How do you like to learn?

The other day I asked a group of my students how they like to learn English. The first person to speak up was Max. This was no surprise — unlike many Hong Kong students, Max has never been reluctant to speak.

"I like to learn by speaking," said Max. "I specially love to speak to native-English speakers when I can find them. I try to talk to my friends in English, too. Um, what else? I like to watch TV and movies in English, and I like to learn new words by hearing them."

"How about you?" I asked Veronica. "Do you like to learn in these ways?"

"Oh, no," she said. I could never learn like that. I need to have a textbook, and I like the teacher to explain everything to me. I have a notebook, and I write everything down. I like to study grammar, and I like to learn by reading. Max says he likes to learn new words by hearing them. I like to learn new words by seeing."

Veronica's classmate Jackie was more similar to Max. She said she liked to learn by watching movies and videos. She also liked playing games, listening to cassettes, talking in pairs and practising English outside the classroom. The last person to give his opinion was Joseph. Like Veronica, he liked to study grammar, although he didn't feel the same need to have a teacher.

He liked to learn independently, to find his own mistakes, and to read books and newspapers.

These four people correspond to four learner "types" that a former colleague of mine, Ken Willing, found in a study he did some years ago. Max can be classified as a "communicative" learner, Veronica as "authority-oriented", Jackie as a "concrete" learner, and Joseph as an "analytical" one.

What does this mean for teachers and learners? Well, first of all, in any class there are likely to be learners representing a range of types, with different learning preferences, and different ideas on what works best for them.

For teachers, this means finding out the learning styles and preferences of their learners and making sure the different preferences are catered to.

It is also useful for learners to think about the ways they like learning best so that they can make the most effective use of the time they have for learning.