Several “style and strategy” myths for language education are presented.

Front Page Dialogue: “Style and Strategy” Myths for Language Learning and Teaching

Rebecca L. Oxford, Professor, Second Language Education Program, University of Maryland

In this Front Page Dialogue, I present several “style and strategy” myths for language education. Part I of this FPD concerns learning and teaching styles, and Part II relates to learning strategies. Though these topics might be familiar, I will discuss them through my own perspective. According to Confucius, teaching and learning constitute a “collaborative effort” in which all participants seek to “become fully human” (see Wong, 1994, p. 4). To me, this quest necessarily involves an understanding of styles and strategies.

Part I: Learning and Teaching Styles

Learning styles are the general approaches that students use in acquiring a new language or in learning any other subject. These styles are “the overall patterns that give general direction to learning behavior” (Cornett, 1983, p. 9). “Learning style . . . [can] make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others” (Dunn & Griggs, 1988, p. 3). See also Reid (1995, 1998). Teaching style refers to the totality of instructional approaches, methods, and decisions a teacher prefers and is most comfortable using. Teaching style can be described with the same terms used for learning style. I have found the terms below to be the most understandable and helpful.

Some Basic Style Categories, Names, Definitions, and Comments

Style categories Style names Definition and comments
Ways of relating to the self and others while learning Extroverted Gets energy from many people and lots of activities, likes to work with others.
Introverted Gets energy from inner thoughts/feelings, likes to work alone or with one other close person.
 Ways of taking in information through the physical senses Visual style Takes in (perceives) information through sight.
Auditory style Takes in information through sound.
Hands-on style Takes in information through touch or movement.
Ways of processing or using information Detail-oriented style Prefers small pieces of information, is hyper-focused on details rather than relations among parts, does not synthesize information; however, also avoids or is unsuccessful at systematic analysis.
Holistic style Prefers big ideas, dislikes details, does not analyze information; however, also avoids or is unsuccessful at systematic synthesis.
Whole-to-part (analyzing) style Systematically breaks down information to understand or reveal the component parts.
Part-to-whole (synthesizing) style Systematically combines parts into a more complex whole to understand or reveal the big picture.
Concrete-sequential style Prefers concrete facts, is other-directed, likes having an authority figure, likes step-by-step learning and teaching, does not want too many choices.
Abstract-intuitive style Prefers abstract theories, is self-directed, dislikes having an authority figure, is often non-sequential, wants many choices.
Closure-oriented style Needs quick decisions, prefers to work toward specific deadlines, is more serious than playful.
Open style Prefers to keep decisions and continue taking in information, dislikes deadlines, is more playful than serious.  

R.L. Oxford © 2003.

Myth IA. It is unnecessary for teachers to recognize their own learning styles and teaching styles. Understanding their own learning styles and teaching styles is often very important for teachers. This knowledge can help teachers realize whether they are teaching strictly according to their own learning style (in which case they are probably not addressing the needs of half of their students) or whether their teaching style goes beyond their own learning style in an intentional, productive way. By not understanding their own learning and teaching styles and the learning styles of their students, teachers can unwittingly foster style conflicts in the classroom (Oxford, 1998). Unrecognized style conflicts can lead to instructional misjudgments, lack of acceptance of others, and significantly lower grades for students whose style is the opposite of that of their language teacher (Wallace & Oxford, 1992).

Myth IB. It is too difficult and time-consuming for teachers to find out about their own learning styles and teaching styles. Finding out about their own teaching and learning styles does not have to be difficult or time-consuming for teachers. Style assessments are readily available. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (Myers & McCaulley, 1998; also (old link), a measure of psychological type, is often used as an indicator of learning style and teaching style, as is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (Keirsey, 1998; Betty Leaver and Madeline Ehrman have designed the interesting and worthwhile E & L Survey (see Ehrman & Leaver, 2003; Note 1). My own Style Analysis Survey (SAS, Oxford, 1993) is available in Reid (1995) and at (old link). The SAS is a good indicator of both learning and teaching styles and is often used by teachers. I am currently creating Version 2.1 of the SAS, which is more comprehensive. (Note 2)

Myth IC. Teachers don’t need to administer a style survey to students. They can figure out learning styles through observation. There can be a large margin of error in observation. It is best for teachers to give a style survey to students and use this information for planning. I use style survey information when designing units, lessons, and tasks. Also, based on the survey, students often find it exciting and empowering to discuss their learning styles with each other. This can provide extensive practice in speaking and listening in the target language. (If students are at the beginning level and perhaps the intermediate level, teachers will need to provide relevant vocabulary.)

Myth ID. All students of Russian need a totally “communicative” classroom. OR The only good teachers of Russian are hide-bound grammarians. I have heard each of these statements from experienced teachers of Russian. Both statements can be misleading. Due to style differences within the language class, a given class typically needs a balance between “communicative” activities (more open-ended activities that might include information-gap tasks, role-plays, discussions, debates, and flexible games) and grammar-based activities. So-called communicative activities would appeal more to abstract-intuitive, holistic, or part-to-whole (synthesizing) students, while the grammatical activities would be favored by students with a style that is concrete-sequential, detail-oriented, or whole-to-part (analyzing). There are also valid instructional reasons for providing a wide range of activities, which can help students develop many different language competencies.

Part II. Learning Strategies

Learning strategies are specific actions, behaviors, steps, or techniques — such as seeking out conversation partners, or giving oneself encouragement to tackle a difficult language task — used by students to enhance their own learning. Hundreds of learning strategies exist, such as finding a learning partner, using the dictionary effectively, initiating conversations, and using mental images to remember new words and phrases.

Myth IIA. Learning strategies are not really all that important. Strategies are very important for learning another language. When the learner consciously chooses strategies that fit his or her learning style and the language task at hand, these strategies become a useful toolkit for active, conscious, and purposeful self-regulation of learning. Learning strategies “make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations” (Oxford, 1990, p. 8). Using appropriate learning strategies can enable students to become more independent, autonomous, motivated, and confident learners (Chamot et al., 1996; Nunan, 1997).

Myth IIB. Certain strategies are naturally good or naturally bad. A given strategy is neither good nor bad intrinsically. A strategy is useful if the following conditions are present: (a) the strategy relates well to the language-learning task at hand, (b) the strategy fits the particular student’s learning style preferences to one degree or another, and (c) the student employs the strategy effectively and links it with other relevant strategies.

Myth IIC. Teaching new learning strategies to students (strategy instruction) takes time away from teaching the language, so the cost is not worth the benefit. Strategy instruction has positive effects on many language skills and on student motivation and self-confidence (Chamot et al., 1996; Nunan, 1997). When explicit strategy instruction is interwoven with language tasks, it becomes part of the regular instruction and speeds up learning, rather than slowing it down (Oxford, 1990, 1996). The benefit clearly justifies the time.

Myth IID. Strategy instruction is too hard for teachers to do. Strategy instruction can really be quite simple and is necessitated by ordinary language tasks. Teachers recognize when a task is difficult for some or all students in the class; at that point, strategy instruction might be warranted. The most effective strategy instruction includes (a) demonstrating how to use a given strategy to make the task at hand easier and (b) encouraging students to employ the strategy while doing the task. For instance, the teacher teaches students make mental pictures of Russian prepositions of location (above, below, into, out of, from, and so on) when they are doing early tasks with these prepositions. Another example is teaching students to analyze unfamiliar words to get the meaning while reading a Russian short story. Effective strategy instruction also includes (c) helping students check whether the strategy has aided them (not every strategy is equally valuable to all students) and (d) reminding students when to transfer a useful strategy to other language tasks. The goal is for a new, useful strategy to become automatic and virtually effortless.

Part III. Conclusion

I hope this FPD has awakened readers to ways to improve Russian instruction through learning styles and strategies. This information can ultimately enable students become more linguistically and culturally proficient. It can also enable everyone to continue the broader educative quest of becoming more understanding accepting of others and more “fully human.”


  1. For further information on the E & L Survey, contact Madeline Ehrman at or Betty Leaver at
  2. I would be happy to share the revised SAS with readers (teachers and their students) who wish to participate in pilot studies and/or use this instrument for educational improvement; email me at


Chamot, A.U., Barnhardt, S., El-Dinary, P., & Robbins, J. (1996). Methods for teaching learning strategies in the foreign language classroom. In R. Oxford (Ed.), Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 175-188). Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.

Cornett, C. (1983). What you should know about teaching and learning styles. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.

Dunn, R. & Griggs, S. (1988). Learning styles: Quiet revolution in American schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Ehrman, M.E. & Leaver, B.L. (2003). E & L Survey. Described in Ehrman, M.E. & Leaver, B.L. (2003). Cognitive styles in the service of language learning. System, 31(3).

   Keirsey, D. (1998). Please understand me II: Temperament, character, intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company.

Myers, I.B., McCaulley, M.H., Quenk, Naomi L., & Hammer, A.L. (1998). MBTI Manual: A guide to the development and use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. 3rd Ed. Palo Alto, CA, Consulting Psychologists. Also (old link).

Nunan, D. (1997). Does learner strategy training make a difference? Lenguas Modernas, 24, 123-142.

Oxford, R.L. (1993). Style Analysis Survey. Tuscaloosa, AL: Oxford Associates. Reprinted in J. Reid (ed.), (1995), Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom (pp. 208-215). Boston: Heinle & Heinle / Thomson International. Also (old link).

Oxford, R.L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Oxford, R.L. (1993). Style Analysis Survey. Tuscaloosa, AL: Oxford Associates. Reprinted in J. Reid (ed.), (1995), Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom (pp. 208-215). Boston: Heinle & Heinle / Thomson International. Also (old link).

Oxford, R.L. (1996). Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural perspectives. Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.

Oxford, R.L. (1998). “Style wars” as a source of anxiety in the language classroom. In D.J. Young (Ed.), Affect in L2 learning: A practical guide to dealing with learner anxieties. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Reid, J.M. (Ed.). (1995). Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Reid, J.M. (Ed.). (1998). Understanding learning styles in the second language classroom. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Wallace, W. & Oxford, R.L. (1992). Disparity in learning styles and teaching styles in the ESL classroom: Does this mean war? AMTESOL Journal 1(1), 45-68.

Wong, S. (1994). Dialogic approaches to teacher education in the teaching of English writing to speakers of other languages. In D. Li, D. Mahoney, & J. Richards (Eds.), Exploring second language teacher development (pp. 101-112). Hong Kong: City Polytechnic.

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