whole phrases they hear and learn to articulate, i.e. a usage-based theory.

        Children do not need to know about phonemes until they start to learn to read and write, when they need to learn the specific sounds (phonemes) which match the letters (graphemes).

        So, thinking of phonics only as a body of knowledge gets around the fact that the teaching method is based on a wrong theory of language acquisition.

      • As far as I can tell, the specific teaching method is based on methods developed by trial-and-error over many decades, informed by research findings. McGuinness’s appeal to Chomsky’s (and Pinker’s) theory is used as further justification of the method.

        I think her model of the development of phonemic awareness is shaped by Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar in that she assumes that the way babies discriminate between phonemes is the same process as what happens if children are trained to discriminate between phonemes when they learn to read. That children have a kind of built-in phoneme processor, rather than a generic auditory signal discrimination system that deals with whatever the environment throws at it.

        In Why Children Can’t Read (1998) McGuinness describes the language acquisition process. She says, for example, “Once the infant has learned which sounds of her language to notice, her next task is to hear them clearly enough to be able to produce them” (p.181) and “just as [the child] begins to master his native tongue effortlessly and fluently, his ability to hear individual phonemes within words or syllables declines, sometimes to zero” (p.183). It’s difficult not to conclude from this section that phonemic awareness is a conscious process that disappears and needs to be resurrected by explicit instruction. Susan Godsland has definitely drawn that conclusion.

        But research suggests quite strongly that much sensory processing is pre-conscious. Babies’ initial conscious awareness of language is at the word-stream or phrase level, just like an adult’s early awareness of a foreign language they haven’t been taught. And like the fact that most of us can’t draw an accurate representation of a familiar object without training. It doesn’t follow that babies can’t discriminate between phonemes – they obviously can. Or that we don’t see the detail of familiar objects – we obviously do. But we do require practice to access those pre-conscious processes.

        You’d think the idea that practice is needed in order to access a pre-conscious process would strengthen the SSP case. My guess is that the burial-and-resurrection theory of phonemic awareness has gained traction amongst SSP proponents because the idea that children become aware of bigger units of language first has led to the development of competing theories for teaching reading such as onset-rime or whole word approaches.

        That’s one of the problems with framing SSP as a body of knowledge. There’s a lot of speculative theory within it.

    • Thanks for the link Sue. Daniel Willingham’s post gives some insight into different perspectives on evidence. I was hoping it would give some insights into his perspective on the learning styles evidence, but it didn’t. I’ve also tried to get in touch with him with some (polite) questions but no joy as yet.

  4. By *body of knowledge*, I was thinking in terms of all the information in Greg Brooks’ book, The Dictionary of English Spelling.

    In this book he gives details of every phoneme/grapheme correspondence. To my mind, this is pure *phonic knowledge* with no guidance or instruction on how to teach it.

    If we think of phonics like this, (note I didn’t write SSP) then no one can be a *denier*. It is the additional adherence to the teaching method that defines SSP.

    If we separate the phonic knowledge from the teaching method then there should be no ‘Phonics v Whole Language’ debate. The debate is no longer ‘whether to teach phonics’ v ‘not to teach phonics’. It comes down to ‘when to teach phonics’. This could be first, as in SSP, or as an ongoing process throughout primary and secondary school.

    Debbie Hepplewhite writes that ‘phonics is not baby stuff’. She is right. We do use it all our lives and everyone should know about it. In my mind, it is the specific SSP message of ‘first, fast and only’ that needs debate.

  5. Great Blog. Thank you.
    I don’t use academic language – I keep saying that, maybe I should start – but I have a few comments:
    I think people could spend a bit more time looking at children, instead of at the research and publications and charts of data and statistics from others who are probably 2 or more generations away from actually looking at children. I started a masters a couple of years ago, but gave up when I realised that ‘research’, even ‘action research’, means reading and quoting other people’s research. I was disappointed that it didn’t actually involve trying to find out something new or advancing something existing.
    When babies babble and toddlers start to use words they are playing with sounds and language. When babies and children play, they are building, creating their model of the world. Playing with sounds and words is part of creating one of the communication parts of their world-model. I don’t think they lose phonemes? I don’t think phonemes die and then need resurrecting in phonics lessons? Otherwise, why would children be so happy to continue with E-I-E-I-O, or choo choo at their trainsets or manumanumm at their dinner, long after they can talk in sentences? I still enjoy making these noises and inventing or acquiring new ones – kapow kapow to my naughty kitten or poc poc instead of cluck for chickens. I think linguists say that babies are born programmed to be able to verbalise all the sounds of all human languages but by 6 months have filtered out the ones that don’t apply to their family’s language. Why? Because they need those sounds to create language and communicate, to create messages going out and create messages coming in. Children are working on their world and on their language 24/7. They do this spontaneously, of their own volition.
    And they never tire of working on their language, do they? They don’t stop at single phonemes or single words. They are determined to get to sentences as quickly as they can and invest their own time and energy working on them. Babies, toddlers and children know, they know! that making noises, language is for something. It is for making things happen. And the more complex the language they can use, the more they can make happen.
    I am not talking about those with impoverished language…
    Or maybe I am? Why do some children come to school with impoverished language? Very few have congenital difficulties. When their language is poor it is because they have learned that their utterances don’t ‘make something happen’ or because the language models around them are poor in themselves – often a mixture of the two. Do these children need everything broken down for them into ‘manageable’ chunks that are spooned in bit by bit? In an order that someone else has decided on? Is that how babbling babies and toddlers using words learn? Do regular babies get taken on a tour of the kitchen to be shown the simplest-labelled objects and told their names? Or do they drive us mad for a few days, demanding to know the name of everything, pottering about pointing and saying “Nat?” (What’s that?) “Annat, annat?” (And that, and that?) over and over until they are satisfied?
    And soon they start with ‘Why?’ They want to know. And they want to understand. They know what they are doing. How often do they reject us when we try to decide what they should be focussed on?
    And then they come to school and have to get used to knowing what someone else wants. They need to learn to switch on their ‘Oh, I’m listening to her now. I’ll drop this fascinating something I’ve been investigating.” They need to learn to give shared attention to something a teacher is looking at or the noises she is making. These things don’t come naturally to all children at the same time. When they don’t, someone is likely to say they have no ‘phonological awareness’ and will put them on a programme.
    I have seen lots of children who become experts at sitting in a group of 30, paying no attention at all to the teacher (they prefer the hair of the person in front, or the ceiling) but can start to say whatever the ‘bright ones’ are saying, a split second later. How clever is that?
    (Learning styles? Little kids prefer learning with hands eyes ears, in that order. ‘Go to school and learn with your ears’ is alien to them. Maybe the secondary school teachers who pooh pooh LS need to recognise that some of their students will not yet have developed the ability to bypass the hands-on imperative.)
    The raison d’être of nursery and reception should be to make sure, via play, not instruction, that children can do ‘phonological awareness’ (used to be called active listening) and shared attention (used to be called ‘joining in’). But schools are so battered by targets etc that they start doing formal instruction (of phonics) in nursery and reception at the expense of talk, ‘talk for learning’ – remember that? and hands-on, and having stories read to them.
    Why did young children use to make alphabet books, starting with their name letters?
    Why should Jimmy wait weeks for his name letter to come up and then have it stand for jug?
    Why did they use to make their own books which they could read because they knew what they said?
    Babies know talk means something and can make things happen. They are capable of knowing that books and writing mean something and can make things happen.
    I am not advocating wishy washy stick a book in front of them and see if they learn by osmosis. NO!
    Teachers of little children need to be the brightest, cleverest and most highly trained geniuses. They need to draw the map themselves, not be given a few plastic signposts.

    • Sorry to spoil the party re Synthetic Phonics. I’m a specialist reading teacher working with children who have had an SP led reading approach and completely failed to make any progress. I use finely levelled books which contain repetitive natural language and I have 100% success rate. I teach SP every lesson, but would never dream of leading with it.
      London John

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