In high school, I was one of the lucky ones: a visual learner. To this day, I prefer to sit down and read an article as opposed to listening to a podcast. Many of my classmates were not so fortunate. In many cases they slipped through the cracks, missing out on valuable knowledge and skills because their learning styles weren’t addressed.
It wasn’t until I started my teacher education program that I realized the importance of teaching to different learning styles. Sure, there are skeptics who claim that “in the real world” you won’t be given an audiobook of your job training manual. But I believe that helping students recognize their learning styles, and using strategies that address them, will help them later in life. (Of course, this must be done while simultaneously encouraging students to exercise and strengthen their weaker skills.)
At the beginning of the year, my students write an essay in class so that I can assess the gaps in their writing skills. This year, I determined that my students needed to work on the first lines of their essays: the hooks. Before writing the first take-home essay of the year, we spent a class period looking up types of hooks with examples. Students wrote examples of their own for each type of hook (striking statistic, anecdote, vivid comparison, etc.) so that they they would have a collection of possibilities when it came time to start their essays. The mini hook posters they created that day are still hanging on a wall in my classroom so that any time the students need help writing a hook, they can reference them.
I also post resources on Google Classroom so that if a student is working on an essay at midnight and can’t remember something from class, they have access to the materials, even if they lost the papers I gave them. Some teachers would consider this “babying,” but my priority is demystifying content area knowledge and skills—not forcing students to learn in a certain way. (Having spent many a late night writing essays myself, I also understand that sometimes, this is simply reality.)
For both timed writings and take-home essays, students need a variety of strategies because no two students learn the same way. Some students can look at a rubric and understand what is expected, but many need examples. Sometimes even phrasing requirements differently can help. The SPED teacher at my school recently shared the document she uses to break down essay expectations sentence by sentence by phrasing each requirement as a question. For example, instead of, “Must use a sentence to introduce a quote,” the requirement is phrased: “This sentence answers the questions ‘Who said this?’, ‘When did they say it?’, and/or ‘Who did they say it to?’” I gave that handout to all of my students because it’s one more way to provide an explanation that might click with some.
In most of my classes I read rubrics out loud because some students see that page full of words, can’t process it, and give up. Hearing the requirements out loud sinks in. Practical learners may not comprehend requirements by reading or hearing them but need to use the rubric in context for it to make sense. For this reason, I don’t grade first drafts until after they have been peer reviewed (except for timed writings). I grade peer reviews to ensure students are really thinking about each part of the rubric when they assess their peers. If a student gives her peer a 5/5 on the hook, when there is no hook, she either did not understand what a hook is or did not really check her peer’s introduction. This holds students accountable for understanding the rubric while they still have time to make changes to their essays.
To me, one of the most important aspects of teaching is variety, not only in teaching strategies but also in assessment types. This is especially true in English class because there are so many different ways to be a skilled writer and reader, none more objectively valid than another. A creative writer is not more talented than an analytical writer. It’s important to value and work on all the skills that fall under the blanket of English class, and find ways to help students improve their writing through the strengths they already have.
For example, one of my students who has trouble writing academic papers recently wrote and delivered an impassioned speech about patriotism. He made a strong argument and even used some of the writing techniques we practiced—skills that we can now work on transferring to persuasive written work. Using different teaching styles and assessments not only enables students to learn more, it also helps them develop confidence in their abilities rather than just giving up.