‘If the child is not learning the way you are teaching, then teach in the way the child learns.’ Rita Dunn

When you talk to children and tell them information, did you know that only about a third of them will be able to learn it? This is because only a third of people take in information primarily through their ears.

Unless we have some impairment, we all use all our senses to take in information. After the age of about four, we take in most ‘school’ information through three of those senses, known in NLP as Visual (through our eyes), Auditory (ears) and Kinesthetic (touch). Each of us tends to have a preference for taking in information through only one or two of these three.

Children who prefer Auditory learning usually do quite well in the school system; teacher talk is still the most prevalent form of imparting information. Children who prefer Visual learning also do quite well, particularly in primary school. The children who miss out most are the ones who prefer to learn Kinesthetically.

Kinesthetic learning encompasses more than the sense of touch. It also includes a need to move and to be touched emotionally. (It is no accident that we use the word ‘touched’ to refer to an emotional reaction as well as the physical, nor that we use the word ‘feeling’ to refer both to emotions and the physical sense.) All the children who are swinging on their chairs, fidgeting and always jumping up to fetch things are not doing it to be naughty. They NEED to move in order to learn.

The important thing is to think about how people learn, how they learn differently, and how we can cater for those differences.

They are doing their best to do what you want them to do. Unfortunately, these are the children who are failed by the school system (failed in both senses). These are the ones that get labelled ‘stupid’ and who drop out. If they’re lucky, they get into some sort of specialized practical training program where they thrive – but how much better all round if we could take account of their learning needs in the main school system so they didn’t have to feel the stigma of failure.

Actually all of us need to learn kinesthetically to some degree. Memory is not only situated in your head. There is a body memory. Any instrumentalist knows that remembering a piece of music is not so much a question of thinking about it, but of disengaging the mind and letting your fingers do the remembering. Nor is it our mind that remembers how to ride a bike. Maybe you recognize yourself as the fidgety child – although as an adult you are probably more discreet, and disguise your need to move by doodling, tapping your feet or hands, fiddling with a pen, or making copious notes that you never look at again?

So how do YOU prefer to learn?

Obviously how you like to learn will depend to some extent on what you are trying to learn, so fill in your answers to the questionnaire on page 23 in relation to school-type learning. How do you like to learn hard facts? When you have finished this KVA questionnaire return here for the answers.

Incidentally, in NLP the modalities (as they are known) are usually referred to in the order Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic – VAK. I have changed the order because of the urgent need to address the Kinesthetic in learning.

Answers: Statements 1-10 refer to Kinesthetic learning, 11-20 to Visual learning and 21-30 to Auditory learning. Do you have a strong preference for one (or two) of them? Or are you a multi-sensory learner with a fairly even spread across the three modalities?

Please note that we are not talking about people being ‘Visuals’ or ‘Kinesthetic Learners’. This is not about giving children another label. Nor is it about labeling oneself, although it is important for us to know how we ‘naturally’ like to learn. Most people assume that the way they like to learn is THE way people learn. It can come as a surprise to find out that people not only prefer to learn in different ways, but that unless information is presented in their preferred modality, some people CANNOT learn.

The way we like to learn then often becomes the way we like to teach, and even when we know about the differences, it’s still our default position when we’re busy or under pressure. And when aren’t teachers busy and under pressure?

The important thing is to think about how people learn, how they learn differently, and how we can cater for those differences.

The questionnaire may already have given you some ideas about some adaptations you can make to your teaching (or some validation for what you are already doing), but you might like to look at the teaching activity sheet on page 24 and mark which of the three different kinds of learning – K, V or A – they relate to. Some ‘good value’ activities will relate to more than one! And please highlight particularly all those which enhance Kinesthetic learning – and then think of more ideas of your own. I cannot stress enough how much we need to introduce more of these activities into schools.

I’m not suggesting that you come up with an individualized learning program for each child, nor that you do absolutely everything in three ways all the time. The ideal would be for all learning to be multi-sensory – it would help everyone learn more easily – but at least make sure that in any given day you have given more or less equal consideration to all three kinds of learning. You can see how you’re doing by filling in the KVA frequency chart on page 25.

Process and recall

Taking in information is only part of the KVA story. We also process and recall information using our senses. When you use your imagination do you tend to make pictures in your head, hear voices, or get a feeling somewhere in your body (typically around the chest, stomach or abdomen)? Try picturing your front door. You’ll probably find it easier if you close your eyes as it’s quite difficult to use your external and internal vision or hearing at the same time have you ever tried to remember a tune while something else was playing loudly on the radio?

Anyway, how are you doing with the front door? Can you get a clear picture? In color or black and white? Big or small? Where is it? Straight ahead of you? To one side? Close up or far away? In a frame or just blurring away at the edges? Try imagining a fish on a bicycle, something you’ve never seen before. Do you imagine it in the same way and place as you imagined your front door?

Once you’ve discovered what you’re doing naturally, try moving it around, changing its color, etc. Don’t worry, you can always put it back to how it was – or maybe you’ll discover a way that you like better. If you’re only getting a fuzzy, blurred sort of picture, that’s OK too. I do, and I was quite surprised to hear that when other people visualize, lots of them can see really clear pictures. But I can still manipulate my picture.

What about hearing? Can you hear internally? Can you remember a favorite tune? Imagine the voice of someone you know well? Do you have an ‘inner voice’? The one that’s so quick to let you know when you’ve done something stupid. The one that knows what you should have said when it’s too late to say it? Now can you manipulate it? Make it louder, quieter, harsher, softer? Give it a foreign accent?

And feeling? Can you imagine the feel of rough tree bark, of soft velvet, of dipping your toe or your finger into a cool river – or a freezing mountain stream? Everyone, including every child in your class, has a wealth of imagery inside them to draw on – sometimes it’s just a matter of directing them to it.

Remember, though, when you’re wanting to input new information, you want lots of external sensory stimulation. When you’re asking children to access their own internal imagery for creative work, they/you will need to reduce the external stimulation. Tell them stories with lots of sensory description. Ask them to close their eyes and experience the story as fully as they can. Notice how much more they remember when they do this too!

NLP spelling technique

There are lots of practical implications for the importance of sensory learning, but for the moment I’ll leave you with one useful application of internal visualization: the NLP spelling technique.

When people are visualizing, they tend to look up (although they may ‘gaze unseeingly’ straight ahead). Since English is not a phonetic language, encourage children to visualize new words by writing them up high on the board or on wall posters, forcing them to look up. Then teach them the full NLP spelling technique. Try it for yourself first to become familiar with it.

Many children may just accept it as something else they can do, particularly if they already use some sort of similar strategy (many children do, although they often don’t or can’t verbalize how they ‘do’ spelling). But for some it will make a significant difference to their ability to spell. One scrupulously honest little boy was so amazed that he could ‘see’ words in the air that when he came out of a test, he assured his teacher: ‘It’s OK. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t look up.’

I have a very clear memory of a teacher saying to me once: ‘Look at me when I’m asking you a question. You won’t find the answer on the ceiling.’

Little did either of us know that I just might have done!

NLP spelling technique

  • Look at the new word written up high in big letters on a card or
    on the board.
  • Consciously blink your eyes to take a mental photograph of it.
  • Close your eyes and picture the word clearly, looking up inside your head to see the photo you have just taken.
  • Make the inner picture bigger and more brightly colored.
  • Write down the word from memory and check it against both the original and your mental picture.
  • Flick between the mental picture and a physical version as many times as is necessary to ‘fix’ it. If necessary break longer words into shorter sections, or make ‘difficult’ sections bigger or bolder or more highly colored to make them more memorable.
  • To celebrate your success, picture the word in your head and spell it out loud backwards, ‘reading’ the letters from your head. (It is only possible to do this quickly if you really are visualizing.)

Susan Norman is Co-Director with Hugh L’Estrange of SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning). She is the author of more than 30 books including Transforming Learning – Introducing SEAL Approaches, In Your Hands – NLP for teaching and learning, and most recently with Eva Hoffman, Stepping Stones – first lessons in Accelerated Learning for use with children aged 7-11.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2004.