An Introduction to Multi-Sensory Learning

What is multi-sensory instruction?

Multi-sensory instruction refers to the way information is delivered to the student. The three primary modes of instruction are visual, auditory, and sensory-motor. Visual instruction includes activities like reading a text or looking at a picture. Auditory instruction might involve listening to a lecture or a book on tape. A third mode of instruction is sensory-motor. This is often referred to as a “hands-on” approach. Sensory-motor instruction can be further divided into fine motor (tactile), and gross motor. Many forms of instruction use more than one mode. For example, watching a film involves both auditory and visual components. Writing is an example of an activity that involves fine motor and visual instruction. Speaking would be a fine motor and auditory experience. Acting out a scene from a play involves all three modes: visual, auditory, and sensory-motor activities.  multisensory

Why is multi-sensory instruction important?

When information is presented, it goes into our short term, working memory. Like a computer, unless we deliberately save the data into long-term storage, it is lost very quickly. The method we use to save new information that is presented to us determines the likelihood we will be able retrieve it in the future. If you think of memory as a file card box, then the least effective system for organizing information would be to write everything down in the same color, on the same size and color cards and throw them all into a big box. The chance of being able to find the one card you want at any particular time will be fairly small, especially as you fill the box up with cards. The more organization you give the file system, the better your odds of finding a specific piece of information. In a filing system, we might first color code the cards by topic. Then we could arrange each topic alphabetically. Each step we take to better organize the system, improves our ability to find a specific card.

The same is true for learning. Here, our chances of successfully retrieving information are influenced by the number of pathways we create to find it. The pathways are the modes of learning. Let’s consider a spelling word we want to learn as an example. If we just look at the word we want to learn how to spell, we are creating one visual pathway to the information. If we say the word aloud, we are creating two more paths to the information, one auditory since we are now hearing the word, and one sensory motor as the muscles in our mouth form the sounds of the word. If we add writing the word too, we create two more pathways: a second visual one and a tactile one as we “feel” the word when we write. The more ways we experience the word, the more pathways we create and thus improve our likelihood of remembering how to spell this word when we need to.

The purpose behind multi-sensory instruction is to apply this concept of learning to all subject areas. The more experiences a student has with a piece of information, be it a spelling word, a process in mathematics, a novel, or a concept in science; the stronger their ability will be to remember it over a longer period of time.

How do I determine my student’s learning style?

Learning style refers to the different ways of learning: visual, auditory, or sensory-motor. This should not be confused with the Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which has to do more with how the student demonstrates intellectual abilities. Most students do not necessarily show a strong preference for one learning style over another. In fact, students who relate to some of the characteristics of all three learning styles emphasize the importance of using multi-sensory instruction. In general, here are some possible indicates of learning style preference.

Visual Learners: learn through seeing

  • Benefit from diagrams, handouts, illustrations, maps, etc.
  • Aware of the body language, facial expressions of others
  • Take notes during lectures or readings
  • Doodle while listening
  • Follow written directions better than oral ones
  • Close their eyes when memorizing or remembering
  • Prefer watching television, movies, and video games
  • Enjoy jigsaw puzzles
  • Vivid imagination

Auditory Learners: learn through listening

  • Benefit from discussions, lectures, talking through ideas
  • Remembers dialog, jingles, or lyrics easily
  • Talks out loud when problem solving or mumbles when reading
  • Prefer listening to CD’s, tapes, or the radio
  • Follows oral directions easily
  • Likes to talk on the phone

Sensory-motor Learners: learn through moving and touching

  • Enjoys working with tools
  • Bears down hard on writing implements
  • Likes to touch or feel textures of things
  • Fidgets
  • Difficulty following oral directions
  • Prefers sports, active games, or making things
  • Enjoys jigsaw puzzles and mazes
  • Counts on fingers or writes in the air
  • Comfortable with personal contact (hugging, handshakes, etc.)

Which students need multi-sensory instruction?

From our description of how multi-sensory instruction influences learning, it is easy to see how beneficial its application is to all students. Most people have somewhat preferred means of learning. You will often hear it said, “I am a visual person. I need to see it.” This person has recognized that they have more difficulty processing and storing information when it is only presented orally or perhaps in written form. They store information best when it is presented in a picture form. Usually their memory of even a picture presentation will be improved if it is accompanied by a written or spoken explanation as well.  Other people might say, “I’m terrible with maps.” This person is probably a more auditory learner in that they benefit more from hearing directions than seeing them in written or graphic form.

While most people have some relative strength in one mode over another, there are other students who experience marked difference in their ability to process information through a particular sense. For example, students with dyslexia, a language based learning disability, have particular difficulty with information that is presented in written form. Students with auditory processing disorders can struggle with information that is presented orally. Students with nonverbal learning disabilities may have particular difficulties with mathematical concepts and handwriting due to a combination of sensory and visual deficits. If your student has been diagnosed with a specific learning disability, then it will especially helpful for you as the Home Teacher and the student to be aware of the types of instruction that are more challenging to him and the ways instruction can be modified to better suit his needs.

Once you understand the concept of multi-sensory instruction you can begin to put it into practice. Some of the ideas and activities will be useful for day-to-day instruction, while others are particularly helpful for periodic reviews and test taking.  Once you begin using multi-sensory instruction, you will find yourself coming up with additional ideas to best teach your individual student. We encourage you to experiment with these new techniques as well.  With time and experience your student will even begin to think of new ways to help themselves learn, the ultimate reward for your efforts.

*This post first appeared on the Calvert blog on September 15, 2009.