Multi-sensory instruction incorporates the use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile modalities in the components of learning to read. This is achieved through the process of motor sequencing and sensory feedback. When we see, hear, and move to learn, the areas of the brain engaged are the Frontal Lobe (speech, grammar, language, and comprehension), the Temporal Lobe (decoding and sound discrimination), and the Angular Gyrus (links the brain together, reading conduction).
We can gain a clearer picture of what multi-sensory instruction looks like if we think of it as multimodal instruction. This approach should be implemented in conjunction with explicit, sequential, systematic, cumulative instruction.
The structure of the English language starts with children learning phonological awareness skills followed by learning sound-symbolrelationships. Most of us know this as phonics instruction. Within phonics instruction, children learn both encoding and decoding skills.
As children simultaneously learn to encodeand decoding they progress from one-syllablewords to multisyllabic words. When learning multisyllabic words the instruction of morphology, spelling patterns, and irregular words becomes essential. Multi-sensory instruction allows a child to see it, hear it, and feel it through the delivery of teacher-directed instruction.
What does multi-sensory instruction look like in the classroom?
Utilizing sound boxes, or El’Konin (1971) boxes is a visual way for students to segment the individual phonemes they hear within a word or syllable. Manipulating or moving tiles, chips, buttons, beads into the boxes simultaneously engages visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities.
One of the activities suggested in the book Equipped for Reading Successby David Kilpatrick (2016), suggests using letters/spelling to illustrate phonological awareness concepts. For example, a teacher would write “mop” on a chalkboard then erase the letter “o” and replace it with the letter “a” to create a map.
Kilpatrick suggests that by utilizing a phonics concept by way of written example visually illustrates the same oral activity that we ask students to do during phonological awareness. Kilpatrick then suggests transitioning to a scaffold of using non-letter tokens to emulate the same activity of phoneme deletion and substitution. For syllable level activities you can use a token for each syllable rather than each sound.
During phonics instruction, educators can engage students in review drills of phonics concepts that have been taught. This strategy will aid students in gaining automaticity while incorporating the VAK/T modalities. As teachers show the student the grapheme the student says the phoneme/grapheme and will eventually progress to saying just the phoneme associated with the given grapheme. This segment of the review drill incorporates both visual and auditory modalities.
As a second component to that review drill teachers can select a medium such as sand, dry erase boards, chalkboards, rice, hair gel in a ziplock bag, or any other medium of their choosing. The teacher will say the phoneme for the student to hear and the student would then write the grapheme.
For example, the teacher says /l/ and the student writes and says /l/. The student is hearing the sound and seeing the corresponding grapheme as they kinesthetically write. Often people might think the actual medium being utilized is the multi-sensory component e.g. sand, rice, shaving cream. According to Anna Gillingham‘s language triangle, it is the simultaneous implementation of the visual, auditory, kinesthetic modalities that is the multi-sensory component.
After the first two components of the review drill have been done the teacher can then place words for students to visually segment and then blend. Students can say each phoneme in isolation and then blend them together to read. As automaticity skills become more advanced students can progress to reading whole words and/or syllables.
When introducing phonics concepts teachers are encouraged to layer in multimodal instruction throughout the lesson to aid students in building foundational phonics skills and to aid in recall.
A multi-sensory strategy used with students when teaching encoding is the use of segmenting while simultaneously finger tapping, pushing chips or some other manipulative forward, to represent sounds. The more practice the students get with matching phoneme/grapheme relationships by encoding the more automatic their writing skills become.
For example, if the teacher dictates the word “mop”, the student finger taps, or pushes a chip forward, for each sound in the word mop and then writes it in a phoneme box or on a phoneme line. All of these skills will scaffold from basic to more advanced using explicit, systematic, teacher-directed instruction.
When teaching students to read multisyllabic phonetic words, syllable division, in and of itself, is considered multi-sensory. It layers a student’s knowledge of phoneme/grapheme relationships with their ability to be able to read syllables. As students learn to encode with phonics spelling patterns they also learn to decode one syllable and multisyllabic words that contain the same patterns.
This instructional scaffold allows for consistency of systematic, cumulative, instruction. Syllable division is a way to systematically, utilize visual and kinesthetic modalities to teach students to divide words into small manageable chunks for reading. See IMSE’s Journal article on The Importance of Teaching Decoding to learn more about syllable division strategies.
Teachers can have words prepared for syllable division practice that align with phonics concepts. As a direct connection to the text, teachers can also utilize content area vocabulary.
With syllable division and morphology strategies, students can learn to decode and understand words prior to reading them within the context in content area texts. Centers that contain activities to practice learned syllable types and patterns can provide students with the systematic repetition needed to become more proficient decoders.
Another aspect of multi-sensory decoding strategies is the teaching of irregular words. The goal is that students are able to visually recognize an irregular word for reading while simultaneously retrieving the word for spelling.
Using a multi-sensory gross motor, kinesthetic, technique of arm-tapping, or arm spelling and shifting to fine motor finger tracing and/or writing the word helps build orthographic memory.
Multi-sensory instruction can benefit older students through the teaching of morphology. Morpheme instruction can be naturally transitioned to through syllable division instruction. When teachers begin teaching prefixes and suffixes review drills will aid in building the students’ visual and auditory automaticity of morpheme recognition, spelling, and meaning.
Kinesthetic manipulation of morphemes exhibits how morphemes can be manipulated in words. During syllable division, students can circle morphemes and attach meaning. The objective is to progress to more morpheme instruction and transference to content area texts.
Morphemes can be color-coded to help students visually identify them and segment them for meaning and manipulation activities. Layering the decoding and encoding together along with picture associations deepens a student’s ability to make connections.
Learning to read is not a simple task. It requires the integration of information across the visual and auditory sensory modalities. By incorporating multi-sensory instruction combined with direct, systematic, cumulative, sequential, instruction we can enhance learning pathways through seeing, hearing, and movement. As the saying goes, three senses are stronger than one.
About the Author
Shari Schukraft is a Level 4 Master Instructor with the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. She has been providing teacher instruction in the Orton-Gillingham methodology with IMSE for 13 1/2 years.
She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education/English and a Master’s in Education with a Reading Specialty from Indiana University. She has taught High School English, 5th Grade, as well as, tutoring students of all age levels in reading instruction.
El’konin, D. B. (1971). Development of speech. In A. V. Zaporozhets and D. B. El’konin (Eds.),
The Psychology of Preschool Children. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fletcher, Jack. (May 2018). Texas Center for Learning Disabilities. The Role of Auditory and Visual Processing in Learning to Read
Fritts, Joshua L. (May 2016). College of Professional Studies Northeastern University Boston, Massachusetts. Direct Instruction and Orton-Gillingham Reading Methodologies: Effectiveness of Increasing Reading Achievement of Elementary School Students With Learning Disabilities.
Hahn, N., Fox, J. J., & Molholm, S. (2014). Impairments of multisensory integration and cross-sensory learning as pathways to dyslexia. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 384–392. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.09.007
International Dyslexia Association: Multisensory Structured Language Teaching: https://dyslexiaida.org/multisensory-structured-language-teaching-fact-sheet/
Kilpatrick, David A. Ph.D. (2016). Equipped for Reading Success: A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for eloping Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition
Luizzo, Jeanne M. (2020) The Institute for Multisensory Education Comprehensive Teacher Training Manual. A Multi-Sensory Reading Methodology
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The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.
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