Learning Styles: How does your child learn best?

Once you know how your child learns best, you’ll be in a better place to determine which materials and methods appeal to those strengths.

Some children learn best when they learn a few small facts at a time, slowly learning more and figuring out how to put the pieces together– a part-to-whole sort of style.

Other children learn best when they first have an overview of how things work and fit together; then they fill in the details with the smaller facts– a whole-to-part sort of style.

The traditional school approach tends to favor the part-to-whole learner.  It’s an incremental approach that builds over time.  Phonics instruction tends to work well as a beginning reading strategy for this type of learner, and traditional math instruction can work well.

A whole-to-part learner, on the other hand, needs to see the larger picture and understand how new knowledge fits into what he or she already knows.  Learning sight words tends to work well as a beginning reading strategy for these children, with phonics coming in a bit later as a strategy to conquer new words.  For this type of learner, it’s only after knowing how to read the words rat, cat, sat, and hat that it makes sense to explain how those words are put together as combinations of letters that represent specific sounds.

Try asking “how many ways can we make seven?” and introducing the idea that seven can be made from 1 and 6 more, or 2 and 5 more, or 3 and 4 more, rather than asking, “3 plus 4 is what?” This child may learn the times tables as he or she practices multi-digit multiplication and long division, because the times tables don’t really seem to “stick” until they come into play when solving larger problems.

A whole-to-part learner often struggles in school because they see the world in a slightly different way.  Look for materials that provide a good overview first, and don’t hesitate to introduce a new topic just because the previous one hasn’t been mastered– that new topic may help keep your child’s interest level high and it may be the piece that helps cement their earlier knowledge.

Children who are strongly visual and children who have tendencies toward ADD are often whole-to-part learners.  They are sometimes referred to as visual learners or right-brained learners (because these strengths lie in the right side of the brain, rather than in the more verbal left side of the brain).

Children also have different strengths for learning from visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means.

Children with visual learning strengths do best when they see what they’re working on; pictures, diagrams, and illustrations are very important when appealing to these strengths.


Children with auditory strengths do best when they hear what they’re learning.  It’s worth remembering that listening to a book being read aloud definitely taps into an auditory strength, but reading silently to oneself still uses auditory pathways.

A strongly visual child may need more visual cues to get the most out of reading.  Graphic organizers can help them visually organize information that comes in from the primarily auditory pathway of reading; drawing an illustration or a cartoon-style depiction can help them retain information.  Graphic novels or readers can also be a good resource for these children.

Children with kinesthetic strengths need to get a sense of movement and touch into their learning.  Having things they can handle and manipulate while listening can actually help them concentrate and retain information.  Try tracing letters with a finger in the sandbox to work on handwriting and letter recognition; practicing spelling words aloud while walking a balance beam or chalk line drawn on the driveway; or working on projects like small Lego creations, weaving, or knitting while listening.  One mom found her sons retained much more of their history lessons if she read to them while they played in the sand box or rode their scooters in a circle around her. One kinesthetic teen learned about Shakespeare by acting out scenes using models he had created.

If you have a high-energy child that needs to run and move, wiggle and squirm much of the day– incorporate those needs into your curriculum selection and planning.  Workbooks with page after page of written work will be difficult, but you could do the same work orally while your child bounces on a trampoline or the two of you take the dog for a walk.  Your child can practice writing skills on a large chalkboard or piece of newsprint taped to a wall– letting your child stand and move while he works.  Use sidewalk chalk to make a huge number line outside and practice math facts by walking or jumping the number line for addition and subtraction. Practice spelling words with that sidewalk chalk, too, or maybe with a stick in some springtime mud or summertime sand at the beach. Consider letting your child sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair.

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