Teaching for Different Learning Modalities

Two kids may seem to be very much alike, and yet be very different when it comes to learning style.

One of the issues in differentiated instruction is teaching for different modalities, or sensory learning styles. Some people learn better through visual input, some through what they hear, and others through their sense of touch.

(There are some who would add “read/write” or “digital,” but we haven’t seen convincing evidence yet, so we’re sticking with the older list for the time being.)

The good news here is that everyone learns better when all sensory channels are involved — not only because that guarantees that their preferred sensory modality will be stimulated, but also because it lays down more memory traces and gives a richer learning experience overall. You can therefore go ahead and plan lessons with activities for all learning styles, confident that this will be best for everyone.

The bad news is that it can be very hard to think of activities for other learning styles besides your own, especially on the spur of the moment. We are so accustomed to using our own excellent knowledge of our own experience to guide our teaching strategies, that we tend not to think of activities for other learning styles as easily.

Begin by taking a quick and easy test of learning modality. This is suitable for sharing with your students, too. Have everyone complete the quiz and graph your results.

Then try out this sampling of lesson plans catering to different learning styles:

For Auditory Learners

  • Lecture and discussion work well with auditory learners, and they are probably already a big part of your classroom repertoire. Pair these approaches with visual input like Pocket Charts or graphic organizers, or with kinesthetic input like story mats and manipulatives in order not to lose the rest of the class.
  • Jazz chants are generally associated with ESL, and the link takes you to a nice collection of chants for ESL. However, I like chants for young children for lots of topics, including science and literacy.
  • Learning songs are ideal for auditory learners, and there is hardly any topic that doesn’t have some available. You can find songs online for learning Thai, geography, economics, and cooking. I couldn’t find any for auto repair, but otherwise, you’ll find free or inexpensive options for most of the things you might want to teach. Write some for your auto shop class, and I’ll be happy to post them for you.

For Visual Learners

  • Many of the traditional classroom approaches are perfect for visual learners. Board work, worksheets, flash cards, and video are all well-suited to visual learners. Pocket charts, color-coding, and highlighting are other options.
  • Graphic organizers are a natural. Our post on Using Graphic Organizers in the Classroom contains links to the best sources of graphic organizers.
  • Microsoft’s lesson on Object-Oriented Design hooks up the popular mind-mapping graphic organizer with computer science. I like this lesson (and the others at the site) for their critical thinking components, as well as for the opportunity to do some substantive work on technology without needing computers for all the students.

For Kinesthetic Learners

  • This group can easily be left out. In fact, some teachers forbid students to count on their fingers, follow along with their fingers in their books, or “fidget” with objects while listening, which is equivalent to making visual learners shut their eyes during lessons. Bring out manipulatives for math and language lessons on a regular basis, and make your content lessons hands-on or whole-body whenever possible. When items are to be moved in pocket charts or it’s time to draw graphic organizers on the board, invite students to do these tasks instead of doing them yourself. Use Mini Pocket Charts or graphic organizers in seat work.
  • I’m not a fan of Total Physical Response (TPR) because it is designed to be used so exclusively that you can end up with a classroom that is only welcoming to kinesthetic learners, but it can be a great source of ideas for activities to incorporate into your teaching. Check out the link for a variety of articles on the subject.
  • Games, plays, dance,  role play, and constructing models are all great for kinesthetic learners. Resist the temptation to think of these activities as play, or as flashy add-ons to the real work. It’s a mistake to overlook a good instructional tool just because it’s fun.

The lesson plans I post here always include activities for all learning modalities. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves to include those for our own less-favored styles.

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