As teaching methods continue to become more and more creative, and learning is being facilitated through interventions that target all types of students, the term “multi-sensory learning” has started to cement its place in the educational lexicon. You may have seen a line in an evaluation, such as, “This student would benefit from a multi-sensory learning approach,” or “The use of multi-sensory teaching methods will help this student to solidify their learning.” In some ways this phrase is easy to interpret. Multi means many. Sensory refers to the body’s different senses, the tools we use to interpret and experience the environment around us. Reason would tell us that this phrase means using all of these senses to acquire knowledge, information, and skills, and….it does! But what does this look like in practice? How are professionals actually using this method to help our children learn?
If you picture a typical classroom from a few decades ago, there is a teacher standing up at the front of the room providing students with information to copy down into their notebooks. These students are receiving information through the auditory system only. They are being expected to listen, comprehend and retain the lesson using one sense, their hearing.
Now let’s picture the classroom of a teacher using multi-sensory learning techniques. Often, students are clustered in different areas with a teacher checking in at every table to provide each small group with support. Students are looking at images or pictures of the object they are studying, both reading information and hearing it clarified by their teacher, and are likely using manipulatives, or things they can feel to help understand the content. These students are learning through their visual, auditory and tactile systems.
Humans grow, evolve and learn in complex, multi-sensory environments that are constantly targeting all of our senses. Our brains are built to learn through a combination of visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic data (Shams & Seitz, 2008). Using visual methods helps children learn through the sense of sight; auditory through the sense of hearing; tactile through the sense of touch; and kinesthetic through body movement. Children display greater performance when learning activities target all of these systems, as opposed to when they are taught using one modality (Broadbent, White, Mareschal, & Kirkham, 2018).
As an example, let’s look at teaching Kindergarten students their letters. A robust multi-sensory approach to teaching the alphabet includes looking at pictures of the letters, saying the sounds out loud as a class, tracing the letters in the air with one finger, making each letter out of playdough, writing the letters in bins of rice, making the student’s bodies into the shape of individual letters, and finally picking up a pencil to attempt to form the letters on the page independently. Students gain a comprehensive understanding of the letters as their brains have been targeted across multiple sensory systems.
There is substantial research for using this multi-sensory approach for another foundational academic skill: reading (Walet, 2011). Many of the most well-known phonics and reading programs, such as Orton-Gillingham and the Wilson Reading System, use these strategies to help students who learn differently to master this skill (AOGPE, 2012 & Wilson, 2017). When using some programs students learn to tap out syllables and letters on their fingers as they read, incorporating tactile feedback. Others focus on including books on tape so that students both see and hear each word as it is read aloud.
Other excellent examples of multi-sensory learning in the classroom include:
- Songs and rhythm to solidify content
- Base ten cubes as math manipulatives
- Games involving movement, such as flashcard races, Around the World and clapping games
- Paper with raised or highlighted lines for tactile or visual feedback
- Video clips to review concepts
- Real coins and dollars when learning about money
- Science experiments in a high school lab
While students are currently all at home receiving their lessons and assignments through a digital medium, many are missing out on the creative ways that their fabulous teachers use these strategies in their classrooms. In my next blog, we will discuss some ways to incorporate these strategies in the home!
Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE). (2012). The Orton-Gillingham
Broadbent HJ, White H, Mareschal D, Kirkham NZ. Incidental learning in a multisensory environment across childhood. Dev Sci. 2018;21(2):e12554. doi:10.1111/desc.12554
Shams, L., and Seitz, A.R. Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 60, November 2008, pp. 411-17.
Walet, J. (2011). Differentiating for Struggling Readers and Writers: Improving Motivation and Metacognition through Multisensory Methods & Explicit Strategy Instruction. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals,83-91.
Wilson, B. (2017). Teaching total word structure. Wilson Language Training Corporation.
About the Author
Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.