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Multisensory Approach to Teaching Reading

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be exploring a multisensory approach to teaching reading. By the end of this lesson you'll understand why this method is so successful, especially with students with disabilities, and how to incorporate the multiple senses into your reading lessons.

What Is a Multisensory Approach?

Picture your favorite childhood memory. What stands out most to you? It might be a food, like the taste of a home cooked meal. Or, maybe you remember the bright red color of your dress at a birthday party, or the soft fur of your best stuffed animal. If you spent time outdoors, maybe the fresh scent of pine trees takes you back to days of playing outside. Although each of these examples focuses on one sense in particular, it's more likely that your memory involves all five senses: hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Our most vivid memories contain multiple types of sensory information. We connect to storytelling, novels and movies that engage all of these senses. Yet we as teachers traditionally teach students in one modality, such as listening or seeing. This is especially true when teaching reading. Many assume that in order to learn to read students must focus on seeing letters and words. But there are many multiple sensory strategies to help students learn to read. This lesson focuses on incorporating multiple sensory inputs into teaching reading, called a multisensory approach. Just as your memories are engrained into your brain, hopefully by the end of these lessons your students' reading skills will be too.

Why Choose Multisensory?

Memories with multiple sensory inputs tend to stay put better than memories from just one modality. This personal experience is also backed up by neurological research, or the study of how the brain works. The brain is a complex net of connections between our brain cells. When we learn, new connections between cells are formed, or old ones are strengthened. When more than one sensory input is used to learn a new skill, more connections are formed, and in multiple parts of the brain, compared to one input alone.

Teaching students through different types of sensory inputs increases the activity in their brain, making stronger connections and thus better learning outcomes. This is especially effective for students with learning disabilities that might struggle to learn reading in a traditional way.

Incorporating Multiple Senses

Now that we know a little about how the multisensory approach works, let's look at some practical strategies to teach reading in the classroom.

Visuals

Reading isn't just about speaking or listening, it's important for students to be able to visualize the information as well. Try having students look in a small mirror and carefully watch their mouth move as they say each syllable or word. You can also give them cards that have a letter and a word that goes with it. You can also include pictures on your card, such as a car for the letter 'c'. This approach is especially helpful to English language learners who are still learning not only letters, but also the English language and probably their native language as well.

Visual displays of letters and words as well as picture books can help improve reading
visual display

Splitting words visually by prefix, suffix, root words, or syllables can help students visualize the parts of a word. When they recognize these chunks in other new words, they can then apply their visual memories to help them decode.

Auditory

The classic sensory approach to reading is auditory learning. Students read out loud, or listen while a teacher or class reads together. This approach, combined with other sensory modalities can be very helpful. Students can read words by breaking them down into syllables and pronouncing individual letters. Students can also practice their root words by listening as someone else reads a word and identifying the root or base word.

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