The new learning styles

Learning styles are a curious phenomenon for those of us interested in the education debate. Learning styles theories suggest that each student has a preferred style of learning; taxonomies vary, but a popular one distinguished between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. It implies that kinaesthetic students benefit from learning through physical activity whereas visual learners learn best by seeing pictures and so on. There is evidence that students will express a preference when given a learning styles survey but there is negligible evidence that being taught accordingly leads to greater learning. Dan Willingham logically argues that this is because it is far more important to match a teaching approach to the content.

Many teachers who are active on social media would now agree that learning styles are something of a myth, whatever their stance on other teaching practices. So, the debate about constructivism might remain open, for instance, but it has largely been resolved on this particular front. It does not mean, of course, that there are no schools or consultants who still promote the idea. It is frightening how these practices still survive.

However, I would now like to ask, ‘What’s next?’ I don’t mean chronologically; I am not looking for the new fad to arrive after learning styles. Instead, I am looking for a practice that has similar features to learning styles theories in that it has been conjured into being by theorists, is widely utilised without much debate, has flawed logic and has virtually no empirical evidence to back it up.

A good candidate is the three-cuing system for reading. I have mentioned this before but I would like to examine the practice in a little more detail with learning styles in mind. It is worth noting that the three-cuing system is also known as ‘multi-cuing’ or ‘searchlights’.

The basic idea is that children need to read ‘real’ books as opposed to carefully sequenced readers that systematically introduce new words. Accordingly, they will need a way to decode words in these books that they have never seen before. One approach would be to use phonics. However, good phonics programs are structured and so a child might not yet have been introduced to all of the letter-sound correspondences needed to read all the words in one of these ‘real’ books.

Proponents of three-cuing suggest that phonics has a small, if any, part to play in this process. When a child gets to an unfamiliar word, she should try and work out what that word might be from the context or perhaps from a related picture. Phonics may be used in a limited way to analyse the first sound in the word and use this to narrow the options.

It seems to be based on notions of how expert readers read. For instance, in the sentence, ‘David was asked to wind the handle,’ context is used to decide how to pronounce ‘wind’ which can be pronounced two different ways with different meanings.

Crucially, however, this decision is made after decoding. A skilled reader has already honed it down to just two narrow options using a phonics approach before applying the context. A skilled reader is not going to substitute ‘wind’ for ‘turn’ just because it also makes sense in this context.

Similarly, imagine that a sentence read, ‘the knight placed his sword back into its scabbard’. A skilled reader who has never before met the word ‘scabbard’ will be able to sound-it-out with ease using knowledge of phonics. The context may then help this reader to learn the new word. In fact, this is one way that reading enables us to gain new knowledge (although I am not suggesting that vocabulary is usually built by single exposures like this). Yet this is the reverse of the process proposed in the three-cuing system.

And so the whole idea of the three-cuing system is quite illogical.

Instead, children should be taught by a systematic synthetic phonics programme that gradually introduces letter-sound correspondences. The requirement for ‘real’ books is essentially an ideological position which should be abandoned where it does not support effective ways of learning reading. Children should be given appropriately sequenced books whilst having classic children’s books read aloud to them. This can be fun and engaging and does not risk the frustration that attends reading failure. In a short space of time, they will learn enough to fully decode ‘real’ books for themselves using phonic.

In his review of three-cuing in the UK (known as searchlights) Jim Rose found little evidence to support this practice and suggested ways in which it might even be harmful in the long term. Children who use these strategies can become reliant upon them, may practice phonics less and may have reading difficulties that go unnoticed. Indeed, this idea has now been removed from the UK framework. Yet it is likely that many teachers are still using it.

The theoretical basis for three-cuing is in Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery also provides the evidence for these strategies and this evidence seems compelling at first glance. Reading Recovery makes use of three-cuing and studies often demonstrate large effects in its favour.

However, with Reading Recovery, it is not clear what is generating the effect. Typically, the intervention is compared with students receiving no intervention at all. So we can’t be sure that it is the three-cuing strategies that generate the effect. It is possible, and I would suggest highly likely, that any effect derives from having up-to-twelve one-to-one half-hour sessions with a adult who takes an interest in the child’s reading.

So three-cuing is a creation of theorists, is widely used, is illogical and lacks evidence. It’s the new learning styles.


12 thoughts on “The new learning styles

  1. I’d say it is the old new learning styles!! However, it is being fought over quite hard. Only yesterday I was asked if I sound out words I don’t know!! “Umm yes actually I still do”. A conversation with the OH revealed so did he.

    Here’s the crux of the matter though – we don’t really realise we are doing it. I only thought about it again when I started to teach phonics and funnily enough it made what I do automatically explicit. In addition, without meaning to I had been emphasising sounding out as a strategy ever since I started teaching as I found multi-cueing inadequate. There is no picture for ‘are’ or ‘have is there? Guessing those words is not going to help from the first letter. As for just working out the word from the context…?? What if the context itself is new? This is often the case especially with young children who don’t have a vast set of experiences.

    Back to sounding out – it is a bit like walking for me now – I don’t have to do it painstakingly as I once did as a child, faltering and falling are rare although I do have to try again sometimes.

    What I can say is that I do not guess words from the initial letter, I do not look at any word and substitute it for another one and I most certainly do not recourse to pictures!!! It’s actually giving pictures a purpose they didn’t have in the first place (to help work out the words), they were simply there as a visual clue of events not words – this seems to have been lost.

    When I was teaching in Year 2 my class had a particularly good set of results and I was asked how I did it. I actually put it down to the phonics they had already learnt in Reception and Yr1. What I added was an emphasis on using the technique, emphasising the phoneme-grapheme correspondence, setting up interventions early for those who needed more practice.

    The reading follow up activities I did forced the children to go back to the print. Some of these were as simple as missing the words in the sentence to go with the picture. But it meant they had to engage with the written words and could not ‘guess’ it correctly. I do think that helped as it meant that they read and re-read sentences. Did they derive ‘meaning’? Slowly but surely.

    Here’s the thing though – what if you have never been to the beach and encounter the word pebble, how would a picture help unless it was of just a pebble? If on the other hand it is a scene from the beach then ‘pebble’ might be mistaken for a number of different items in the picture – sun lounger, beach ball, towel, etc. You can not ‘work out’ what the unfamiliar word is referring to if you don’t know it or the context… something that many multi-cuing advocates seem to ignore.

  2. The requirement for real books isn’t an ideological one, it’s because ‘real books’ are what reading is about. It is why we want to learn to read in the first place, surely? All (or most) families will have lots of ‘real books’ in their homes, and children will be ‘exposed’ to these (alone or with a parent) for four or five years before they begin school. The idea that we would prevent children from having access to these until they can fully decode them seems impossible to ‘police’ and (to me at least) rather odd. My own kids’ teacher started them out on reading scheme books, but as soon as they ‘got’ reading, she sent them home with books of their own choice. Where they came across a word they didn’t know or couldn’t yet pronounce, I was happy to help them (using ‘sound it out’ strategies or sometimes just telling them what it was and what it meant if it was new to them).

    Interestingly there is a word missing here: “And so the whole idea the three-cuing system is quite illogical.” I am still able to make sense of what you wrote, though, because I can ‘guess’ (I prefer ‘predict’) that the missing word is ‘of’.

    • Preventing access to ‘real’ books seems like something that I haven’t argued for. I have instead argued for teaching kids to read properly with appropriately sequenced materials rather than insisting that they we use these ‘real’ books to do this. Clearly, the whole notion is ideological – we can see this from the absurd idea that they are somehow ‘real’. This implies that sequenced books are somehow unreal or perhaps imaginary.

      Thanks for the tip about the typo. I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make as I have accepted that context can be useful. What I don’t accept is that it should be taught as a primary means of decoding.

      • I’ve not come across any primary schools that insist that children use real books to learn to read. That’s what they use reading schemes for, isn’t it?

        The point about the typo was that we make meaning or sense partly by prediction: I didn’t have the missing word to decode but I didn’t need it. I made sense of what you had written without it. I was trying to explain how using context is separate from decoding – it’s not a method of decoding so it can’t be taught as one. It’s a method of matching patterns in writing to patterns in speech. This is why children’s books often use repetition and rhyme – the familiarity of the patterns aids ease of reading for both parent and child. “Silly old mouse, doesn’t he know … there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!” 🙂

      • I am afraid that the three cuing system *really is* a method of decoding because it is used to in order to try to ‘read’ words that a child does not recognise. If you do not think that the three cuing system is an appropriate way of doing this then we agree. Context can be useful after words are decoded – I made this point myself with ‘wind’ and ‘scabbard’.

        Your point about reading schemes is interesting. If you believe that children should be taught to read using books where words are systematically introduced as letter-sound correspondences are learnt then again, we agree. However, my experience is that children are given books that are not controlled in this way. They are these supposedly ‘real’ books that have somehow been levelled due to word length and the like rather than any consideration of phonics.

  3. MaggieD says:

    I’m afraid the theory that children will learn to read through exposure to rhyme and repetition of whole words is quite erroneous. It was developed along with Look & Say methods of teaching reading and resulted in the highly repetitious (with very limited vocabulary) reading scheme books which have been familiar in schools for many decades. Apart from the fact that there is a limit of some 2 – 3,000 items on the number of words that can be learned as ‘wholes’ (apart from by some very few people with exceptional memories) and so a reading vocabulary ‘learned’ that way is extremely limited, this method of teaching has failed a very significant number of children over the years.

    I think this article by Professor Marag Stuart is relevant; she describes a small study into whether children can learn words by exposure rather than explicit phonics teaching.

  4. “Many teachers who are active on social media would now agree that learning styles are something of a myth, whatever their stance on other teaching practices. So, the debate about constructivism might remain open, for instance, but it has largely been resolved on this particular front. It does not mean, of course, that there are no schools or consultants who still promote the idea. It is frightening how these practices still survive.”

    I find this comment and the research interesting. I’m wondering whether it still holds when working one-to-one with individuals (not seen so much research on this) as I would say that different learning styles DO work better with different students. My examples may be extreme cases though.
    Student 1. Has cerebral palsy and some information processing problems . This student is a very visual learner and although he had not learned times tables in school, learned remarkably quickly when given number squares with missing multiples to first write in and then to visualise from memory.
    Student 2: Finally diagnosed with serious visual processing problems at age 11 although school had not recognised this was an issue. Really struggles with any visual representations of maths (I would have to give her a 3D model of a pyramid, she would be bamboozled by a diagram) but is for the first time beginning to learn times tables successfully using songs (Percy Parker). We reinforce this with a kinesthetic card based learning tool also. She really can not learn with 2D visuals so everything presented has to be a mixture of words and 3D kinesthetic approaches.
    Student 3: On autistic spectrum. Cannot retain information/facts well from sentences and paragraphs but if the information is presented in tables and grids and learned through a “fill in the missing sections on the grid ” approach she retains it much more easily!

    I started changing my approach for different students before I’d even heard much about different learning styles, merely on a trial and error “hmm, they really still aren’t getting this, how else can I present it” basis. I know the plural of anecdote isn’t data but In my experience, working one-to-one (often with students with specific learning difficulties, autistic spectrum, head injuries etc) different styles really do sometimes work better for different students.

  5. The Quirky Teacher says:

    ‘Learning styles’ is very much alive and kicking.

    I’m going to predict that, in the face of increasing use of ‘student voice’, the next fad will be something about ‘Interaction style’ whereby teachers will have to acknowledge that children who are confrontational, chatty or who can’t control outbursts of thought have a certain ‘Interaction style’ that must be accounted for in their planning.

    As an example, the teacher must accommodate the child who likes to burst out with comments by allowing them to stand up and help with delivering the teaching input, for example. Those who are chatty must be given extra time to talk with their friends and construct their own knowledge and those who are confrontational must be allowed to question absolutely everything the teacher says in order to make the teacher justify what they are saying/

    I haven’t quite thought this through, yet, but you get the jist.

    You heard it here first!

  6. Pingback: What can we learn from the L3 debacle | Filling the pail

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