Three People Holding Question MarkThe way in which individuals perceive information and process it in different ways has an impact on learning. The understanding that each individual possess a unique set of biological and developmental characteristics that support their ability to learn is not a new concept, however the manner in which these needs are met academically can become a controversial topic. “Not everybody learns the same way — we all have our national preferences as to how we acquire and store the information that we learn”, so how do educators make it work for all students, including those with learning disabilities? (Learning styles of children, 2009).

Although the general idea for the existence of individual learning styles has become a widely accepted premise in modern education, “there are a number of extensions and/or variations… particularly in relationship to the nature of the specific types of learning styles and how the elements are assessed” (Dunn et al., 2009). It is with these variations that the questions of why students with various disabilities develop a preference towards some learning styles over others, is posed. By understanding why different students develop preferences towards different learning modalities, teachers can develop curriculum programs that work with less trial and error, and more success.

Learning Styles Defined

Understanding a student’s preference for a specific learn style is a complicated undertaking which often involves experimentation with various learning styles in order to unfold which style will best serves the needs of an individual student. There are various tools that are used in the field of education to identify various types of learning preference including those outlines by Gardner’s (1983) eight Multiple Intelligences. It was the belief of Gardner that there are several types of intelligences that can exist and that identification of intelligence through IQ (Intelligence Quota) alone does not effectively cater to the needs and abilities of all learners.

Kolb offers another model based on two preference dimensions theorizing that people develop preferences for different learning styles in the same way that they develop any other sort of style.

Why Learning Styles are Important for Students with Disabilities

Not everybody learns in the same way, we all have natural preferences and tendencies as to how we acquire and store the information. The cognitive development of students with disabilities is often starkly different then that of students without disabilities, however understanding how it differs from traditional child development is important to understanding how learning style identification can assist students with disabilities. Why and how does students create accommodations to account for disabilities and how students with similar disabilities make similar accommodations are threads that can weave a better understanding of how individuals learn.

It is the argument of Christie (2000), that there is a neurological explanation for the development of specific learning styles. Christie explores the brain as well as neurological and psychological processes involved in cognitive development and how these cognitive processes can explain the development of specific preferences in human learning.  

Christie explains that hemisphere dominance is often demonstrated in learning and the development of various skills, for example, expressive and receptive language, reasoning and sequencing are all found in the left hemisphere, while geometric figure identification, visual forms and facial identity are located in the right hemisphere. What does this mean for students with disabilities? When looking at the neurological effects of specific disabilities, a relationship may be found that students with similar disabilities may also have a similar hemisphere dominance which causes them to gravitate towards learning styles that accommodate for their particular disability.

A study on abnormal brain development by Escalante-Mead, Minshew and Sweeney (2003) offers compelling evidence for Christie’s argument.  This study discovered that disturbances in lateral preference in individuals with autism potentially shed light on brain maturational processes in this disorder. Individuals with autism and a history of early language disturbance showed more atypical cerebral dominance than both healthy participants and individuals with autism who had normal early language skills. The arguments by Christie (2000) as well as Escalante-Mead, Minshew and Sweeney (2003) offer scientific reasoning and explanation for the development of learning styles. “A critical relationship between our students and learning in the classroom is association…In education it is absolutely imperative that we assist our students to draw associations from sensory input to neurological processing to expressive output” (Christie, 2000, p. 328).

Christie accounts for association in students with disabilities by suggesting that the brain dominance of students with disabilities may be damaged or otherwise effected and therefore these students must use a method of association to overcome or over compensate for a disability. It is through an analysis of these works (Christie, 2000; Escalante-Mead, et. Al, (2003), that one can understand the argument that learning style preference is a neurological phenomenon which can offer insist into how the brain is involved in learning style preference development in individuals with disabilities.  

The compelling argument posed may offer incite into why students with Autism are often tactile learners. Does their disability and development offer a clue? Is it a cognitive adaptation?

Perhaps one of the most convincing examples for the role of the brain in learning style development in students with disabilities is in individuals with dyslexia.  A case study by Norris and Kershner (1996) offers additional validity to the neurological understanding of learning style preference development in individuals with dyslexia.  This study assessed the neuropsychological validity of the modality preference (learning style) of individuals with dyslexia with regarding to reading. The idea that learning styles are linked to the brain and that specific associations can be made to accommodate different types of learning is a sentiment that is also shared by Christie (2000). According to the research in this study, students who were considered fluent readers rated their reading styles to be more strongly auditory and visual than children with dyslexia. The authors of this study “assume that left-hemisphere engagement implicates a preference for auditory processing and that right-hemisphere engagement implicates a relatively greater preference for visual processing” (Norris & Kershner, 1996, p.234).  This research on dyslexia further supports the idea that by understanding what area of the brain is effected by a specific disability; teachers will be better able to determine a student’s learning style preference and better assist that child to learn.

While the research completed by Norris and Kershner, Christie and Escalante-Mead, Minshew and Sweeney all use a neurological rationale to explain why students with similar disabilities often share a common learning style preference, arguments have also been made outside the area of science as to why learning style preference coincides with specific disability types.  Heiman (2006) addresses the differences which exist among various students at the university level assessing the different learning styles which develop in students with and without learning disabilities. The results of this study found that students with learning disabilities preferred to use more stepwise processing, including memorization and drilling practice. In addition, these students reported a higher need for self-regulation strategies than their non-learning disabled peers.  

The presupposition that, students with learning disabilities face academic difficulties which provoke the use of different learning styles than students without learning disabilities is a common difficulty that causes a common accommodation to develop in students with disabilities is a compelling one.

Learning Styles for Students with Both Abilities and Disabilities

The line between those who are gifted and those who are disabled is not always one that is clear in the field of education. Often those students who have a disability which inhibits one or more areas of learning are able to uncover an area of giftedness as well.  This giftedness in turn provides them with a means of learning and understanding through a learning style preference that can be universally adapted into an education plan such as an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The work of Reis, Schader, Miline and Stephens (2003) explores how students with Williams Syndrome have used music as a means of learning development. This idea of educational programs that focus on “remediating their deficits” is a bold one that has the potential to unlock hidden potentials for many students. The authors pose the idea of using learning style preference to unlock these students’ potential rather than using a program that works to address what are seen as deficits.

The thought provoking data provides support for the idea for learning styles as a means of assisting students to learn, as well as the argument that specific disabilities often promote the development of common and specific learning style preferences.


The benefit of unlocking why specific learning style preferences exists is in the ability of educators to find a curriculum that works for students with disabilities using fewer trials and errors, and therefore minimizing the frustration of failure. “According to Dunn (1983) learning style assessment enables educators to avoid the ‘hit or miss’ approach in determining which instructional techniques are appropriate for each student” (Yong & McIntyre, p. 124, 1992).

The developmental nature of how and why specific learning styles develop in students with disabilities is significant for the future of education of students with disabilities. This knowledge can help researchers and educators to develop plans and curriculums that are designed to more effectively meet the needs of various learners. With this information it becomes possible to develop work programs that use learning modalities for job training programs for individuals with different ways of learning.  This information can help students with disabilities become more integrated into their own communities and become a vital part of our society. The question that needs probing after identifying how and why learning styles develop is; how can this information extend past the classroom and into the world outside school?


Christie, S. (2000). The brain: Utilizing multi-sensory approaches for individual learning styles. Education, 121(2), 327-330.

Dunn, R., Honigsfeld, A., Shea-Doolan, L., Bostrom, L., Russo, K., Schiering, M., Suh, B., Tenedero, H. (January/February 2009).  Impact of learning-style instructional strategies on students’ achievement and attitudes: Perceptions of educators in diverse institutions. The Clearing House 82(3), p. 135. doi: 10.3200/TCHS.82.3.135-140

Escalante-Mead, P., Minshew N., & Sweeney, J. (2003). Abnormal brain lateralization in high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(5), 539-543. doi: 10.1023/A:1025887713788

Heiman, T. (2006). Assessing learning styles among students with and without

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Norris, A., & Kershner, J. (1996). Reading styles in children with dyslexia: A neuropsychological evaluation of modality preference on the reading style inventory. Learning Disability Quarterly, 19(Fall), 233-240.

Reis, S., Schader, R., Miline, H., & Stephens, R. (2003). Music and minds: Using a talent development approach for young adults with williams syndrome. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 293-313.

Yong, F., & McIntyre, J. (1992, February). A Comparative study of the learning style preferences of students with learning disabilities and students who are gifted. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(2), 124-132.