Children Learn Their Own Way

DIFFERENT STYLES: Ventura educators write book on various methods of teaching.

By Kim Lamb Gregory | Ventura County Star writer

Sunday July 23, 2000

After reading several pages in her storybook, 8-year-old Molly Blackmon propped her feet on top of the table in front of her — and in front of her tutor, Victoria Kindle Hodson.

Moments later, the girl swung her feet off the table with a mischievous smile, then sagged into a serpentine slide out of her chair and onto the floor, where she proceeded to giggle and scramble under her seat.

Behavior that would invite a stern reprimand in most classroom settings merely draws an appreciative observation from Hodson, who was tutoring Molly in the library of Oak Grove School in Meiners Oaks, where Molly attends elementary school.

“This is Molly’s inventive use of how to be in a chair,” Hodson said.

“I love chairs,” Molly said. “I love to fool around in them.”

And Hodson is only too happy to let her.

Letting Molly be Molly as she assimilates new information is an example of the innovative learning-style theories that Hodson and fellow Ventura educator Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis are promoting with an institute and in their 1999 book, “Discover Your Child’s Learning Style” (Prima Publishing).

Through studies and experience, Hodson and Pelullo-Willis have come to believe that certain behaviors some teachers might view as disruptive actually can reveal clues to the methods in which each child learns best.

Songs on an imaginary flute

During her and Hodson’s recent tutorial session, Molly not only explored her chair but also leapt up to fetch a tissue from across the room, traced pictures from her storybook and suddenly lifted her fingers into the air in order to play songs on an imaginary flute.

Hodson integrated all of Molly’s behavior into the hourlong session, in which Molly read, wrote and practiced sentence structure in between her spontaneous gambols. Each time Molly’s interest wandered, Hodson waited calmly, or blended her intermittent antics into the lesson.

“These aren’t distracting things for people who need them,”Pelullo-Willis explained. “It helps them learn.”

In their book, Hodson and Pelullo-Willis teach parents how to identify their children’s individual learning styles based on talents, interests, disposition and physical needs.

This weekend, Hodson and Pelullo-Willis added to their body of work with the completion of the first three-day session of a learning institute they founded based on their theories.

The maiden session of the Learning Success Institute was attended by a dozen Southern California parents and teachers and eight Japanese parents and teachers who had traveled from Tokyo to gather information for home-schooling programs they are starting. The first session took place in a hotel conference room in Ventura, but Hodson and Pelullo-Willis hope to move as space needs increase.

Hodson and Pelullo-Willis base their teachings on their belief that traditional classrooms are not suited to the learning needs of all students. “Schools have traditionally provided one curriculum, one teaching environment and one teaching methodology to fit all learning needs,” the book states. “This structure has favored some learners, left others out, and over the years created a population of learning ‘misfits.’ ”

Union of two minds

Hodson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in psychology, met Pelullo-Willis when she attended a workshop given by Pelullo-Willis, who holds a master’s degree in special education and has been conducting workshops for parents and teachers for 20 years. This particular workshop focused on teaching adults how to identify their own learning profiles.

“After the workshop, I came up to her and said, ‘I would love to develop something like that that children could answerthemselves,’ ” Hodson said.

Hodson and Pelullo-Willis became friends who discovered they shared the same philosophy on education. Throughout their years of experience teaching students of all ages in a variety of educational settings, both shared the same frustration with traditional teaching methods.

A 30-year veteran educator, Hodson believed there must be a way to rechannel traits that might cause a student to be labeled “learning disabled” into a program that would use these same traits to the child’s advantage.

Similarly, Pelullo-Willis spent 11 years testing and diagnosing children identified as having learning problems and developing ways to “fix” kids she didn’t believe needed fixing.

“I was working with kids who were labeled as disabled and they were really artistic and inventive or whatever,” Pelullo-Willis said.

Both wanted to develop methods designed to recognize and use each child’s unique characteristics rather than to categorize them. “A person who is labeled ‘dyslexic’ may just be a visual picture learner,”Pelullo-Willis said.

The educators believe some kids may be misdiagnosed with learning problems when those problems might be solved simply by working with the child’s learning style.

“We can actually create learning disabilities by making children learn in ways that are not natural to them,” Hodson theorized.

With their combined experience, Pelullo-Willis and Hodson compiled their principles into the book, which is a guide for parents wishing to coach their children through school by profiling their learning styles.

“We are not including children who are developmentally delayed or brain injured,”the book states. “We realize that these children have special needs that cannot be addressed simply by looking at their learning styles.”

But for a majority of kids, the authors believe the learning style model can help.

How it works

Besides the classes they are holding at their new institute, Hodson and Pelullo-Willis do private consultations with local parents who hire them to work with students like Molly.

Hodson and Molly met in the library regularly for private sessions through the school year.

During one session, Hodson invited Molly to practice her writing with colored magic markers. After some concentrated effort, Molly announced:

“Smelly time!”

With that, she pulled the scented markers out of the box, and sniffed them, one at a time.

“It smells like grapes,” Molly said, inhaling the scent of a purple marker.

Molly has what the authors have identified as a “performing” disposition, one of five dispositions Hodson and Pelullo-Willis mapped out in their book.

Kids with performing dispositions like to keep moving

“A child with a performing disposition really enjoys being the center of attention,”explained Hodson. “They like the spotlight to be on them. They’re often very spontaneous people. They like to jump from one thing to another.”

Rather than having Molly sit for long periods of time and read or write, Hodson works movement and variety into each lesson, allowing Molly to provide her own spontaneous breaks.

Instead of constructing sentences with pencil and paper, Hodson has Molly manipulate cards printed with words into complete sentences. “She’s very hands-on,” Hodson said.

This method would not work as well with a child who had one of the other four dispositions in the book: the producing; inventing; relating/inspiring; and thinking/creating dispositions.

Kids with producing dispositions do well with organized reading and writing exercises popular in public schools.

Those with inventing dispositions love to discover things on their own, whereas kids with relating/inspiring dispositions learn well when they interact with others. They may enjoy doing things in groups or reading aloud. And kids with thinking/creating dispositions learn by contemplating abstract ideas and then expressing them through mathematical formulas, philosophical solutions, poetry, artwork or dance.

Each person usually has a dominant and a secondary disposition, Hodson said, which figures into each learning profile along with four other factors: talent, interests, ideal learning environment and modality (which of the senses dominates when the child is assimilating information).

To create an ideal learning situation for the child, all five categories are blended to create what the authors call the “learning personality.”

“We say that is the way the child meets the learning world,” Hodson said. “It’s kind of a synthesis of all the other things.”

Talent, interests, environment and learning modalities were areas that had been explored by other educators, but the theory of individual dispositions was a new concept introduced by Pelullo-Willis and Hodson.

Easing into reading

For Sharon and Paul Tubbs of Santa Paula, the “Learning Styles” concept was a godsend.

“I have three children who learn things in three different ways,”said Sharon, whose fourth child, Patrick, is still an infant.

Sharon now schools her children at home, but when the Tubbs family first contacted Pelullo-Willis, the oldest of their school-age children, James Burgett, 15, was in the fourth grade in public school, could barely read, and was constantly restless in class. “His teachers described him as a ‘spring ready to be sprung,’ ” Sharon said.

“They said, ‘Sit still and pay attention,’ ” James remembered, as he swayed his knees back and forth and fiddled with a hinge on a nearby cabinet.

Pelullo-Willis channeled James’ energy into his learning process.
After testing James, Pelullo-Willis identified him as having primarily a performing disposition, with the inventing disposition pulling a close second. “This combination is deadly in a regular classroom,” Pelullo-Willis said.

James’ learning modality was kinesthetic, which means he likes to learn through touch.

“I like to take stuff apart,”he said, “washing machines, motors, all kinds of mechanical stuff.”

Pelullo-Willis began her program with James by de-emphasizing his poor reading skills, instead asking him about his interests.

“When she told my son he didn’t have to read or write, I thought I would die,” Sharon said.

“We back off and say, ‘You don’t have to read and write.’ ” Pelullo-Willis explained. “We do that and we wait.”

The reading will come, she said, but the time must be right.

“Safety is the No. 1 underlying requirement for learning to take place,” Hodson explained.

As they talked, Pelullo-Willis discovered a pathway to James’ learning psyche.

“He started opening up with airplanes,”Pelullo-Willis said. “He just blossomed.”

Through his love for model airplanes, James learned to read.
“I went through every airplane book in the Santa Paula library,” James said.

“He wasn’t reading in the fourth grade,” Sharon said. “Now he can read anything.”

The trouble-free student

In contrast, James’ brother, Calvin Burgett, 13, has a producing disposition, which is rewarded in a traditional school environment but is not without its pitfalls.

Kids with producing dispositions like organization. They don’t mind sitting for long periods and often turn in their lessons on time, neatly and within the margins. They thrive on order.

“He likes quiet,” Pelullo-Willis said of Calvin. “He likes schedules and workbooks.”

Here’s the problem: Because schools tend to favor the producing disposition, other aspects of the child often are not encouraged.

“They miss out,” Hodson said. “They get so locked into being the good student. They have a lot of fear — fear that they’re not going to get an A on the next test, fear that they will fall off this pedestal.

“They often don’t get to pursue their own interests because they get so involved in pleasing — meeting the expectations of others,” Hodson said.

Relating and creating

Calvin and James’ sister, Nianna Morris, 10, has a relating/inspiring disposition, which means she learns best when she interacts with others. “These are the people who are sensitive to others’ feelings,” Hodson explained. “They like to involve other people in what they are doing.”

Nianna’s secondary disposition is thinking/creating. “These people are creative and imaginative,” Hodson said.

She added, “Thinking/creating minds are not just the arts; they are also the very pure mathematicians.”

Pelullo-Willis suggested a good way for Nianna to learn was to express herself with her natural art talent and then to share her creations with others. “Instead of saying, ‘Stop drawing, stop doodling!’ we use that,” Pelullo-Willis explained.

Nianna explored the classic book “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott by listening to the book on tape and watching a movie version of the book with her mother. Then she created paper dolls out of all the characters, and fashions for the scenes out of the book.

“This is the guy, Laurie, when he was sick,”said Nianna, holding up a paper doll she cut out and colored.

“The typical thing you do is read, synthesize and do a report,”Pelullo-Willis said. “Here she’s learned about the period of time and she’s read a classic.”

Talents and interests

Other elements in the learning-style mix are the student’s talents and interests.

Hodson and Pelullo-Willis have identified 12 talents for their profile. Talents are described as traits that come naturally to the student, like humor, music, math, even animal husbandry.

Nianna possesses what Hodson calls the “Dr. Doolittle” talent; she loves caring for two dogs and four puppies, and when she reads a story, “I mostly pick out things about animals,” Nianna said.
Talents figure into a student’s ideal learning profile along with interests, which are the hobbies and activities that make the child light up. “When kids are pursuing interests, they are focused, energetic and enthusiastic,” the book reads.

A child may have an interest in everything from frogs to skateboarding. The trick is to watch which interests stick.

“Kids will try on interests the way we try on shoes,”Hodson said. “Really talk to the kids about it, even if it’s not your interest.”

Sometimes a parent’s expectations can eclipse what interests a child, the authors say. Listen to the child, they stress, and do not assume you know where his or her interests lie. “Making assumptions about what your child should be interested in will plant seeds for resistance and maybe even a full-blown power struggle,” the book states.

Modality and environment

Nianna learned “Little Women” by listening to a tape. Calvin prefers to see words on a page. Molly likes to slide cards around on a tabletop to create sentences.

Most educators know children have a primary learning modality that is either visual, auditory or kinesthetic, but Hodson and Pelullo-Willis expand those modalities by suggesting there are different categories of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning.

For example, one type of kinesthetic learner may like to draw, while another enjoys dismantling things. A third child may enjoy a combination of both.

The modality bias of most schools is visual and auditory, Hodson said, since most learning is done through print and listening to lectures.

“Only 30 percent of the entire population of the U.S. is auditory,” Hodson said. “More than 60 percent is tactile-kinesthetic.”

Another important vehicle for learning is environment, according to the book. Some children must have quiet to learn, whereas others thrive on background noise.

Kids have different temperature needs, too. Some like it hot. Some like it cold.

Other kids will thrive with certain light levels in a classroom, or around certain colors. “Children have colors they are responsive to, that just brighten their day,” Hodson said. “They may need to have a yellow notebook.”

“These are all those subtleties that make the learning situation comfortable for you,” she said.

What to do with all this

Schools are making more of an effort to consider each child’s individuality, Hodson believes, but public school remains more of a socializing than an academic environment. “Its mandate from the very beginning has not been reassessed,” she said. “Its mandate was to develop an assembly line working class to do what they’re told and when they are told.”

“The school is defining them too narrowly,” Hodson said. “Only a certain number (of students) can succeed with their definition.”

Obviously, the sheer numbers of students and other limitations make it unrealistic for public schools to cater to each child’s individual learning style, but Pelullo-Willis and Hodson believe parents can help their children learn by identifying their individual learning profiles and working with them at home.

“They can understand the situation their child is in,” Hodson said. “It may not be possible (for the child) to get A’s in this situation. Ask, ‘Can we accept this as parents? Can we have children who may not make A’s, but come home and are energetically writing letters to save the whales?’

“Our challenge to parents is: ‘Would you be willing to help bring the star in your child out?’ ”

— Kim Lamb Gregory’s e-mail address is

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