What's your child's learning style?

Is your child a looker, listener or mover? Researchers have observed that learning styles run in families and tend to differ between boys and girls.

Learning Stages

By Dr. Lauren Bradway


Dr. Lauren Bradway is the author of How to Maximize Your Child's Learning Ability (Square One Publishers, 2003). She consults online with parents regarding their child's learning style at www.helpingchildrengrow.com.

Beginning in the first months of life, children reveal their particular preference for learning. McKenzie is a noisy baby, playfully babbling, cooing, and clicking her tongue. In contrast, Carlos is quiet and visually alert, eyes intently focused on his crib mobile and his mother's face. Wyatt is a wiggly baby, arms and legs in motion as he kicks off his crib covers.

Girl vs. boy babies

Parents observe that boy and girl babies differ from the time they're in the crib. Boy babies are visually alert and physically active. Girl babies are attuned to sounds around them and are quite vocal.

Research bears out that these differences exist. Richard Restak in his now classic book, The Brain: The Last Frontier, reports that in contrast to boys, girl babies:

  • are more sensitive to sounds, especially their mother's voice
  • are more attentive to faces, speech patterns, and tones of voice; that is, to the social context of a situation
  • speak sooner and possess larger vocabularies.

Compared to girls, boy babies were found to:

  • demonstrate early superiority in visual acuity
  • perform better in gross motor body movements
  • possess better spatial abilities in terms of dealing with three-dimensional space.

Inborn learning styles

Dr. Rita Dunn, Director of the Center for Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John's University in New York, and Dr. Kenneth Dunn of Queens College have spent nearly 25 years in the study of learning styles. They identify the most common learning styles as Auditory, Visual and Tactile. From their studies, the Dunns have observed that learning styles are inborn and run in families, and can be observed as early as the first year of life. Of the children I have evaluated in my own practice, over 80 percent demonstrates a learning style that is either identical to that of one parent or a blend of both parents' styles. Ten percent demonstrate the learning style of a close relative, such as a grandparent or uncle.

Listeners, lookers and movers

Listeners, Lookers and Movers are the terms I use for Auditory, Visual and Tactile learners, respectively. Listeners are attuned to sounds and words. They talk early, have large vocabularies and learn to read with ease. From the first year of life, Lookers are drawn to color, shape and motion. They display excellent eye-hand coordination and can be expected to excel at math and computers. As babies, Movers often crawl, stand and walk ahead of schedule. They are well-coordinated and confident in their bodies, but their affinity for moving poses problems for them in structured classroom settings.

Male vs. female learning styles

While external circumstances can have an impact on a child's preferred learning style, some generalizations are possible. Girls tend to be auditory learners, more attuned to sounds, and as a result talk earlier than boys. From the time they begin formal schooling, girls excel in auditory subjects, such as reading, which require the ability to break words into individual sound units, and then blend them back into a whole. As auditory learners, they perform well in classroom settings that demand attention to teacher instructions. As adults, they often lean toward careers in communications. Male broadcasters, courtroom attorneys and speech-language pathologists prove that there are exceptions to this rule.

Beginning at birth, boys tend to be visually alert and take a whole body stance to learning. As visual learners, boys tend to excel in visual subjects, such as spelling and math. Spelling requires accurate visual recall of the patterns of words, and success in math hinges on the ability to mentally visualize and manipulate quantities. As adults, males tend to favor visually precise fields, or favor fields where they can be physically active. However, female airline pilots, accountants and landscape designers prove exceptions to this rule.

Learning and teaching strategies

Left to their own devices, children, over time, tend to settle into a preferred way of learning to the point of screening out less favored types of information. Whenever a child gets set in a particular way of learning and begins to screen out auditory, visual or tactile information, he or she is at risk of being labeled learning disabled.

Children do not "outgrow" their preferences for learning in a particular way. In fact, without help, as they progress through the grades, they tend to become more set in their learning style ways. Children can, however, become more flexible in their approach to learning when adults encourage them as early as possible to welcome auditory, visual and tactile information.