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How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?

By Daniel T. Willingham

The most comprehensive review of studies testing the effect of matching modality of instruction with students' modality preference was a meta-analysis conducted by Kenneth Kavale and Stephen Forness (1987). The study concluded such instruction produced no educational benefit. Here are three examples of the kinds of studies that were included in the meta-analysis.

In one carefully designed study, Thomas Vandever and Donald Neville (1974) examined the impact of modality on learning to read. To determine students' modality strengths and weaknesses, a teacher presented each student with an auditory, a visual, and a kinesthetic lesson on 12 novel words. In the auditory lesson, the sound of the word was emphasized; in the visual lesson, the shape and length or the word form was emphasized; and in the kinesthetic lesson, the words were traced and silently spoken. After each lesson the student's ability to read the words was tested. If a student had similar scores on the three tests, that student was determined to have no modality-based strength or weakness. But if the student scored much higher or lower on one test than on the other two, that student was categorized as having a strength or weakness in the modality. Of the 282 students tested, 72 showed a strength or weakness in a modality that was extreme enough to continue with the experiment.

The second phase of the study was designed to confirm whether or not these 72 students would benefit from ongoing instruction in their strongest modality. Subjects were assigned to further reading training with novel words using a variety of instructional methods that centered on each student's strong or weak modality. Sessions were 25 minutes, four days a week for six weeks. Students' ability to read the words was tested weekly. The data showed that the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods of instruction were equally effective, and that teaching to a student's modality strength or weakness made no difference.

Similar results were found in a study that tested the use of modalities to teach vocabulary (Ringler and Smith, 1973). One hundred twenty-eight students were classified according to their best modality and then taught new vocabulary words with instructional materials that were visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or combined (meaning all three modalities were used). The students were grouped for instruction such that each type of learner was represented in each type of instructional group. That way, the researchers could see if, for example, the visual learners did better in the visual instruction group than in the auditory instruction group. The results showed that the children did learn the new vocabulary—but the instructional modality made no difference at all.

A third study on the influence of modality preference on lesson comprehension also found similar results (Newcomer and Goodmnan, 1975). The researchers tested 167 fourth-graders on a battery of auditory and visual tests. In order to give modality theory the best chance of working, they selected 57 students who showed a relatively large difference on the auditory and visual tests. These students were then exposed to six brief lessons on new concepts. Each lesson was introduced with a theme (e.g., "The Solar System") and consisted of five related facts (e.g., the position of the planets, the function of the sun, etc.). Half of the lessons were presented via brief descriptions (auditorily) and half were presented pictorially, with printed captions (visually). Immediately after the lesson, students' comprehension and retention were tested. While 18 statements relating to the lesson were being read aloud by the experimenter, students silently read along and circled the ideas that had been presented in the lesson. The results showed that the "auditory" and "visual" learners showed no advantage when a lesson was presented in their preferred modality, compared to when it was not.

Daniel T. Willingham is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal. His research focuses on the role of consciousness in learning. Readers can pose specific question to "Ask the Cognitive Scientist," American Educator, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001 or to Future colums will try to address readers' questions.


Kavale, K. A. and Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228–239.

Newcomer, P. L. and Goodman, L. (1975). Effect of modality instruction on the learning of meaningful and nonmeaningful material by auditory and visual learners. Journal of Special Education, 9, 261–268.

Ringler, L. and Smith, I. (1973). Learning modality and word recognition of first-grade children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 307–312.

Vandever, T. R. and Neville, D. D. (1974). Modality aptitude and word recognition. Journal of Reading Behavior, 6, 195–201.