The Internet TESL Journal

Matching Teaching Styles with Learning Styles in East Asian Contexts

Rao Zhenhui
rzhthm [at]
Foreign Languages College, Jiangxi Normal University (Nanchang, China)

Examples of Mismatches Between Teaching and Learning Styles

Liu Hong, a third-year English major in Jiangxi Normal University, China, was in David's office again. After failing David's oral English course the previous year, Liu Hong had reenrolled, hoping to pass it this year. Unfortunately, things were not looking promising so far, and she was frustrated. When David asked why she was so unhappy in his class, she said: "I am an introverted, analytic and reflective student. I don't know how to cope with your extroverted, global and impulsive teaching style?"

Jenny, an American teacher from California, sat in Dean's office again, feeling perplexed by the students' negative responses to her kinesthetic and global styles of teaching. Despite Jenny's persistent efforts to convince the students of the advantages of her teaching styles, she was told by her Vietnamese colleagues that her attempts were in opposition to the prevalent teaching styles in Vietnam. Jenny had specialized in applied linguistics for a long time and was well trained in the TESOL area in U.S.A. But all of a sudden, it seemed that all her teaching competence and experience had become useless in such a country where she had never been before.

Analyzing the Examples

The above statements are representative of serious mismatches between the learning styles of students and the teaching style of the instructor. In a class where such a mismatch occurs, the students tend to be bored and inattentive, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the course, and may conclude that they are not good at the subjects of the course and give up (Oxford et al, 1991). Instructors, confronted by low test grades, may become overtly critical of their students or begin to question their own competence as teachers, as exemplified by the Jenny's case above.

To reduce teacher-student style conflicts, some researchers in the area of learning styles advocate teaching and learning styles be matched (e.g. Griggs & Dunn, 1984; Smith & Renzulli, 1984; Charkins et al, 1985), especially in foreign language instruction (e.g. Oxford et al, 1991; Wallace & Oxford, 1992). Kumaravadivelu (1991:98) states that: "... the narrower the gap between teacher intention and learner interpretation, the greater are the chances of achieving desired learning outcomes". There are many indications (e.g. Van Lier, 1996; Breen, 1998) that bridging the gap between teachers' and learners' perceptions plays an important role in enabling students to maximize their classroom experience.

Purpose of this Article

This article describes ways to make this matching feasible in real-life classroom teaching in East Asian and comparable contexts. The assumption underlying the approach taken here is that the way we teach should be adapted to the way learners from a particular community learn. But before exploring how the teaching styles and learning styles can be matched, let us first examine traditional East Asian students' learning style preferences in dealing with language learning tasks.

Traditional East Asian Learning Styles

Traditionally, the teaching of EFL in most East Asian countries is dominated by a teacher-centered, book-centered, grammar-translation method and an emphasis on rote memory (Liu & Littlewood, 1997). These traditional language teaching approaches have resulted in a number of typical learning styles in East Asian countries, with introverted learning being one of them. In East Asia, most students see knowledge as something to be transmitted by the teacher rather than discovered by the learners. They, therefore, find it normal to engage in modes of learning which are teacher-centered and in which they receive knowledge rather than interpret it. According to Harshbarger el al (1986), Japanese and Korean students are often quiet, shy and reticent in language classrooms. They dislike public touch and overt displays of opinions or emotions, indicating a reserve that is the hallmark of introverts. Chinese students likewise name "listening to teacher "as their most frequent activity in senior school English classes (Liu & Littlewood, 1997). All these claims are confirmed by a study conducted by Sato (1982), in which she compared the participation of Asian students in the classroom interaction with that of non-Asian students. Sato found that the Asians took significant fewer speaking turns than did their non-Asian classmates (36.5% as opposed to 63.5%).

The teacher-centered classroom teaching in East Asia also leads to a closure-oriented style for most East Asian students. These closure-oriented students dislike ambiguity, uncertainty or fuzziness. To avoid these, they will sometimes jump to hasty conclusions about grammar rules or reading themes. Many Asian students, according to Sue and Kirk (1972), are less autonomous, more dependent on authority figures and more obedient and conforming to rules and deadlines. Harshbarger at al (1986) noted that Korean students insist that the teacher be the authority and are disturbed if this does not happen. Japanese students often want rapid and constant correction from the teacher and do not feel comfortable with multiple correct answers. That is why Asian students are reluctant to "stand out" by expressing their views or raising questions, particularly if this might be perceived as expressing public disagreement (Song, 1995).

Perhaps the most popular East Asian learning styles originated from the traditional book-centered and grammar-translation method are analytic and field-independent. In most of reading classes, for instance, the students read new words aloud, imitating the teacher. The teacher explains the entire text sentence by sentence, analyzing many of the more difficult grammar structures, rhetoric, and style for the students, who listen, take notes, and answer questions. Oxford & Burry-Stock (1995) states that the Chinese, along with the Japanese, are often detail-and precision-oriented, showing some features of the analytic and field-independent styles. They have no trouble picking out significant detail from a welter of background items and prefer language learning strategies that involve dissecting and logically analyzing the given material, searching for contrasts, and finding cause-effect relationship.

Another characteristically East Asian learning style is visual learning. In an investigation of sensory learning preferences, Reid (1987) found that Korean, Chinese and Japanese students are all visual learners, with Korean students ranking the strongest. They like to read and obtain a great deal of visual stimulation. For them, lectures, conversations, and oral directions without any visual backup are very confusing and can be anxiety-producing. It is obvious that such visual learning style stems from a traditional classroom teaching in East Asia, where most teachers emphasize learning through reading and tend to pour a great deal of information on the blackboard. Students, on the other hand, sit in rows facing the blackboard and the teacher. Any production of the target language by students is in choral reading or in closely controlled teacher-students interaction (Song, 1995). Thus, the perceptual channels are strongly visual (text and blackboard), with most auditory input closely tied to the written.

Closely related to visual, concrete-sequential, analytic and field-independent styles are the thinking-oriented and reflective styles. According to Nelson (1995), Asian students are in general more overtly thinking-oriented than feeling oriented. They typically base judgement on logic and analysis rather than on feelings of others, the emotional climate and interpersonal values. Compared with American students, Japanese students, like most Asians, show greater reflection (Condon, 1984), as shown by the concern for precision and for not taking quick risk in conversation (Oxford et al, 1992). Quite typical is "the Japanese student who wants time to arrive at the correct answer and is uncomfortable when making guess" (Nelson, 1995:16). The Chinese students have also been identified to posses the same type of thinking orientation by Anderson (1993).

The final East Asian preferred learning style is concrete-sequential. Students with such a learning style are likely to follow the teacher's guidelines to the letter, to be focused on the present, and demand full information. They prefer language learning materials and techniques that involve combinations of sound, movement, sight, and touch and that can be applied in a concrete, sequential, linear manner. Oxford & Burry-Stock (1995) discovered that Chinese and Japanese are concrete-sequential learners, who use a variety of strategies such as memorization, planning, analysis, sequenced repetition, detailed outlines and lists, structured review and a search for perfection. Many Korean students also like following rules (Harshbarger et al, 1986), and this might be a sign of a concrete-sequential style.

It is worth noting that the generalizations made above about learning styles in East Asia do not apply to every representative of all East Asian countries; many individual exceptions of course exist. Nevertheless, these seemingly stereotypical descriptions do have a basis in scientific observation. Worthley (1987) noted that while diversity with any culture is the norm, research shows that individuals within a culture tend to have a common pattern of learning and perception when members of their culture are compared to members of another culture.

Matching Teaching Styles with Learning Styles
From the descriptions and scientifically observed data reviewed above, it is legitimate to conclude that there exist identifiable learning styles for most East Asian students. We can assume, therefore, that any native English speaker engaged in teaching English to East Asian students is likely to confront a teaching-learning style conflict. This is illustrated by the two examples cited at the very beginning of this paper and further confirmed by Reid's (1987) and Melton's (1990) studies. Such style differences between students and teachers consistently and negatively affect student grades (Wallace and Oxford, 1992). It is when students' learning styles are matched with appropriate approaches in teaching that their motivation, performances, and achievements will increase and be enhanced (Brown, 1994).

In what follows, I give examples of how teacher's teaching style can be matched with students' learning style in East Asian settings. I obtained these ideas from several sources, including descriptions in books and published articles; responses to a recent questionnaire I sent to selected overseas students from Japan, Korea and China in Australia; and my own teaching experience in China. The approaches are classified in the following categories:

  1. Diagnosing learning styles and developing self-aware EFL learners
  2. Altering the teaching style to create teacher-student style matching
  3. Encouraging changes in students' behavior and fostering guided style-stretching
  4. Providing activities with different groupings

Diagnosing Learning Styles and Developing Self-aware EFL Learners

Effective matching between teaching style and learning style can only be achieved when teachers are, first of all, aware of their learners' needs, capacities, potentials and learning style preferences in meeting these needs. To this end, teachers may use assessment instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indications Survey (Myers and McCaulley, 1985), the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (Keirsey & Bates, 1984) and the Classroom Work Style Survey (Kinsella, 1996). These instruments are sensitive to the kinds of style differences that are affected by culture. Although this kind of assessment is not comprehensive, it does indicate students' preferences and provide constructive feedback about advantages and disadvantages of various styles.

Before a survey is administered, the teacher should give a mini-lecture, trying to:

Following the lecture, the teacher can ask students to work in pairs to share notes from the mini-lecture. By doing this, they can expect to further clarify the concept of survey taking and have a more specific idea of what learning styles are. While the pair-work is in process, the teacher should be prepared to answer any questions that may arise. Then, students are ready to complete the questionnaire. If they have questions or need assistance, the teacher can mini-conference with them individually. Finally, students can start summarizing their individual style results in the survey.

The next step is for the teacher to organize a whole-class discussion of the style assessment results. The teacher can write the major learning styles on the blackboard and ask the students to write their names under their major styles in a list. Then, in a full-class discussion, everybody is aware that the class is indeed a mixture of styles and full of similarities and differences in learning style preferences. This discussion helps eliminate some of the potential of a teacher-student "style war" if the teacher talks about his or her own style during this time. I have found students are intensely interested in talking about their own style and the styles of their peers and teachers. When such style discussions are constructive, students' initial interest in self-awareness is rewarded and deepened.

Furthermore, based on these style assessment results, the teacher can build classroom community by asking students to find several other students whose major learning style matches their own, and sit in a group with those students. They follow instructions (written on the blackboard or on a transparence) to share their summarized results and analyze those results. This discussion often starts slowly, but it becomes increasingly animated as students discover similarities and differences. In addition, teachers can use the survey results to identify style patterns among various groups of students in their classes, which they should consider when designing learning tasks.

There are, however, dangers if learning assessment, diagnosis, and prescription are misused. We can, at least, list three shortcomings of existing self-assessment instruments: 1). The instruments are exclusive (i.e. they focus on certain variables); 2). the students may not self-report accurately; and 3). the students have adapted for so long that they may report on adapted preferences. In order to ensure a reliability of such learning style instruments, Doyle and Rutherford (1984) call for taking into account the nature of the learning tasks, the relationship between teacher and student, and other situational variables. Further, Reid (1987:102) warns: "Both teachers and students involved in identifying and using information on learning styles should proceed with caution and be aware that no single diagnostic instrument can solve all learning problems"

For all of these reasons, I recommend using diaries as a supplemental tool. By reflecting the processes that go on inside the writers' minds, they open up fields that are normally not accessible to researchers, and are thus able to provide an important complement to other research tools. Before students start keeping diaries, they should be issued with a set of guidelines about how to keep their diaries and what to look out for. Each student is asked to keep a journal of their reactions to the course, their teachers, their fellow students and any other factors which they consider are having an effort on their learning. Students are told to describe only those events which they think are of interest. Also to be included in the diary are the problems students have found in their encounter with the foreign language, and what they plan to do about it. The language in which these records have to be kept is not necessarily specified, but it is better for them to use the target language.

The diaries are collected in at regular intervals, photocopied and then returned immediately to the diarists. The students are assured that the material in their diaries will be treated in full confidentiality. For the analysis of these diaries, Bailey (1990) recommends a five-stage procedure, in which the researcher first edits the diary and then looks for recurring patterns and significant events.

Altering the Teaching Style to Create Teacher-student Style Matching

In all academic classrooms, no matter what the subject matter, there will be students with multiple learning styles and students with a variety of major, minor and negative learning styles. An effective means of accommodating these learning styles is for teachers to change their own styles and strategies and provide a variety of activities to meet the needs of different learning styles. Then all students will have at least some activities that appeal to them based on their learning styles, and they are more likely to be successful in these activities. Hinkelman and Pysock (1992), for example, have demonstrated the effectiveness of a multimedia methodology for vocabulary building with Japanese students. This approach is effective in tapping a variety of learning modalities. By consciously accommodating a range of learning styles in the classroom in this way, it is possible to encourage most students to become successful language learners.

In addition, EFL teachers in East Asia should consider culturally related style differences as they plan how to teach. Following is a list of activities for East Asian learners that could be tried for each style:

Visual learning style preference

  1. Read resources for new information.
  2. Use handouts with activities.
  3. Keep journals of class activities to reinforce vocabulary or new information.
  4. Watch an action skit. Write narrative of events.
  5. Take notes on a lecture. Outline the notes to reinforce ideas and compare with others.

    (Melton, 1990:43)

Analytic learning style preference
  1. Judge whether a sentence is meaningful. If the sentence is not meaningful, the student changes it so that it makes sense.
  2. Give students a list of related vocabulary words (such as a list of foods, animals, gifts, etc.) and ask them to rank these words according to their personal preferences.
  3. Give students questions to which two or three alternative answers are provided. Students' task is to choose one of the alternatives in answering each question.
  4. Ask students to express their opinions as to agree or disagree with a given statement. If they disagree, they reword the statement so that it represents their own ideas.

The prospect of altering language instruction to somehow accommodate different learning styles might seem forbidding to teachers. This reaction is understandable. Teaching styles are made up of methods and approaches with which teachers feel most comfortable; if they try to change to completely different approaches, they would be forced to work entirely with unfamiliar, awkward, and uncomfortable methods. Fortunately, teachers who wish to address a wide variety of learning styles need not make drastic changes in their instructional approach. Regular use of some the instructional techniques given below should suffice to cover some specified learning style categories in most East Asian countries.

Encouraging Changes in Students' Behavior and Fostering Guided Style-stretching

Learning style is a consistent way of functioning which reflects cultural behavior patterns and, like other behaviors influenced by cultural experiences, may be revised as a result of training or changes in learning experiences. Learning styles are thus "moderately strong habits rather than intractable biological attributes" (Reid, 1987:100). With a moderate training, Sub/unconscious styles can become conscious learning strategies. However, all these should be best done in an intentional way with guidance from the teacher. For example, an important aspect of instructional style for many Korean students might involve weaning them from rote repetition, slowly guiding them into real communication in authentic language situation. An effective instructional style for dealing with many Chinese students might include paying attention to the individual, creating a structured but somewhat informal classroom atmosphere to ease students out of their formality, introducing topics slowly, avoiding embarrassment, and being consistent.

The following are examples of teaching activities that guide East Asian students to alter their learning behaviors, stretch their learning styles and enable them to improve their language performance.

Providing Activities with Different Groupings

In a class made up of students with various learning styles and strategies, it is always helpful for the teacher to divide the students into groups by learning styles and give them activities based on their learning styles. This should appeal to them because they will enjoy them and be successful. For example, the group made up of the extroverted may need the chance to express some ideas orally in the presence of one or many class members. On the other hand, the group made up of the introverted may need some encouragement to share ideas aloud and may want the safety of jotting down a few notes first and perhaps sharing with one other person before being invited or expected to participate in a group discussion.

In addition to trying style-alike groups for greatest efficiency, the teacher can also use style-varied groups for generating greatest flexibility of styles and behaviors. Teachers should avoid grouping introverts with each other all the time. It is often helpful to include open students and closure-oriented students in the same group; the former will make learning livelier and more fun, while the latter will ensure that the task is done on time and in good order. But before students are divided into groups, they should be aware of the divisions and understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Wu (1983) concludes that Chinese students usually respond well to activities when they realize what the purposes behind them are.

Finally, no matter how students are to be grouped, teachers should make a conscious effort to include various learning styles in daily lesson plan. One simple way to do this is to code the lesson plans so that a quick look at the completed plan shows if different learning styles have been included. Putting "A" or "V" beside activities that denote whether they are primarily appealing to the analytic learner or the visual learner will serve as a reminder that there is a need for mixture of both kinds of activities. Meanwhile, simply designating various parts of the lesson plan with letters (I for individual, P for pair, SG for small group, LG for large group) and other symbols reminds the teacher to pay attention to learning styles. The coding is not meant to be extra work for the teacher or to make classes seem artificial or unspontaneous. If the coding system is used on a regular basis, it becomes very natural to think in terms of being inclusive, or providing the setting and the activities by which all learners can find some portion of the class that particularly appeals to them.


In this article I have discussed the significance of matching teaching and learning styles in East Asian countries and provided some empirical evidence to indicate that East Asian students exhibit distinctive learning style characteristics. To understand and respect individual's diverse learning styles, I suggest that teachers employ instruments to identify students' learning styles and provide instructional alternatives to address their differences, and that teachers plan lessons to match students' learning styles while at the same time encouraging students to diversify their learning style preferences. By doing this we can assist our students in becoming more effective language learners.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2001