Reading Instruction and Learning Styles . . .
Should They be Matched?

by Sara G. Tarver, Professor of Special Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Methods of teaching reading should be determined by the nature of the written language that students are learning to read. Our written language system is a system of representing spoken language with written alphabetic symbols. To read that which has been written, one must know the correspondences between written symbols and the speech sounds that they represent. In other words, one must know the alphabetic-phonetic code. Furthermore, a high level of mastery is required to ensure that students will be able to apply that alphabetic knowledge rapidly and effortlessly to read words and passages. Automatic decoding is essential to independent reading and the comprehension of complex passages.

Intensive and systematic instruction in phonics has been scientifically validated again and again as the most effective means of ensuring that students acquire the automatic decoding skills on which reading comprehension must rest (Adams, 1994). As expressed by Stanovich (1994), "That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science."

Stanovich's conclusion regarding the benefits of phonics instruction is not limited to students with a particular "learning style." Empirical research has shown that attempts to match method of teaching with learning style has been unsuccessful. Despite this evidence, educators continue to tout learning style as the solution to the reading achievement crisis. A brief look at the historical underpinnings of the learning styles approach might help to dispel the learning styles myth.

Today's learning styles approach was known in earlier years (60's, 70's and early 80's) as a modality preference approach. Advocates of the modality matching approach hypothesized that learners could be classified as having either a "visual modality preference" or an "auditory modality preference," that instructional methods could be classified as either "auditory" or "visual", and that modality preferences could be matched with instructional methods to the benefit of all students. Whole-word/look-say methods were classified as "visual;" code-emphasis/phonic methods were classified as "auditory." Students with a "visual" style were to be taught with a "visual" method and those with an "auditory" style were to be taught with an "auditory" method.

In 1978, I reviewed fifteen studies in which the modality matching approach was evaluated and concluded that there was no evidence to support the approach (Tarver & Dawson, 1978). Other reviewers came to the same conclusion. As often happens when an instructional approach is shown not to work, the modality matching approach went underground for a while, only to reemerge in a few short years with a new name. "Learning styles" replaced "modality matching."

In the new learning styles approach, students are classified as either global or analytic learners and matched to either a global or an analytic method of teaching reading. But the global learners and methods of today are strikingly similar to the visual learners and methods of yesteryear, and the analytic learners and methods of today are strikingly similar to the auditory learners and methods of yesteryear. Furthermore, reviews of empirical studies of the new learning styles approach, have revealed a dearth of evidence to support the approach (Snider, 1992; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995).

It is important to know that the current learning styles movement is part and parcel of the current whole language movement.

Increasing recognition that whole language has been a dismal failure in California and elsewhere has led to backpedaling on the part of whole language advocates. Such backpedaling is reflected in claims that whole language teachers do teach phonics when it is needed or that they do teach phonics to those students whose styles are compatible with phonics. The unfortunate truth is that the phonics instruction provided by most whole language teachers is simply too little, too late.

All students, regardless of hypothesized "style," benefit from intensive, systematic phonics in beginning reading instruction. This is not to say that phonics instruction is the only kind of instruction involved in effective reading instruction. Effective reading programs provide fluency and comprehension instruction as well as phonic instruction. For example, the Reading Mastery program by Engelmann and colleagues emphasizes systematic, intensive phonics in the initial stages of instruction. Gradually, the emphasis shifts to fluency instruction which entails practice through repeated readings of increasingly difficult word lists and passages. By third grade, the emphasis is on comprehension instruction which entails a variety of meaning-getting and meaning-constructing strategies as well as vocabulary expansion and enrichment.

In contrast, whole language instruction begins with a focus on the construction of meaning and it is assumed that children will discover phonetic principles as they read for meaning. In critiquing whole language, leading linguists have pointed out that it makes little sense to expect children to rediscover or recreate a complex phonetic code that has evolved over thousands of years. Instead, we should teach that code directly so children can then apply that knowledge to read independently for meaning and enjoyment.

Research, experience, and common sense tell us that phonics-first is the way to go in beginning reading instruction. That is no less true for students who happen to have strong visual and/or global abilities than it is for students who happen to have strong auditory and/or analytic abilities. This does not mean that children's individual differences are to be ignored -- good teaching always entails attention to individual differences. But it does mean that we need not attempt to individualize on the basis of each child's needs in terms of the reading skills that he/she has not acquired.

Our knowledge of how to teach reading to all of our students, with all of their diverse and unique learning characteristics, exceeds by far our implementation of that knowledge. It's time for parents, other citizens, and teachers to insist that the educational establishment's fascination with philosophical, theoretical, and political debates be replaced by a commitment to instructional practices that work. Make no mistake about it, direct instruction in phonics is a good place to start.
(Return to Topics Overview)

Adams, M. (1990). Beginning to Read. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Snider, V.E. (1992). Learning styles and learning to read: A critique. Remedial and Special Education, 13, 6-18.
Stahl, S.A., & Kuhn, M.R. (1995). Does whole language or instruction matched to learning styles help children learn to read? School Psychology Review, 24, 393-404.
Stanovich, I.E. (1994). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.
Tarver, S.G. & Dawson, M.M. (1978). Modality preference and the teaching of reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11, 17-29.

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