In this “How to Homeschool” series, I help you to customize your homeschool to fit the members of your family and your current season of life by giving you three key steps to follow, in order, to get you started.
In the introductory post, I share with you the importance of uniqueness and the need to customize and not imitate.
In Step #1, I share with you the great importance of learning your local homeschool laws.
In this post, we’ll talk about learning styles and preferences, both for you and your kids, and how they make a difference in your homeschool. As a gift to you, I’m also providing this free printable to help you get to know your kids (and yourself!) better. Understanding learning preferences may be the single most helpful tool for you as you customize your homeschool.
How to Homeschool – Step #2: Identify Learning Preferences
If I had to name my biggest homeschooling mistake, it would be choosing curricula that doesn’t match my kids’ learning preferences. I want to help you to not make the same mistake!
Unique in Learning
In the introduction to this “How to Homeschool” series, I shared the importance of recognizing the uniqueness of each person. One way in which each person is unique is in how they learn.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons that many families leave traditional education to pursue homeschooling. Educators with 20-30 kids in a classroom need to make decisions about how to instruct in a way that will reach the majority of students. Children that are not in the majority flounder, and are sometimes even given an unfair label.
The learning environment can also have a significant impact on a student. Students that prefer solitude or quiet will struggle sitting at a table with a group of kids. And students that are physically active will struggle with sitting for more than a few minutes
I saw my oldest son struggle with learning (even though he tested as above average in intelligence) when he attended kindergarten at a public school. He attended a decent school and had a great teacher, but never really did school well. Both the written and spoken word (primary methods of instruction in a traditional school setting) mean very little to him, so he didn’t learn much or even pay attention to instructions. He needs to interact with the material, often in a physical way, for it to make an impact. And he preferred to stand, but the tables weren’t tall enough to allow him to work standing up. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
What are learning preferences?
Over our first couple of years of homeschooling, I learned to avoid instruction or curricula for my oldest that depended on the student retaining information gained through auditory input. Learn a new math concept via lecture? NO. Learn about history via audiobook? NO. Memorize a poem by repeating lines after me? NO NO NO!
Our struggles led me to research learning styles. Depending on where you look, you’ll find that there are three, four, five, seven, or even eight different learning styles! I tried to identify my son’s learning style based on the various theories, without success.
For example, three basic learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. My oldest learns very little from purely auditory input, there always needs to be a visual component to increase retention. But it has to be the “right” visual component. The written word doesn’t make the cut. Neither does watching a lecture. He likes videos with lots of graphics, fun pictures and diagrams, and games. On occasion, puzzles will work.
When it came right down to it, I realized that I didn’t need to pigeon-hole my son into a specific learning style. I just needed to identify curricula and learning activities that would help my kids to retain what they’re learning in a way that felt natural and “easy” to them. And to avoid those that placed unnecessary stumbling blocks in their paths.
So, like any good computer engineer, I looked at inputs (physical senses) and types of data. I put it all together in a chart (watch the video below, I explain it all!) to help me think through what does and doesn’t work for my kids in different situations. I don’t have to assign them a type of learning style and can instead focus on making good choices with what I know.
Getting to Know the Learning Preferences Printable
This printable is a way to help you to get specific about what aids learning for a particular person. Not what they like to do, not what they want to do. What we’re looking for are the methods, activities, and learning environment that help a concept to click or information to be retained.
I have learning preferences split up into learning methods and interpersonal learning. DO NOT use this printable to choose one learning method that may work for your child. DO use this printable to think through when each learning method does or doesn’t work for your child, as far as you know in this season.
I’m focusing on five general categories of learning methods, with the two “traditional” learning methods listed first.
- Written Word: Think about whether or not your child likes to read or write. It may be just one or the other. Your child may love to read, but balks at writing. Or maybe they love to write their own stories, make lists, etc., but haven’t found a genre that they love to read.
- Spoken Word: This is another method with two possibilities – listening to the spoken word (read-alouds, verbal explanations, etc.) or doing the speaking themselves (conversation, speeches).
- Visual: This method covers anything visual that’s not just words – pictures, maps, charts, graphical organizers, etc.
- Interactive: This method is all about interacting with the information presented – taking things apart, crafting, lapbooks, notebooking, games, lift-the-flap books, drawing, activity books, etc.
- Physical: This method encompasses physical activity, along with any senses that are not covered in another method – active play, physical games, sense of touch, sense of sound (ex. music, birds chirping), sense of smell, sense of taste, etc.
A real-world example of this type of categorization is a map app on your smartphone. You may have noticed that the app gives you different methods for getting route information.
- Visual: A map with your route plotted out clearly.
- Written Word: Turn-by-turn directions written out.
- Spoken Word: Verbal instructions telling you when to turn.
- Physical: A smartwatch may even tap you on the wrist when it’s time to turn.
You might have a clear preference for one of these methods, or you may prefer certain methods in certain situations. It’s not that different when it comes to learning something new. A certain method of learning / type of information may be preferable to a particular person or in a particular situation.
It bears repeating that the point of this is NOT to pigeon-hole your kids into one learning method. This is just a way for you to get to know your kids better so that you can customize their schooling in a thoughtful way.
Interpersonal learning is all about people, and how your child responds to learning in certain situations.
- Independent: The student prefers to learn on their own and are distracted in group settings.
- One-on-One: The student prefers to learn one-on-one with a teacher or parent.
- Group: The student enjoys group work, conversation, teams.
How do I use the Learning Preferences printable?
Identify Your Learning Preferences
That’s right, you get to get to know yourself a little better first!
I found it extremely helpful to identify my own learning preferences so that I could guard against projecting my preferences onto my children. For example, I learn best through the written word, so I’m naturally drawn to any and every type of book – fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, workbooks, etc. Reading is a very active process for me.
My oldest child, though, does not have the relationship with words that I have. Reading is a somewhat passive activity for him. He learns best from interacting with the information in some way – lapbooks, notebooking, games, puzzles, hands-on projects. Expecting him to learn primarily from reading would be a mistake and frustrating for us both.
I also found that I need to pay special attention to the learning methods that are the least effective for me. My kids actually learn well with my least-preferred learning methods, so I need to be willing to accomodate them.
Identify Your Kids’ Learning Preferences
This isn’t a test, so don’t let it stress you out. I describe my process more in-depth in the video, but I’ll give you the highlights here.
I start by identifying low-hanging fruit – crossing out any obvious No and circling any obvious Yes.
Then I look at each learning method and use the “Evidence For” and “Evidence Against” boxes to write down appropriate examples, if any. (A check mark, big X, doodle, or even a pasted picture would work, too.)
Under “Independent,” “One-on-One,” and “Group,” I write down notes about how my student reacts in each environment.
Don’t feel like you have to fill in something for every box. If your child is young, or if you haven’t started homeschooling yet, you won’t know as much as you’d like. But don’t worry, that will all change with time.
Identify Strong Learning Preferences for Key Subjects
Look for the learning method (or methods, there could be more than one!) with the most “Evidence For.” You’ll want to use curricula that incorporates those learning methods for the “important” subjects – your required subjects and/or those subjects or topics that are especially difficult for your student. (Don’t start choosing curricula yet, though! We still have one more step to go! 🙂 )
Do you see a learning method that is particularly incompatible with your student? Avoid curricula that requires that learning method for key and difficult subjects. This alone will bring more peace and confidence into your home.
Depending on your child, you may be able to help them strengthen their tolerance for a learning method in which they are weak in order to prepare them for the future. For example, my oldest son’s weakest learning method is the spoken word, but fun read-alouds and poem memorization has helped him strengthen in this area tremendously.
He also struggled with drawing and couldn’t even make a simple sketch. So one year, once a week, I had him work out of an age-appropriate book that gave instructions for making simple drawings. He didn’t love it, but by the end of the year it was no big deal for him. He never developed a love for drawing, but now he doesn’t resist sketching when required or helpful in another subject.
Your kids’ interpersonal learning preferences will also affect your homeschool. For example, I have found that the morning baskets that are all the rage in the homeschool world are not a good fit for my family. I have one child that tunes out in group environments and another child that likes being in a group but is competitive with his brothers. So I’m slowly letting go of group subjects in this season. But in another season, when my kids are older and more mature, we may go back to doing more group work.
Consider How Learning Preferences Will Impact Your Family’s Learning Space
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but homeschool moms tend to have very strong feelings about what a learning space “should” look like. Without consideration of the uniqueness of each family, many homeschool moms imply (or declare!) that schoolrooms are a negative thing, or that doing school at the kitchen table is homey, or that you’ve really embraced homeschooling when the kids can all do their schoolwork on the living room floor.
Like most things in life, the vision doesn’t always match the reality. Doing schoolwork at the kitchen table may feel homey to all of your kids – except for the one that just can’t handle the noise and distractions. Laying on the living room floor may feel super-relaxed for some of your kids – except the ones that need to be up and moving.
My oldest, who for years watched TV balancing on his head on the couch, needs the option to stand while he’s working. So when we started homeschooling, I made sure to get him a desk that was high enough to allow him to stand and still write or read.
While all of those learning spaces on Pinterest look amazing, don’t make any final decisions about your family’s learning space until you’ve identified learning preferences.
Revisit at Least Twice a Year
You’ll want to review learning preferences both mid-year and at the end of your school year.
One reason is that you’ll get to know your kids better as time goes on. For example, when we began the current school year, my preschooler didn’t hold a pencil properly, so he did not like to write or even color. We worked on that issue for a few months, and now he has the correct pencil grip, which has completely changed his feelings about coloring, drawing, and writing. So I’ve learned something new about his learning preferences.
Another reason is that you’ll get to know curricula better. That new curriculum choice that you thought would be perfect may not work out. Revisiting learning preferences could help you to identify the issue and help you to know how to change things up so that it’ll work better for your family or student, rather than just switching to something else.
For example, I chose a spelling curriculum for my oldest (who doesn’t love the written word) that is marketed as multi-sensory. But it turns out it wasn’t as multi-sensory as it needed to be for him. I tried to find a better option, to no avail. I finally realized that I just needed to change things up to make it more interactive and physical for him. So I incorporated spelling practice via a website and spelling binder of fun worksheets (Interactive Learning), and give him his practice words each week by giving him a stack of ten word cards (Physical Learning) to hold and manipulate and organize (rather than just a list of words).
- Sign up to download the free Learning Preferences worksheet.
- Print out the Learning Preferences printable, one for you and one for each of your kids, in your preferred colors. Add them to your homeschool binder.
- Fill out the Learning Preferences printable for yourself.
- Fill out the Learning Preferences printable for each of your kids. Take your time with this. Keep your homeschool binder nearby so that you can quickly make a note when you notice something new about your kids as you go about your day.
- Add notes to your calendar/planner both mid-year and at the end of the school year to revisit learning preferences for your kids.