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Learning Styles

The EYFS guidelines state that good practice should involve ‘understanding the complex relationship between child development and how children learn' (Enabling Environments). We begin by discussing the theory of Learning Styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic), with future articles covering topics such as Brain-based learning, Child Initiated learning, and Multi-sensory approaches.


The concept behind Learning Styles is that all learners have an individual preference in the way they process information. Research into Learning Styles has gathered momentum over the last fifty years, as progress has been made in neuro-psychology and understanding the way our brains operate as we learn. There are many Learning Styles theories and most of them are based on research carried out with adults. Alistair Smith, in his book Accelerated Learning (1996, 2002), is widely known for translating the Learning Styles approach into a usable format for those working with young children. As he writes ‘no-one had ...tried to apply what was an adult methodology to children in classrooms and write about the results' (intro, 2002). This approach focuses on Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic learning styles, known as VAK, and is commonly used as a teaching and learning strategy in classrooms around the country.

What is a Learning Style?

Riding and Rayner define a learning style as ‘an individual set of differences that indicate not only a stated personal preference for instruction or an association with a particular form of learning activity, but also individual differences found in intellectual or personal psychology' (p.151). In other words, everyone has their own way of learning that is a part of who they are rather than chosen by them. An individual will employ the same learning preference regardless of the activity, whether it be learning the letters in their name or learning to hop. As Dunn and Dunn explain, a learning style is ‘that consistent pattern of behaviour and performance by which an individual approaches educational experiences' (in Smith, 1996, p.47). In his theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner defines a learning style as separate to intelligence. In doing so he gives a clear explanation of a learning style as something particular to a person that is used in every learning situation: ‘The concept of style designates a general approach that an individual can apply equally to an indefinite range of content....an intelligence is a capacity... that is geared to a specific content in the world' (Intelligence Reframed, p.84).

So what are these style preferences? Smith states that through Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), a method of research about the brain and learning, ‘we are now able to identify three distinct communication and learning preferences' (2000, p.146). These are Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic styles, or Seeing, Hearing and Doing. Together they are known as VAK. A learner will use all five senses to process information, but these three will be dominant (Smith, 2002). VAK is one of seven stages in Smith's system of Accelerated Learning, which incorporates knowledge about the brain, nourishing self-confidence, intelligence and memory. Within the three dominant senses (seeing, hearing and doing), a child will have their own learning preference. However, it is important not to label a child as, for example, a ‘visual learner': ‘Each individual learner has a preferred style, but it would be simplistic to suggest that each person is a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. Instead we all have preferences for learning using one of these areas, but utilise all three methods to some degree' (Call, The Thinking Child, p.116).

The Characteristics of Each Learning Style

Visual Learning

A child with a predominantly visual learning style will favour using pictures and objects in their play. They will have good visual recall of events and scenes and will often remember details about what people were wearing. They may enjoy painting and drawing and watching television. A child with a visual style will prefer to be shown what to do rather than told and may communicate using lots of facial expressions and phrases such as ‘I see what you mean'.

Auditory Learning

A child with a preference for learning through hearing will like listening to stories and music. They may learn using patterns of sounds, for example with letters and numbers. They will enjoy circle times and the opportunity to talk through events. They will remember verbal instructions and may talk to themselves as they play.

Kinesthetic Learning

A child who favours learning through doing will enjoy lots of hands on activities and movement. They will learn through experience and will explore touch and texture. They may use objects to help them recall things and will remember things that have happened to them. They are often well coordinated, find it tricky to sit still and enjoy being outdoors.

Using VAK in an Early Years Setting

Understanding the principles behind VAK encourages reflective practice. It asks practitioners to examine the way they support children as individual learners. As Fisher writes ‘it is clear that we do not all learn in the same way. It therefore follows that we cannot expect to teach all children in the same way' (Practical Preschool, Sept 2006). She points out that in the past the learning environment has been very visually stimulating while perhaps neglecting the nourishment of auditory and kinesthetic learning. Call agrees, siting the need for a ‘VAK balance' (The Thinking Child, p.116) in the early years setting. The space as a whole, the activities on offer and the adult support for individual children need to accommodate all the learning styles. Visual Learning can be stimulated by using photographs of people and events; having props to tell a story; using picture labels; lots of mirrors; interactive displays; and playing matching and spot the difference games. Auditory Learning will be supported through the use of musical signals for times of the day; listening walks; discussing an activity before, during and after; letter and number songs; using different voices or sound props to tell a story; sound lotto; and clapping rhythms to help remember things. Kinesthetic Learning can be expanded by using movement and puppets to tell stories; feely bags; action rhymes; making large gestures when talking; magnetic letters; role play; large pieces of fabric for imaginative play; and lots of use of malleable materials and outdoor equipment. Call believes a particular challenge for supporting Kinesthetic learning is to make indoor play as rich as that which takes place outdoors: ‘The challenge for practitioners is to find a way to bring Kinesthetic learners indoors, such as providing easels with marker pens for writing, large comfortable mats for small world play and plenty of space in the book corner' (p.122, Resource Book).

It is also important for an early years practitioner to think about their own learning style. As Smith states, ‘be aware that you will have your own preferred system and that you will tend to teach through it' (2002, p.43). Practitioners are a part of the learning experience, and by reflecting on learning styles they can incorporate a variety of approaches in their interactions with children. A combination of the language used, (such as ‘I see' or ‘Let's do that again'), of the movements made, (such as facial expressions or sweeping gestures) and of the props that are employed (such as photographs, music or puppets) all help to create a ‘VAK balance' in the nursery setting.

Traditionally, an individual's learning style has been established through self-assessment using one of a number of questionnaires available to teachers of older children. This approach is not possible in an early years setting. However, the close observation and record keeping of each child and communication with parents and carers that is already part of good early years practice can provide information about children's learning styles (Fisher).

Links to the EYFS

Although the concept of Learning Styles is not overtly expressed in the EYFS guidelines, some of its main themes are evident. VAK focuses on children as individual learners, and this is one of the core elements in the EYFS. It states that ‘Every child's learning journey takes a personal path based on their own individual interests, experiences and the curriculum on offer' (Enabling Environments, Supporting Every Child). The importance of an environment that reflects a balanced approach to learning is also highlighted: ‘Review your environment to ensure that it is interesting, attractive and accessible to every child so they can learn independently' (Learning and Development, Active Learning). Some of the ways in which a flexible environment can be created are mentioned in Supporting Learning, Positive Relationships: ‘Photographs of activities or a picture exchange system can help children to record their likes and dislikes' and ‘Talking with children may take place in English or in their home language, in signing or through body language and gesture.' Reading through the EYFS guidelines, there are many ways in which an understanding of different learning preferences can enhance good practice.

Problems with Learning Styles and VAK

The use of Learning Styles theory in educational settings, and in particular the version known as VAK, has gathered momentum in recent years. However, some educationalists are concerned that VAK has been applauded as the latest fashionable teaching tool. Sharp et. al. argue that it should not be seen as a ‘short cut, quick fix or magic bullet' (p.16). They believe that many practitioners are encouraged to use Learning Styles without a proper understanding of the theory behind them. For example, they are concerned that teachers tend to label children as a particular type of learner, rather than having a preference for a particular way of learning. Smith himself appears aware of the popularity of VAK in isolation from the six other stages in his Accelerated Learning system. In the 2002 reprint of his initial text he writes that the book ‘had an influence which is way beyond its author's original intent' (Accelerated Learning, 2002, Introduction). Riding and Rayner are also cautious about the influence of the research into learning styles. They argue that it is restricted by its origins in the learning process, which has made it difficult to successfully record an effect on children's learning; ‘This has led to models of style being developed which are ‘fluid', environmentally orientated and very susceptible to change' (p.78). It is clear that Learning Styles should be used as a teaching aid alongside the many other strategies that reflective practitioners are familiar with.


A grounding in the theory of Learning Styles can help the early years practitioner look afresh at the learning environment and their interactions with children. VAK underlines the individuality of children's learning journeys and gives the adults in a setting a deeper understanding of learning as something that is very personal to each child.
Accelerated Learning, Alistair Smith, 1996, reprinted 2002, Network Educational Press Ltd, UK
Accelerated Learning in Practice, Alistair Smith, 1998, reprinted 2000, Network Educational Press Ltd, UK
Supporting Individual Learning Styles, article in Practical Preschool, Sue Fisher, Sept 2006
The Thinking Child: Brain-based learning for the foundation stage, Nicola Call, 2003, Network Educational Press, UK
The Thinking Child: Resource Book, Nicola Call, 2003, Network Educational Press Ltd, UK
Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies: Understanding Styles differences in learning and behaviour, R Riding and S Rayner, 1998, David Fulton Publishers Ltd, UK
The Trouble with VAK, article by John G Sharp, Jenny Byrne and Rob Bowker, 2007, www.besajournal.org.uk
Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the Twenty first Century, Howard Gardner, 1999, Basic Books, USA

For the section on the characteristics of the different learning styles I found Smith (2000), Call and Fisher very helpful, and Call's The Thinking Child: Resource Book contains many more ways to provide for different learning preferences in a setting.

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, Juliet taught in a Nursery and Reception class at a school in South London. She then moved to East Sussex, teaching Reception and Year 1, began freelance writing and also worked in a nursery. She had a children’s picture book published in 2011. Juliet currently works as a Key Stage 1 Learning Mentor and regularly teaches in a Reception Class, as well as writing for the FSF. She lives in East Sussex with her partner and three children.
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