The Three Modalities


There are several different ways that people are “smart”. The styles of teaching and learning are many. But there are only three modalities in which people learn. As a teacher, it’s important for us to understand how students learn, how the brain processes new information, so that we can design our lessons and learning activities for optimal results.

The three modalities are visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic. Most teachers are visual learners first, with a strong auditory channel. We’ve been successful in traditional school because we can look at what our instructors write on the board, listen to them explain, and learn the information. Visual learners are strongest when they can watch what someone else does. If they were blindfolded or had a lot of visual stimuli, it would interfere with the amount of information their brains would take in and make sense of.

To help visual learners use their strengths, present information by writing, using pictures, and giving demonstrations. Visual learners will want to show what they know by a visual presentation. That could be a paper-pencil test, a poster, graph, or drawing. Just because a student prefers to learn visually doesn’t mean that’s the only modality that we as teachers should use with that student. It’s important to have them work their weaker modalities as well.

Auditory learners will hear what we say as we give examples and definitions. They will want to participate in class because it gives them the opportunity to talk. They would much prefer an oral exam to a paper-pencil test. A lot of noise in a classroom interferes with the information they’re trying to get, so they may talk to us about moving them away from chatty students, computers that hum, or loud ventilation. Again, just because a student prefers auditory as a way to learn doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be gently stretched to learn visually and kinesthetically.

Most boys are tactile-kinesthetic. Athletes certainly are! These students won’t sit still long in their seats. To keep them engaged, give them materials. Group work or activities where they’re allowed to move will keep their brains on task. There is a difference between tactile and kinesthetic, but because they’re both related to being physical we often group them together. Tactile actually deals with touch. Puffy paint, sandpaper, carpet squares, or anything that has a feel or a texture will help these students learn. Kinesthetic is moving the physical body. Dance classes, acting classes, and PE classes are full of kinesthetic learners. Because of how most schools are designed, these are the students that tend to struggle the most. They’re asked to remain seated for 45 to 90 minutes at a time. They are to focus on something visual, like writing on the board, and listen to the teacher. Though they need to practice some with these modalities, they also need the opportunity to play to their strengths.

When designing lessons and learning activities, allow for all three modalities that will show up in the classroom. By using visual words and pictures, music and different voices, and the opportunity to move, we can accommodate students’ strengths as well as address their weaknesses. As teachers, we need to make sure that we vary our instruction so that students don’t get bored with getting information and showing what they know in always the same way.

I’ve developed materials that touch on all the modalities. You can view them here:

Do you know which modality you prefer? How can you change up your instruction to touch on all three learning modalities?