How We Learn: A guide to helping kids harness their learning styles

The key to understanding new ideas and making connections with learning is in our individual learning styles. These are the pathways that our brains are most comfortable with when making sense of new information. We each have our own preferred ways of gaining this understanding; finding the method through which we learn most naturally can help us take charge of our own learning and enhance further knowledge growth. And understanding how learning works can help parents guide kids, in and out of the classroom.

There are five main areas in which our brains take in information — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile and spatial relational. All of our senses take in information for our brains, but each of us is stronger in one or more area than others. It’s the same with learning styles; we use them all to take in information, but we are stronger in one or more of them. When information is presented in a way that fits our learning style, it is fun and easy to process and build on.

In my classroom, identifying each student’s learning style is at the top of my list. I try to present new material in ways that hit all styles, or I follow up with an individual student in ways to fit his/her style to aid their learning.

The first and most predominate is that of the visual learner; these are the learners who have to see it to get it. It is the most common style. If things are laid out clearly in a visual manner to see the connection, the ‘ah-ha!’ comes easier. These are the people who can aid their learning with diagrams, charts, maps and pictures. Using written directions along with a map or diagram is more meaningful than explanations. I use picture cues with new material for these learners. Oftentimes, even adding a simple picture symbol will trigger the brain to hold the concept better. To help a child at home, map out relationships. Encourage them to use pictures and symbols to go with concepts or facts that they are trying memorize. They also can use visualization for better success. Have them draw or write out the concept — to picture it later in their head during a test.

The second most predominate is that of the auditory learner. These are the listeners, the ones who need spoken explanations. Combining the learning with music, pneumonic devices and rhymes or limericks works well. I use silly songs, rhymes and word associations to help these learners in my class. Sometimes the student can make up a rap or rhythm of their own to accompany the new material.

Another style many of us use comfortably is tactile. This is commonly the predominate learning style of young children. Toddlers can get into mischief from their desire to learn by touching and feeling. These are the people who are ‘touchy-feely’; they like texture and are constantly touching, picking and tracing things with their fingers and hands. To use this sense to boost learning, use textures. Glue pieces of rug or fuzzy material on outlines to be touched and felt. When teaching letters, numbers and simple words to small children, I like to cut them out of sandpaper to be traced by the child’s fingertips. To study spelling words or math problems for older children, they may trace them in a shallow pan of sand. When sitting at lessons, I give these children a small lump of play dough or a koosh ball or beanbag to hold in their lap. It keeps their touching confined to a place that will not be distracting or lead to mischief, and it aids brain stimulation and enhances learning. If your child ‘can’t keep his hands to himself’, give him something to occupy his hands during study times. Make the rule that if it becomes a distraction, it will be taken away; this motivation will keep it controlled.

The kinesthetic learner is the one who actually can’t keep still. This child is often fidgety and restless; they need to move and can’t pay attention while forced to stay still. I have worked a great deal one-on-one with children who use this style predominately. The best way to help this learner is to incorporate movement in the study time. Play movement games like hopping onto numbers written on pavement or on rug remnants to find the answer to math problems. Recite spelling words and math facts while swinging or biking together. Make a game of sitting or standing or squatting for true or false answers to study questions. Allow lots of movement during or between study sessions.

Spatial relational learners (this is also called perceptual awareness) are those people who love jigsaw puzzles. Or they learn phone numbers according to where numbers appear on the keypad; they look at things in relation to where they appear by other things, relational to each other. There are two ways to work with these learners. One is to start with the whole picture and break it down; the other is to start with one small, key item and build up. Diagramming is very effective, in order to draw relationships to prior knowledge. For example, if learning key history events, write them out a flow chart form to show inter-relationships. For studying math facts, make a floor puzzle of number families to put together and take apart. To study spelling words, make a puzzle out of each word using the shape outline the letters make as a guide.

Finding which of these is most comfortable for your child and tailoring their study techniques to incorporate those methods will greatly aid in school achievement. You can also watch your child’s self esteem soar as they ‘get it’ quicker and easier. If you are unable to discover a predominate learning style, try using a few methods for each one. A multiple approach is usually the best.