visual think

As a dyslexia teacher and mum, my aim is to support those with dyslexia. I am particularly interested in helping class teachers to get a better understanding of this rather abstract and complex difference. Sadly, dyslexic strengths often only appear after school. My dream would be for dyslexic children to thrive in school, both emotionally and academically. They can learn, if they can do it differently.

I’ve used the name ‘thinkpix’ because when my eldest son was around 5 years old, he told me ‘I have a picture for everything’. I read ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’ shortly after and everything fell into place: why he was struggling at school, had been late to talk (3 years), could never remember nursery rhymes and had never been interested in the alphabet!

My first blog is on identifying dyslexia in the classroom.

Harnessing visual skills in spelling


People that are good spellers can picture how words look.

Whilst dyslexics typically have strong visual abilities (in design and creative fields) this does not extend to orthographic memory (memory for how words look). There are lots of ways you can try to tap into a strong visual skill:

Mindmapping words connected by a shared sound.

Exploring the etymology/history of a word and presenting it visually.

Small High Frequency Words can be tricky because, often abstract, they may not readily be visualised.

Using etymology to show how some words are linked in meaning but not in sounds.

Addressing confusions between words.

When orthography (spelling pattern) is irregular e.g., ‘or’ = /er/

High Frequency Words that are confused – try making an animated video.

Experimenting with stop animation.

Using playdough in video making.

Open syllables explained, using letters.

Vocabulary: what’s missing from the Frayer Model?

The above is the Frayer model, developed in 1969 by Dorothy Frayer at the University of Wisconsin. It has been championed by Alex Quigley and it is perfectly fine for the majority of students.

However, for students with low working memory, this method is insufficient to enable new vocabulary to stick. This is the eternal problem in the field of educational research – it rarely focuses on what works for struggling students and most things work for the majority – to differing degrees.

Why is it insufficient? Because it is the individual sounds (phonemes) in language which create difficulties for students with low working memory. This impacts on their ability to decode, sequence and pronounce new vocabulary, it also impacts on their ability to learn and retrieve new vocabulary accurately and fluently.

They will benefit from:

Chunking the word into syllables – denoting which vowels are long (open syllables) and short (closed syllables)

Paying attention to morphology (word structure) which includes prefixes and suffixes

Exploring etymology (word history) which can give them additional meaning (semantic information) to enable the word to stick.

Read more: Vocabulary: what’s missing from the Frayer Model?

Find a list of language from language for life which has been researched according to etymology here: Thinking about language

Reading with Reception: what I have learned.

Photo by mentatdgt on

A few years ago, I took a job as a Reading TA with Reception children. I hadn’t worked extensively with this age group before and I was studying (in the final year) of my Masters in SpLD (dyslexia).

I was particularly interested in the Reception phase as research shows this is particularly important – students who fall behind, stay behind:

Having read with my own dyslexic son from a young age, I knew the signs of dyslexia in early readers. The job required me to listen to the whole class read each morning (individually!) daily within a very short space of time as their lunch was around 11.30.

What did I learn?

Children of this age are already very present to the status that being a ‘good’ reader brings e.g., they would declare their book band quite loudly so that others could hear.

(Schools may give confusing signals as they tell children not to worry about their book band and then praise them hugely when they move up.)

I learned that some children (around ten out of thirty/one third of the class) acquire the skills of reading with EASE, there is no conscious effort at all. This is not the result of good teaching, simply the way they are wired.

Another ten out of thirty/third acquire reading with a small degree of effort.

Finally, there is another cohort – around ten – who really struggle and have to work very hard. Reading is uncomfortable and effortful. Of this ten, five or so might be dyslexic with severe difficulties.

All of the children made good progress within the 3 months that I was in the role. At the beginning, some were still on Pink book bands, by the end they had all moved up.

What I did:

I never told them to use the pictures, they could use the pictures to help (this is early inference) but NOT without processing all sounds.

(The other reading TA was a perfect example of why not to use the picture: in the book she modelled on my first day, she urged the child to use the picture as a clue, it was a shop, the target word was ‘supermarket’, the child read ‘shop’.)

I taught them phonics in High Frequency/Common Exception Words, I also taught these words using images as well.

I modelled and emphasised/exaggerated sounds, especially /th/

I used picture books

I gave them thinking putty and let them move if they needed

I asked them questions about what they read and what they thought would happen.

When I left the school, I highlighted about 6 children that need to be monitored for Literacy difficulties.

The more natural readers needed to be encouraged to slow down, using syllabification and morphology. Sometimes their comprehension was compromised, almost because reading was too easy.

The middle group would benefit from explicit phonics and scaffolding of phonics in context.

The struggling 10 children (lowest attainers) would benefit from a mix of blending practice e.g., Toe by Toe, visual approaches and phonics in context.

See my final feedback:

Imagine conducting your own research into Reception Reader profiles, taking an overview, and responding immediately to their needs. You may also find that they fall into roughly 3 groups.

Metacognition: what it is and why it matters.

Photo by cottonbro on

Metacognition is not new and is simply thinking about thinking.

‘Metacognition means “thinking about one’s
own thinking”. There are two aspects of metacognition: –
reflection- thinking about what we know and self-regulation managing how we go about learning.

Taking together, these
processes make up an important aspect of learning and
development. Developing these metacognitive abilities is not
simply about becoming reflective learners, but about
acquiring specific learning strategies as well. Metacognitive
beliefs, metacognitive awareness, metacognitive experiences,
metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive skills, executive
skills, higher-order skills, metacomponents, metamemory
are some of the terms that we are often using in association
with metacognition. Metacognitive awareness means being
aware of how you think.’

All quotes in bold from –

A Study on the Metacognitive Awareness of Secondary
School Students (2016), see link below:

Metacognition enables learners to be independent and to develop self-efficacy. It allows them to generalise across their learning profile, developing successful study skills and attitudes.

It is a 2 way process with the teacher developing their own metacognition: reflecting on what they have done, what has worked, what could go better…and the student doing the same.

It is especially important for struggling learners and it is a process of making thought processes visible.

How can we do this?

One of the ways to do this is through ‘metalanguage’, giving the student the language to express how they did something and how they might do it differently in future.

Photo by Nothing Ahead on

Simple questions to stimulate this might be:

How did you know that?

What did you use to help you when...?

What did you do differently when…?

Photo by Pixabay on

The trick is to catch them being successful, making the process visible, so that they acknowledge what they have done and can apply it in future. Struggling learners almost give up on themselves as learners, disappointed in their memory and persistent failure.

Metacognition allows people to take charge of
their own learning. sometimes people use the phrase ‘going
meta’ when talking about metacognition, referring to the

process of stepping back to see what you are doing, as if you
were someone else observing it. “Going meta” means
becoming an audience of your own performance- in this case,
your own intellectual performance.
“Metacognition was originally referred to as the
knowledge about and regulation of one’s own cognitive
activities in learning processes” (Flavell, 1979; Brown,
“Metacognition involves awareness of how they learn, an
evaluation of their learning needs, generating strategies to
meet these needs and then implementing the strategies”
(Hacker, 2009).

Give the student space to talk through their processes. Due to low working memory, students may experience overload and forget what they were doing/thinking. Thinking aloud supports low auditory memory. You will know this yourself if you are someone who spells aloud or repeats phone numbers aloud when writing them down.

I assessed a spectacular young man recently who gave me a running commentary on his thinking throughout. It was so revealing… and yet in the classroom probably very rare for him to be able to talk through what he was thinking (and doing).

Metacognition is most commonly divided into two distinct,
but interrelated areas. John flavell, one of the first

researchers in metacognition and memory, defined these two
areas as metacognitive knowledge- awareness of one’s
thinking- and metacognitive regulation- the ability to
manage one’s own thinking processes. These two
components are used together to inform learning theory.
Flavell describes three kinds of metacognitive

 Awareness of knowledge- it involves understanding
what one knows, what one does not know, and what one
wants to know. This category may also include an
awareness of other’s knowledge.

 Awareness of thinking- understanding cognitive tasks
and the nature of what is required to complete them.

 Awareness of thinking strategies- understanding
approaches to direct learning.

Fostering metacognition in the classroom allows students to be active learners, self-monitoring: Have I understood? In order to facilitate this, there needs to be a move away from celebrating only correct answers and celebrating the processes. Often, if students are given space to reason aloud, you may find they are very CLOSE to the answer.

Give students time. A recurring difficulty for students with dyslexia is confusing a comma and an apostrophe. Difficulties here are linked to rapid naming – trying to name objects at speed. Allowing thinking time will mean that they can carefully select the correct response and analyse their choices: I know these look the same but they are used for different things, one goes in the air, one on the line…

Photo by Brett Jordan on

Saying ‘no’ to a response shuts thinking down. Instead, draw the student out and encourage them to share their thinking.

What to say to an incorrect answer:

Close, but can you tell me more about that

That’s really interesting, what makes you say that?

I’d like to hear more about that

Model metacognition and do your own thinking aloud.

These are some useful metacognitive skills for students:

Knowing your limits – knowing the limits of one’s
own memory for a particular task and creating a means
of external support.

 Self-monitoring – self-monitoring one’s learning
strategy, such as concept mapping, and then adapting
the strategy if it is not effective.

 Modify – noticing whether one comprehended something
one just read and then modifying approach if one did
not comprehend it.

 Skimming – choosing to skim subheadings of
unimportant information to get to the information one

 Rehearsing – repeatedly rehearsing a skill in order to

gain proficiency.

 Self-test – periodically doing self-tests to see how well
you learned something.

Classrooms that foster recognition are inclusive, calm, nonjudgemental environments where every student can shine.

Is reading like riding a bike?


Ride a bike

I’ve been following the ongoing phonics debate in Australia with interest. Many parents are calling for the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) and state Education Ministers are opposing it. Is phonics a panacea?

Introduced in 2012, can we categorically say the PSC has been a success?

Children are still failing to learn to read, even some who ‘pass’ the PSC. Part of the issue seems to me, that schools see the PSC as a hoop to be jumped through, rather than an opportunity to reflect on, and improve, phonics teaching for reading.

Non words are part of the PSC and these are intended to be used to assess decoding ability, using phonics knowledge alone (the look and meaning of the word cannot be used). Assessors for dyslexia use such measures to ascertain whether students have a ‘phonological deficit’. With the explicit teaching of these words in schools, these assessment batteries become less effective.

Many schools teach students to read non words, which is short-sighted as it masks those at risk. Studies also show that the first time a student sees a new word has the biggest impact – how confusing to be taught to read phonetically plausible pseudo-words!

Could the PSC be integrated as a useful screening check for those at risk of dyslexia and reading failure: yes.

Is it used for this purpose in the UK? I think not (too much effort is put into ‘passing’ it). This is about data and not nurturing a love of reading. What message does it give to children about reading?

Children might ‘pass’ the test but still not be ‘readers’. In addition, it is unclear what happens next for those who fail.

There have been numerous studies carried out into reading in the UK and worldwide. In analysing the minutiae of reading: the nuts and bolts, are we somehow missing the Big Picture?

One of the best known signs of dyslexia is reading failure. When analysing statistics, it is important to remember there are many variables: not just the method but the child and the environment; including home, school and importantly, the teacher.

In a large scale study of the effectiveness of intervention schemes, Greg Brooks found that no particular one stood out significantly in terms of impact. However, the teacher is key, see the report here: What works for literacy difficulties.

Teachers need to have an awareness of different strategies when teaching reading but also an understanding of the emotional consequences of reading ‘failure’.

  • Is reading a bit like swimming?

I stumbled across a powerful description of the reading process which likened it to swimming (read the blog here). This analogy stayed with me.

Reading is not just about phonics or whole word strategies, it is not just about practice or whether there is a culture of reading at home. All of these things are factors; however, it seems to me that reading is a lot like the other physical childhood accomplishments which require co-ordination: swimming and cycling; instruction is required, but these are also physical acts, ability to experience success can be affected by attitude, our emotional responses and physical readiness.

Before studying dyslexia, I taught reading to those children who had lost faith in their ability, some may have been dyslexic. One would feel physically sick when he tried to read, another could not sit still. Many had physical and emotional responses to reading, no doubt they had had negative experiences in the past. They had some phonics, they had some ‘whole word’ knowledge but trying to read made them highly anxious, confused, sometimes angry or just plain weary.

It made me think of how we taught our sons to cycle. We took the pedals off the bikes and found a hill; they got balance and a feel for the movement. When they had the balance, we put the pedals back on; they cycled independently – very wobbly at first!

Some children need a similar approach when learning to read; a helping hand and some encouragement, in order to provide a sense that it is all within their grasp. The support needs to be provided and withdrawn subtly, so that the child is barely aware of it and almost feels that they did it ‘on their own.’

The next minute, they’re off! The sheer joy of freedom and independence.

Many years on and, despite the Phonics Screening Check in the UK, some children are still not learning to read. I hope parents in Australia aren’t expecting too much from it. Used to screen for children ‘at risk’ of reading failure and to reflect on teaching practice, the PSC could be a powerful tool.


Is the book something they WANT to read, are they slavishly restricted to particular book bands?

Try using picture books, poems, magazines, signs, logos – any form of written word.

To help children on their way, they need to learn to ‘coast’ when reading, through paired and shared activities. Phonics needs to be taught along with enjoyment of reading and other skills, such as inference and prediction. Interventions such as Reading Recovery can feel highly pressured. In fact, any intervention can make the child feel they need ‘fixing’, are defective, make them feel scrutinised.

Remember, fiction is imagining, factual books are connecting ideas. Reading is not just words/data on a page, it changes and illuminates our brain and thinking.

It’s a complicated process but eventually readers take off and they don’t look back!

Phonics is a good start but perhaps not the panacea many would have us believe.


Guided Spelling: spelling between the desks.


board game chance game indoors
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Guided spelling or ‘Spelling between the desks’, is a new concept of mine!

Informed in part by mine and others’ approaches to maths. We are essentially trying to get inside the mind of the student to help to guide and explore their own thinking, in order to model HOW to think analytically about spelling. Often when I ask why a child has made a certain choice, they will say ‘it SOUNDED like that’ or worse ‘I DON’T KNOW!’.

Whilst the children are working, you can circulate around the desks to support key students.

Questions the teacher should ask:

  • What is your next sentence?
  • Are there any spellings you aren’t sure of? (check High Frequency Words too).
  • What does the word mean?
  • How many syllables does it have, which are open, which closed?
  • What is the first sound? (encourage exaggerated artciulation or use a mirror if this is something they struggle with)
  • Go through the sounds until there is a sound which is ambiguous, usually a vowel.
  • Ask: what are the spelling choices? e.g. in exaggerate the beginning sounds like ‘eggs’, the /j/ is g followed by ‘e’ which makes it ‘soft’, ate could be eight, ayt, but is a split digraph.
  • Use analogy, affixes, and spelling conventions or rules to guide choices.


The result:

Children will start to take an analytical, metacognitive approach to spelling – will become empowered and better equipped to self-check work.

Why does this work:

Spelling becomes an integrated part of teaching, students learn to become ambitious in tackling spelling and curious about how words work, leading to greater resilience around spelling.

What you will need:

An awareness of how words work, how to use affixes and identify roots, a knowledge of spelling rules and conventions. Some knowledge of  articulation, phonics and the history of our language.

If your school would like training in these areas contact me!


Journey of a dyslexic writer

Year One

It can be difficult for Primary schools to identify dyslexia, one of the reasons is that emphasis is on development and some students not being ‘ready’.

How to spot dyslexia:

The suggestion is that given time and opportunity to catch up, they will. Dyslexia is, however, a specific difficulty and students do not typically catch up but fall further behind, until the gap is too wide for them to bridge it. We know from research that students who fall behind in Reception do not catch up and this is why emphasis is now on this phase, in terms of assessment and intervention. We also know that high quality teaching has a considerable impact in this phase.

What is going on for dyslexic learners in Reception/Year One?

To begin with, they struggle to acquire automaticity around letter shape which most other students acquire with varying degrees of ease. Reversals are common in dyslexia (yes, this is SOMETIMES developmental) and they do not readily right themselves but need help to do so. They typically have low working memory and may struggle to follow teaching input, instructions and to remember what they wanted to say/write.

Asking them to write the date and LO is an exercise in frustration as the letters must be held in mind and kept in sequence to transfer to the page when they do not have mastery of letter shape. It is exhausting and energies are best placed elsewhere.

Character description Year One

When writing independently, spellings are difficult to decipher. Sometimes vowels are omitted and sometimes in the ‘flow’ of writing, a page of vowel sounds is written as words. I often think of this during choir when we are taught to linger on vowel sounds. Dyslexic students often struggle to identify specific sounds in words due to low proprioceptive feedback.

The writing demonstrates b/d confusion and a lack of sound awareness.

Year Two

In Year Two, the student started the alphabet writing 8 (this was done for 6 months) and for reading, Toe by Toe. The student did not take the end of KS2 SATs. School provided Fischer Family Trust as a reading intervention. The student also began Apples and Pears, a structured programme which incorporates phonics. How to use the writing 8:

Year Two

The opening ‘wonst aponatim’ demonstrates a difficulty with language closure. The writing includes reversals e.g., p/q and the writer has missed sounds e.g., staride for started. Spelling is phonetic e.g., windo for window.

In Year Two the student started learning words for reading and spelling as ‘pictures’.

Year Two

Writing is not aligned to the margin, although it is slightly easier to read. Spellings show that the split digraph rule is not understood e.g., ‘sicke’ and the writer is not sure when to use c/ck/k e.g., trunc.

Year Four

Here, ed for a past tense verb would be a useful teaching point as danced is spelled danst. Place is written two ways (plase, plas) so the learner would benefit from being taught that place is like face, ace, race and the ‘c’ is soft = is makes the sound /s/ when followed by e or i.

Year Three

The learner has applied the ed past tense verb ending mixde but the ending is transpose which is a common dyslexic feature.The word ‘could’ is spelled several different ways and is worthy of focus: could would and should share the same pattern, in the ould sequence, only the /u/ and /d/ can be heard.

Some etymology here:

Year Four

In Year Four, there was a lot of scribing, however, the student also began Kumon for literacy which enables daily reading and writing at the student’s level. The student must demonstrate that they have mastered the level at the Kumon Centre before they can move on. Improvements can be seen in handwriting and composition. Thoughts on handwriting:

Year Five

The student has some sound confusion e.g., swithed for swift: /th/ instead of /f/ and caliping instead of galloping. The student has lack of awareness that ‘y’ makes an /e/ sound at the end of words, thus ‘ugle’. The student is using similes and show not tell: ‘my hands were sweating like a llama getting chased by a leopard’, but the similes can be quite unusual. Dyslexics like to invent and do not naturally draw from typical similes and metaphors, intertextuality does not come easily to them.

See my post: Ways with phonics

Year Six

The double consonant in ‘begged’ is missing and the vowel sound is missing for collapsing (clappsing), bodies does not demonstrate the y to i and add es pattern and is worthy of explicit teaching. Handwriting focus should be the letter ‘i’ (too tall) and ‘o’ which does not always join from the top. The word ‘through’ is spelled as throw and would be a good spelling target.

Dyslexia Ideas: writing

Photo by Pixabay on

Dare to DREAM : teaching dyslexic learners.

Photo by Karyme Franu00e7a on

A few years ago, I sat down to try and identify the things I consider when teaching dyslexic learners. It can be hard to do this, as teaching becomes natural and unconscious through practice and refinement. It is a combination of creativity, knowledge, experience and an ability to reflect, adapt and change.

A teacher who is practised has a level of automaticity that frees them up to respond to situations and adapt. I like to assess formatively and during teaching am constantly assessing too.

I attended a BredEd some time ago and tried to convey these principles in my presentation:

My DREAM principles begin with ‘Dynamic’.

Dyslexic learners benefit from opportunities to move. We have 7 senses in all, with vestibular (balance) and proprioception (knowing where the body is in space) being the additional 2 that people know less about.

Sweller himself (of Cognitive Load Theory fame) is now interested in how movement might facilitate the acquisition of Biologically secondary knowledge (information which we have not evolved to acquire). The importance of movement has already been acknowledged within education with ‘active maths’ enjoying some popularity.

Movement is therefore important to aid arousal and to support memory:

My next principle is ‘Real Life’. Dyslexic learners benefit from examples which connect to real life, making the information less abstract and allowing them to utilise autobiographical memory which is typically strong in dyslexia. Dewey maintained that unless the initial connection was made between school activities and the life experiences of the child, genuine learning and growth would be impossible.

Richard Feynman himself said ‘What I cannot create I do not understand’.

Consider how much of the language we use already has a real life application e.g., operation in a medical sense and in mathematics. Be explicit about these differences but make the links:

Explicit brings me on to the next principle. Whilst I do use discovery approaches that students enjoy, I am also explicit about the things they need to know. Dyslexic students are exploratory, tangential thinkers whose thinking does not always serve them well in an academic context where straight line thinking is required.

When students achieve success, dopamine is released in the brain which is in turn a neurotransmitter – leading to greater success (dopamine is also released in the teacher’s brain). Students with dyslexia, especially those without a diagnosis, have experienced a lot of unexplained failure. Despite working hard, this is typically unnoticed, and simple tasks such as spelling their own name correctly, are beyond their reach. It confounds them that peers seem to read and write with ease and that these students receive plentiful praise. Keep targets small and measurable:

My final principle is ‘Mind’s Eye’. It can be very confusing to read some of the literature around dyslexia. Defined as ‘word blindness’ originally, the notion of dyslexia as a ‘visual’ difficulty is again en vogue. However, we read and perceive with our brains and not our eyes. Accurate reading requires a synthesis of sound and image, a grapheme-phoneme connection. In reading, the eyes hop in saccades requiring ocular motor control: the more a student reads, the smoother this becomes – but for dyslexics, reading remains effortful so they practice less.

Through assessment, visual working memory is often found to be significantly stronger than auditory working memory. Without exception, dyslexic learners of all ages tell me that they benefit from visuals, my own son told me aged 4 that he ‘thinks in pictures.’

Speaking at a conference 2019

‘Mind’s Eye’ is not simply a method of using visuals, it involves the imagination and visualising information, sometimes as a sequence or movie, sometimes static.

When learners are struggling to read a word on the page, I will often ask them to imagine it instead, or spell it in the mind’s eye.

When discussing a concept e.g., division, I will ask what they picture or think of first – in one case this was sharing on plates even though they were in KS2.

Across the Great Divide: learning styles and the prog vs trad debate.

Photo by Sebastian Palomino on

(Or, why I’m a ‘Trog’)

A recent twitter post got me thinking again about the Learning Style debate and how this has become a highly political issue.

A guaranteed way to garner approval, ensuring your tweet is buoyant with likes, is of course to criticise and renounce learning style (VAK) theory. I even read a tweet from one of the ‘learning scientists’ which claimed that seeing VAK (learning style) resources made her feel physically sick – not a very scientific response.

Before we explore learning style theory, it’s useful to understand the political climate in the edu twittersphere, which of course reflects attitudes in the teaching profession, albeit the more strident, polemical ones.

Those with traditional views (Trads) often come into conflict with those with more progressive views (Progs). These opposing views may be reflected in the different roots of the Latin for ‘education’: educere and educare.

Educare suggests to shape or mold (Trad), and educere: to draw or lead out (Prog).

The difference is well explained here in a blog by Matthew Gioia:

In an article which explores the dichotomy between the Trad vs Prog extremes, Oyler and Becker discuss the approach in which the student’s personal knowledge is neglected vs that in which the teacher’s achieved cultural knowledge is ‘an embarrassment’. They suggest a variant on the old metaphor: the rock and the soft place. The rock represents the teacher as the authority, the boss, the font of all knowledge, supported by the current Trad narrative of ‘expert vs novice’. The soft place represents the teacher as gardener, facilitator – providing opportunities for the student to work things out for themselves.

Where does learning style theory fit into this?

Learning styles theorist Neil Fleming developed the acronym, VARK, Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, and
Kinesthetic, referring to the instructional preference in which students, or people in society
prefer to take in and give out information. According to Fleming, the Visual aspect of this
acronym refers to those who prefer to look at graphs, charts, hierarchies, symbols, and things that
other teachers use to represent words (in place of words). For a person with a visual instructional
preference, the layout, design, and colouring of a page give them meaning.

The Aural/auditory part of the acronym refers to those who have a speaking or hearing instructional preference. For example, these people learn best through group discussions, receiving feedback, phone calls, presentations, and through speaking with others.

The Reading/Writing part of this acronym refers to those whose instructional preference is working with words that are either read or written. Lastly, the kinaesthetic part of this acronym refers to those whose instructional preferences are through “learning by doing” for example, experiences, examples, and/or practice (Fleming, N. D., 2011).

Fleming was interested in inviting teachers to explore their own individual preferences, which in turn would help them to understand and meet the needs of their students.

Another theory originated from David Kolb, who published his learning styles model in 1984 from which he developed his learning style inventory.

Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.  Much of Kolb’s theory is concerned with the learner’s internal cognitive processes.

Howard Gardner (1989) believed that students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive.
Because of this, Gardner thought it would be best to assess learning in a variety of ways, which
is how he came up with the idea of multiple intelligences. Under the Gardner’s multiple
intelligences, he describes seven different and distinctive learning styles into which he believes
that students, and society for that matter, are categorised.

The commonality between these theories is that they are all student centred. This is at odds with the Trad perspective: that students should not be encouraged to express learning preferences and that to engage in this is somehow ‘damaging’ (see above tweet), that the teacher is expert and a disseminator of information.

The demonisation of learning style theory serves to shift pedagogy to the left, Trad view, with teachers claiming to be ‘socialist in principle and conservative in pedagogy’ (is this possible?). Instead, the theory is to be replaced with ‘cognitive science’ and Cognitive Load Theory – Sweller’s work which packages working memory theory with instructional design.

In doing so, what is lost?… perhaps the student voice and experience, which are crucial if we are to engage in metacognitive processes (another current buzz word).

Working memory theory is of course the link between Learning Style Theory and Cognitive Load Theory. If one accepts the construct of working memory, as comprised of a separate auditory and visual aspect, it makes sense that students who struggle to process and retain auditory input benefit from visuals.

In fact, it is possible to measure these abilities separately, and students with dyslexia typically have a strong visual memory; a poor auditory one.

Moreover, when talking with, and supporting students from Primary through to degree level, I find this to be the case: access to visuals helps them to retain auditory information.

The field of cognitive psychology focuses on processing deficits such as phonology, working memory and processing speed. Educational research tends to ignore dyslexia or to include it with other reading difficulties, making interpretation of the data difficult. Much of what does exist that adds to the discourse around the dyslexic experience, comes from autobiographies or collections of case studies outside academic research (Riddick, 1996).

Educational research focuses on ‘what works’ for all, when the truth might be that for learners with good arousal, strong memory and automatic skills of reading and writing, the quality or style of teaching has little impact. Instead, consider what works for the struggling learners, this is where the impact of effective teaching can be found.

As in the field of education, there is divide in the field of scientific research. The positivist approach is logical and mathematical, delivered with certainty and reliant on data, whereas an interpretivist approach focuses on finding meaning and exploring the human experience: reality is complex and multi-layered. In this approach researchers use interviews and observation.

In her article ‘Learning Style: Snake Oil or Solid Strategy’, Tilly Mortimore talks of the limitations of the Random Controlled Trial (RCT):

‘How can we avoid over-refining the context and eliminating any of the nuances of real life?How reliable are the instruments we develop to measure impact or change in an interventions study?Can we collect a sufficiently large and standardised sample and can we really divide it reliably into, for example a dyslexic group and a non-dyslexic control group? This kind of research may be effective and reliable with medical trials or neuroscientific work but lab rats are not complicated human beings’.

The rise in accountability measures and the commoditisation of education has triggered an exponential rise in the number of ‘experts’ and resource providers.

Does this serve to detract from, and undermine, the ‘teacher as expert’ narrative?

Simon Gibbs’ book Immoral Education suggests that teachers have been reduced to operators, with their professional identity eroded:

 ‘…the book provides a rationale that argues an essential ingredient of good education is the quality of teachers who have a reaffirmed sense of creativity, autonomy and agency. The book presents a role for educational psychology in informing educational and inclusive processes, filling a longstanding need for a text that delineates the way psychological phenomena underpin education.’

It makes sense that teachers have access to appropriate research on the science of learning during training to be a teacher, that they enter the workplace feeling equipped with knowledge and that they go on to develop a singular practice, with co-agency, purpose and a sense of autonomy.

The Learning Style backlash seems to serve to punish teachers for the one theory they tried to adapt and use in the classroom, further shaming and reducing them. Perhaps it is the resource providers and trainers that are to blame for misinterpreting and oversimplifying the theory – something that has happened with Mindset theory and is just as likely to happen with Cognitive Load Theory etc

Metacognition is thinking about thinking, understanding how we learn best is part of this and it helps to combat learned helplessness and passivity in the classroom. In the words of Steve Raynor, former Emeritus Professor, Newman University, UK:

‘The key theme for utilising the style construct theory is captured perfectly in the popular song, It is not what you do, it is the way that you do it. The point is not that content is unimportant but that being aware and knowing more about ‘how I tend to do it‘ can immeasurably help in my ‘doing it better‘. Steve Rayner (2015).

As an assessor and teacher of learners with dyslexia, I have a unique insight into how they think and learn. Moreover, I am curious and always ready to learn from them in turn. I neither feel that a learner is an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, nor that a learner can acquire knowledge and skills solely through exploration and play. This misapprehension is particularly popular amongst early years practitioners and is deeply problematic.

On the prog/trad scale, I am somewhere in the middle – a Trog you might say.

As @paulgarvey4 says, it seems there is #thereisnobestwayoverall . The most strident advocates of each extreme, the ones engaged in the most aggressive debates, are usually the most poorly informed.

This does not bode well if these are the people we hope will foster critical thinking amongst our students.

Can we have the best of both worlds? Perhaps if we remain curious…


Haswell, Joanna, “A Close Look at Learning Styles” (2017). Honors Senior Capstone Projects. 23.

Mortimer, T (2019) Learning Style: Snake Oil or Solid Strategy? PATOSS Bulletin vol 32, no 2

Rayner, S. G. (2015) Cognitive Styles and Learning Styles, Newman University, Birmingham, UK., Elsevier Ltd

Oyler, C., and Becker, J., (1997) Teaching beyond the Progressive. Traditional Dichotomy: Sharing Authority and Sharing Vulnerability, Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 453-467Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

%d bloggers like this: