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Multisensory learning in inclusive classrooms.


Multisensory teaching, a type of instruction and classroom interaction which actively utilizes all of the senses in learning, is an excellent way to include students with disabilities into the general education classroom. Since the language arts components are by their nature inclusive, the authors suggest ways these multisensory techniques can be used to maximize learning in K- 12 classrooms that include the range of learning styles and ability levels.


Students with disabilities are moving into general education classrooms in record numbers. To be effective, teachers must be adequately trained to teach students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers. Schools of education, like most institutions, are slow to change their practices, leaving many teachers struggling to find effective teaching methods for the students they now find in their classrooms.

Much research and writing has been done on techniques that work with students with disabilities (Clark, 1995). Few, if any, classroom teachers have the time needed to keep current on the techniques applicable to every disability category to which their students may belong. Most would benefit from exposure to a set of strategies proven effective across disability categories. One such set of strategies is multisensory teaching and learning. This primer on multisensory learning is intended to help currently practicing classroom teachers reach students who may be struggling.

Multisensory Learning

Multisensory learning (MSL) is a natural way to teach students. People of all ages gather information through their senses. MSL theory posits that the more sensory pathways used and the more intensely they are used, the more efficiently and effectively information is retained (Montessori, 1967, Orton, 1937). The research and practice of MSL almost exclusively addresses preschool-age children. This is natural, since as infants and small children, we investigate our environment through our senses. Children learn about toys by putting them in their mouths. They listen intently, rub unfamiliar objects, and stare at new people or places. Early childhood educators have young children finger paint, cut paper, and work with sand, glue and scented clay to engage their senses in the learning process.

Researchers and parents know infants and toddlers are very sensitive to their environments (Kavanaugh, 1991,Montessori, 1967). Extremes of heat and cold can frequently cause crying or listlessness in babies. Infants and toddlers touch everything they can find, and are easily distracted by noise. They are little scientists exploring the world around them, unafraid to make mistakes or appear foolish. Toddlers are not content to look at an object and say they understand it. They are compelled to examine it with all of their senses. This has implications for continued learning. Our senses are the way we gather information. Why, then, must we limit our students to only two senses (vision and hearing) when engaging the others as well will clearly help solidify understanding? It is equally true that we react to our environments. It has only been since the industrial revolution that formal learning has been limited to auditory and visual realms. Prior to that, most people learned through apprenticeships, or so-called "hands on" learning. It is with this model in mind that we attempt to understand the research base of MSL.

Montessori (1967) and Orton (1937) each conducted extensive research on MSL. Montessori allowed students to work on authentic tasks they found interesting, for as long as they chose to do so. When they were ready, they moved to another self-selected task. Work stations were developed for different content areas, and students were allowed to explore at their own pace, in their own ways (Clark, 1995). Each subject area in a Montessori school integrates the visual and auditory arts. Montessori theorized that the study of music and art would enhance other learning, and that exposure to beautiful surroundings and orchestral music would contribute to greater focus and engagement with the subjects (Montessori, 1967).

Orton (1937) took the idea of learning through the senses and experiential learning and applied it to literacy. This method (referred to as Orton-Gillingham) primarily addresses how letters or words look, sound, and feel. It has been used with great success for students with dyslexia, the second most commonly diagnosed learning disability in this country (Shaywitz, 2003). In Orton-Gillingham teaching, the instructor systematically introduces the elements of language. Students begin by reading and writing letter sounds in isolation. Only after they have mastered the individual sounds do they blend the sounds into syllables and words. Students learn the elements of language, such as consonants, vowels, digraphs, blends, and diphthongs, in order. The advanced structural elements such as syllable types, roots, and affixes are taught after the basics are mastered. As students learn new material, they continue to review old material until it becomes automatic. Vocabulary, sentence structure, composition, and reading comprehension are addressed in a similar structured, sequential, and cumulative manner. This method of teaching should be diagnostic-prescriptive in nature. The teacher should seek to understand how each individual learns and devise appropriate teaching strategies for that student (Orton, 1937).

The Orton-Gillingham method has been adapted to be even more multi-sensory in nature. For example, the Slingerland approach modifies the original Orton-Gillingham method for the classroom, introducing specific educational techniques associated with visual (reading), auditory (heating for phonics and concepts), and kinesthetic (writing) styles (Vail, 1987). The Slingerland method includes activities such as tracing large letters on different surfaces with the students' hands. Surfaces can include suede, leather, the back of wall paneling, sandpaper, or fur. While tracing the letter on the surface, the student says the letter name aloud. Just as in the Orton-Gillingham method, all sounds and advanced blends are taught systematically, as are the more complex concepts involved in higher order skills such as writing.

The common characteristics of the Orton-Gillingham method and the adaptations to it are the emphasis on the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pathways to the brain, the progression from simple to more complex concepts, and direct instruction (Vail, 1987). A major difference between the Orton-Gillingham method and the newer methods is that the newer ones include the tactile pathway and are less rigid in sound-symbol relationships (Rawson, 1992). The adaptations have been inspired by recent research on brain function that indicates brain functions are modified with different learning modalities.

Some research (Shaywitz, 2003) addresses MSL neurons--specific neurons in the brain that fire only when more than one sensory modality is activated by the environment (Kavenaugh, 1991). Brain research supports the power of the senses in relaying and remembering information. We all have mental filing cabinets. The filing cabinets of students with learning disabilities simply need a more sensorially integrated system than their non-disabled peers in order to access prior learning and code current learning for later retrieval. Campbell (2000) discusses visual imaging in relation to spatial-temporal reasoning for math and science concepts. His research on the "Mozart Effect" (i.e., listening to Mozart's music enhances reasoning through relaxation and stimulation of specific brain tasks), serves as an example of the interconnectedness of the visual, auditory, and reasoning processes that occur within the human brain. Campbell's data on accelerating learning among gifted students also indicate that rote skills are more efficiently learned if chanted to rhythmic music.

Putting Strategies Into Practice

How might a classroom teacher integrate these notions with all students, since K-12 teachers regularly have classes of 25 or more? Could these strategies be used in a high school English classroom or a middle school pre-algebra class? How would a multisensory writing lesson about persuasive essays look? Is it possible to develop a multisensory class discussion model? How does one create a classroom environment that allows learners to develop this independent ability to understand concepts through sensory experiences?

Two Web sites, and, offer suggestions for learning activities related to the senses and emergent literacy. They both describe practical strategies, such as having children writing words in the air with their arms in big, sweeping motions, textured letters, closed eye visualizations, finger spelling/sign language as the child says the word, and rhythmic recitation. These activities can be effective for lower level memorization and reinforcement. The activities on these Web sites cater to a preschool-aged learner. The logical extension of these suggested strategies are learning experiences that would be meaningful for older students, given the concepts they study. Sign language or air spelling can become charades. The adolescent version of textured letters might be calligraphy, writing on textured paper, or creating posters or interactive computer presentations. If MSL has been absent from their early education, adolescents are likely to warm up to these techniques slowly. If MSL instruction is integrated throughout the curriculum, however, it will simply be another part of the school day. For example, it seems the secondary English class is a natural partner to MSL.

By their very nature, the language arts involve the senses. Playwrights invite us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise completely experience their words. The language of poetry is that of the senses. When we think of our favorite poems, do we not think of how they completely overcome us? For the last 20 years, literary analysis has encouraged students to walk their own path toward interpreting what they read. We no longer rely on theologians to tell us what the Bible means, and we no longer encourage fill in the blank tests regarding what the color green symbolizes in The Great Gatsby. Differences of opinion are accepted, and in fact, encouraged. Expanding MSL into higher order skills and practices in the language arts, then, seems like a natural fit.

Given that middle and secondary school teachers may see between 80 and 180 students per day, teachers need manageable suggestions that can integrate students' senses with the curriculum. Learning stations have been part of the research base in special education for almost 30 years (Vail, 1987). Having stations in the classroom for different senses can be helpful for all students. The tactile/kinesthetic station might include a barrel of sand, a fur and/or suede board, and other tactile objects. Squeeze balls or elastic bands for relaxation or creativity have been used in classes with students who have autism. Having an area specifically for movement can also be helpful, e.g., a spot where highly kinesthetic students or those with mild behavior issues can pace, do relaxation poses, or otherwise be active.

An auditory station might have tapes of poets and authors reading their works themselves or cassettes of music for students to listen to while reading or writing. Subvocalization has long proven successful for students who need to hear print spoken in order to comprehend meaning. Sticking fingers in their ears and whispering the words is helpful for auditory learners. Additionally, cups for students to speak into (to muffle their voices) so they can read literary passages to themselves is another tool that helps students "hear" what they read. Taped texts for dysfunctional readers have long proven to be successful. Students are able to hear the spoken word and conceptualize understanding rather than struggle with difficult words and lose all facets of comprehension. Allowing students to listen to music during writing time will assist students who need a base line of sound in order to concentrate. A teacher can also encourage a class to listen to a highly rhythmic selection, such as Mozart or Bach, that has been shown to stimulate the cerebral cortex (Campbell, 2000). Other times students may be allowed to listen to their own selections on the headphones.

The ideal visual station would be an area wherein students could be videotaped acting out poems, scenes from plays, or writing concepts for learning and reinforcement. This visual and auditory stimulation has been excellent for students with disabilities. Video self-modeling (Buggey, 2001) has been highly successful in showing students that they are capable as readers and writers. In these videos, they are able to watch themselves successfully completing a language task, and they can see it as often as they like. If video is not available, small mirrors can also be used for similar purposes. Unfortunately, while a low cost alternative, mirrors will not allow teachers to archive the events for later viewing. Added to these techniques, large print text and text surrounded with increased white space helps visual learners cope with large amounts of text rather than becoming frustrated and giving up.

Montessori argued that the physical set-up of a classroom can have a positive or negative effect on students' ability to learn. Given the current post-industrial revolution school buildings, it is no small wonder that many students end up feeling like parts on a conveyor bait. We cannot change our buildings, but we can control the environment of our rooms. My classes' discussions have proven more participative when circles or other more humanistic arrangements are used. The human brain reacts to color quite strongly. Using colors in classrooms can help focus students' attention (Shaywitz, 2003). Arranging the room so there is space for learning stations and movement lets non-traditional learners know that their participation in the curriculum is valued. Low lit lamps can also stimulate learners by creating a cozier environment as opposed to harsh overhead fluorescent lighting.

For a science lesson visual aids may be used to represent units of liquid measurement, and "split notes" in which students write notes from their texts on one side of the page and draw the notes on the other side of the page. Research has also indicated that the use of auditory aids include teaching fractions as whole, half, and quarter musical notes while simultaneously identifying the notes in musical pieces and creating jingles to accompany new content material (Rawson, 1992). This approach to teaching fractions can be applied to other areas such as grammar. Thinking about the example of teaching fractions leads to thinking of how grammar could be taught in a similar fashion.

Grammar, like mathematics, is a very systematic discipline. If we consider of each part of speech a specific learning "block," they can be taught in the same systematic way that Orton-Gillingham begins with sounds and moves toward blends. Nouns and verbs are the simplest place to begin, and most curricula begin with nouns. It would be possible, then, to include each sense in an exploration of the concept of nouns to take it out of the realm of the abstract and into the sensory or concrete. "Dog" is a noun most students know. Having students think through or, if possible, actually experience a dog, will help solidify the concept of nouns as persons, places, or things. To touch, smell, see, and hear a dog teaches the noun concept much more concretely than the abstract discussion. Verbs, too, should be experienced. Active verbs like "jumping," "running," and "sitting" should be experienced first-hand by students so they have a complete understanding of this grammatical category. Adding fragrances to class activities and centers through candles, scent strips, and potpourri pots will increase multisensory learning. These scents can unlock memories and help make connections to real life experiences as well as trigger recall of new concepts.

Grammar is also systematic in the same way that music is systematic. A teacher can work with students to understand the "melody line" of a sentence. Both music and sentences are broken into phrases. Students can work with musical phrasing of familiar songs to understand how phrases work both independently and together for complete meaning. Students can experiment with the many nuances of language that are also evident in music. Meaning can take shape depending upon the sounds that accompany the words or notes. For example, people will react differently to the same message if it is set to a Beethoven Sonata or a rap beat. An angry or happy tone of voice frequently decide how a listener responds to a message regardless of the similarity of the message. Reading Shakespeare's sonnets rap-style, or having students dance out the rhythm of a work opens a discussion of language in context


Although Montessori began the multisensory learning movement almost 90 years ago, and its benefits to young children have been shown through years of research, we know little about its uses in the upper grades. Throughout our lives we can only gather information through our senses; it seems quite logical that this way of learning would be equally powerful for adolescents and adults. While these suggestions are far from an exhaustive list of what is possible in the classroom, we consider them an invitation to teachers. We invite everyone who leads students in learning to explore new frontiers of sensory involvement in their classroom. Let us boldly go where only toddlers have gone before us.


Adams, M. (1991). Beginning to read. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Buggey, T. (2001). Look, I'm on tv! Using videotaped self-modeling to change behavior. In K.L. Freiberg (Ed.), Annual editions: Educating exceptional children (pp. 132-135). Guilford, CT: Dushkin.

Campbell, D, (2000) The Mozart effect for children: Awakening your child's mind, health, and creativity with music. New York: Harper Collins.

Clark, D. B., & Uhry, J. K. (1995). Dyslexia: Theory and practice of remedial instruction (2nd ed.). Baltimore: York.

Kavenaugh, J. F. (Ed.). (1991). The language continuum from infancy to literacy. Baltimore: York.

Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind. (C. A. Claremont, Trans.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Orton, S.T. (1937). Reading, writing and speech problems in children : A presentation of certain types of disorders in the development of the language faculty. New York : W. W. Norton, c1937.

Rawson, M.B. (1992). The many faces of dyslexia. Baltimore: International Dyslexia Association.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for overcoming reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.

Vail, P.L. (1987). Smart kids with school problems: Things to know & ways to help. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Jennifer A. Borek, The University of Memphis, TN Susan M. Thompson, The University of Memphis, TN

Borek and Thompson are Assistant Professors in Instruction and Curriculum Leadership within The College of Education.
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Author:Thompson, Susan M.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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