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Multi-Sensory Literacy Activities

by Andrew Roush
multi-sensory literacy

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The idea behind multi-sensory learning is fairly simple. These learning/teaching techniques allow students to use multiple senses, not just sight and sound, to convey knowledge. This can have obvious benefits for students with learning disabilities and special needs. In particular, multi-sensory literacy approaches can help many students improve reading and writing skills.

Let’s look into multi-sensory teaching and learning, and check out some suggestions and activities that can boost language learning in your school or classroom.

Defining Multi-Sensory Learning

In a world that has connected digitally for so long, we can sometimes need a reminder that human minds are built to exist in a physical environment. For many learners, finding ways to engage the senses of touch, and even smell and taste, can bolster learning.

The approach involves consciously including sensory ways to engage learners.

For example, let’s say a class is studying apples. Kids might have the chance to visually examine, touch, smell, and taste apples — instead of just reading and listening to their teacher speak about how they grow. Then they might hold a halved apple and count the number of seeds inside, one by one.

That’s multisensory teaching. It conveys information through things like touch and movement — called tactile and kinesthetic elements — as well as sight and hearing.

Amanda Morin. “Multisensory instruction: What you need to know.” Understood.org

The idea has been discussed and practiced since at least the 1930s, and studies suggest that this practice works well with how human brains are wired to process information. 

These results indicate that multisensory training promotes more effective learning of the information than unisensory training. Although these findings span a large range of processing levels and might be mediated by different mechanisms, it nonetheless seems that the multisensory benefit to learning is an overarching phenomenon.

Shams L, Seitz AR. Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends Cogn Sci. 2008 Nov;12(11):411-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.07.006. PMID: 18805039.

Further, these practices are endorsed by groups like  International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), and can be used in particular to teaching reading and literacy.

Multi-Sensory Literacy Techniques and Strategies

Here are a few suggestions and ideas for putting multi-sensory learning into practice.

Understood.org, a nonprofit focused on students with learning disabilities, recommends these eight multi-sensory activities for teaching literacy:

  • Sand or shaving cream writing
  • Air writing (or “sky writing”)
  • Sandpaper letters
  • Word building (color-coded tiles or letters)
  • A “Read it, build it, write it” mat
  • “Tapping out” sounds
  • “Story sticks” (color-coded popsicle sticks)
  • Shared reading

The Literacy Nest suggests the use of phonogram cards to help students’ literacy skills, as well as several other activities and practices.

Activities and Classroom Approaches

The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) recommends “Blending Board” activities in addition to those recommended by Understood.org, as well as links to other resources.

Creators of the Touch-type Read & Spell course outline the background behind the multi-sensory approach to reading and provide three reading-and-writing strategies here.

The Center for Effective Reading Instruction and International Dyslexia Association also promote a multi-sensory approach specifically for phonics instruction

You can find an in-depth exploration of the multi-sensory approach, as well as several literacy activities, in this document from the Minnesota Literacy Council (PDF). 

Do you use multi-sensory techniques to teach reading, writing, and literacy? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

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