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Incorporating Multisensory Approaches in the Secondary General Education Classroom

by Harriet Fayne and Adele Weiss


A friend was teaching me to use a technique in Adobe PhotoShop Elements. He patiently sat at the computer and demonstrated the multi-stop process as I watched over his shoulder. After showing me the application several times, I sat in the seat and tried to apply it myself. Surprisingly, I didn't even remember step one! Chris stood behind me and walked me through the process while I executed the steps. I had to manipulate the mouse, type on the keyboard, and drag down the menu at least five times before I felt secure enough to transfer the process to my own photos on my own computer in my own home.

Sound like a familiar scenario? It should. Many of us learn by doing, and so do our students. While some are best at absorbing information after seeing it visually, others need to hear the information before it is learned, and still others need to manipulate the same information. Combining the use of multiple senses and multiple repetitions may make the most sense for many people to get new information into their memory banks.

While there is no definitive research on the use of multisensory approaches, teachers, researchers, and clinicians have used multisensory methods of teaching reading when working with learning disabled children as an alternative to traditional approaches. These techniques can be described as the systematic use of multimodalities in teaching vocabulary, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and other foundations of reading. The concept behind the technique is that children with learning disabilities do not learn visual or auditory information in the same manner as typically developing children. By simultaneously using different modalities or senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) to learn new concepts, it is believed that the information will be more readily retained–for example, learning alphabet letters by feeling or tracing from a visual model while simultaneously saying the name of the letter; modeling paragraph structure with Tinker Toys; or teaching speech sounds by segmenting, feeling, and seeing the position of the mouth, lips, and tongue (Moats & Farrell, 1999). An overview of multisensory programs and contact information can be found at Adult Literacy Reading Programs for Literacy Providers, http://www.ldanatl.org/aboutld/professionals/adult_literacy.asp part of the Learning Disabilities of America Association site. The site also includes a list of several computer software programs and videos that can be used in conjunction with multisensory approaches in the classroom.

Many of the techniques used in teaching information using multisensory approaches can be incorporated into a general education secondary classroom and can be used by the teachers in that classroom. Practical strategies for the classroom, categorized under the headings "Classroom Environment," "Time Management and Transitions," "Presentation of Materials," and "Assessment and Grading," are listed on the About: Special Education website http://specialed.about.com/cs/teacherstrategies/a/Strategies.htm. The author states that "delivering an academic program to a room full of unique students is certainly a challenge. Implementing some of the listed strategies will provide a comfortable learning place for all students regardless of their academic abilities."

A how-to article (Lenz & Schumaker, 2004) on adapting instruction to meet the needs of students who learn differently can be found at LD Online(www.ldonline.org/article/5629).

Incorporating multisensory activities in the middle school and secondary classroom is an excellent way to reach students with disabilities or students who, for whatever reason, do not learn in conventional ways. Content areas, such as science and social studies, can be supported by a variety of multimodality approaches such as those suggested at the Resource Room http://www.resourceroom.net/index.asp. For example, activities for teaching the periodic table of elements are described in detail at the Resource Room to Support Content Areas: Elements and the Periodic Table http://www.resourceroom.net/older/periodictable.asp. Other links will take you to lessons that include ideas for activities, assessment, worksheets, labs, and, my particular favorite, unique ways to memorize the periodic tables (http://www.chemistrycoach.com/periodic_tables.htm using poetry, song, computer programs, and even apparel.

Science teachers and their students will also benefit from the multisensory approaches to teaching biology, chemistry, physics, general science, and intermediate science on the Science Education Resource Page http://educ.queensu.ca/~science/main/mainconcept.htm developed by the Queen's University Faculty of Education. Science lessons are broken down into "Concept Development," "Demos," "Tips," and "Labs/Activities.".

Helping Your Students with Homework: A Guide for Teachershttp://www.ed.gov/pubs/HelpingStudents/index.html covers a variety of content-area topics and offers practical suggestions for getting homework done. Suggested strategies make use of the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile modes and are translated into "do-able" suggestions.

Technology opens up a whole new avenue for using multisensory approaches in the classroom. As well as a tool for teaching, technology can be used as a tool to reinforce learning. Some exemplary lessons that incorporate technology, as well as templates for the design of lessons, can be found at The Knowledge Loom (http://knowledgeloom.org/gmott/index.jsp).

Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilitieswww.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/atpwld.html describes the use of technology for a variety of learning disabilities such as talking calculators that allow students to see, hear, and input information. Concept mapping software is described as a means of allowing for "visual representation of ideas and concepts." This type of program lets students use color coding and manually manipulate their ideas for papers.

A twelve-minute video in the preceding words twelve minute video http://www.washington.edu/doit/Video/wt_learn.html highlighting the use of computers can be viewed at a different part of the Working Together site. In addition, a product list with contact information is supplied.

Strategies and Applications for the One Computer Classroomhttp://www.lburkhart.com/elem/strat.htm provides a comprehensive list of computer usage that clearly demonstrates the advantages of computers and the multisensory reinforcement of subject matter. Manipulating sentences and words and using color text for demonstrating patterns and devices in poetry are only a few of the skills reinforced by the flexibility of technology that can be used when teaching students with disabilities. A more comprehensive list is provided at the Strategies and Applications for the One Computer Classroom site http://www.lburkhart.com/elem/strat.htm. Much of the available software is self-paced, allows for hands-on interaction, has components that integrate sound and visual stimulation, offers practice and repetition, and provides immediate feedback.

While some software may have to be purchased to allow students interactive and novel ways to practice skills, many sites have free links to downloadable software, programs, and games. A particular good site is Teacher Helpers http://www.computerlab.kids.new.net/teacher_sites.htm. Here you can find practice on-line for skills on many topics from math and reading to guitar playing!

References and Resources

Lenz, K., & Schumaker, J. B. (2004). Adapting language arts, social studies, and science materials for the inclusive classroom. LD Online.

Moats, L. C., & Farrell, M. L. (1999). Multisensory instruction. In J. R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (pp. 1-17). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.


Harriet Fayne is a professor of education at Otterbein College and campus coordinator for the Teacher Quality Enhancement Project (a collaborative project involving Columbus City Schools and five higher education partners). Her research interests include authentic assessment of student learning, literacy, and program evaluation.

Adele Weiss is associate professor of education at Otterbein College and director of the Otterbein Community Reading Clinic. Her research interests include literacy for special needs populations and adolescent literature.

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