Multisensory learning in the classroom: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Multisensory learning in the classroom: A teacher's guide for making learning more accessible and meaningful.

What is Multisensory Learning?

Multisensory learning is a popular approach to teaching for those with learning differences such as ADHD, Dyslexic individuals, or children with a learning disability. Multisensory learning is also an effective way to make teaching inclusive, as it offers a wide range of strategies for children to learn, and does not depend upon just listening, writing and reading alone. The following are different kinds of sensory learning that can be incorporated into teaching (*this is not an article about learning styles!*):

  • Visual - learning through watching and seeing;
  • Auditory - learning through listening and hearing sounds;
  • Kinaesthetic - learning through physical activity or body movement (this involves the vestibular and proprioceptive senses);
  • Tactile - learning through using the sense to touch;
  • Olfactory and Gustatory - learning through smell and taste.

The multisensory teaching method involves at least two or more of these different sensory learning styles. In recent years, the learning styles idea has been shown to be problematic as many classrooms took this out of context and started labelling children with their 'preferred learning style.' The recent research by authors such as Barbara Tversky has shed new light on using objects to think with (this is not the same as learning styles!). In this article, we will explore classroom applications of this theory in relation to developing comprehension skills and wider literacy skills of pupils.

How does Multisensory Learning Work?

The multi-sensory approach involves different parts of the human brain, which provides learners with more than a single way to make connections, understand more concepts and retain knowledge. For instance, in an activity that integrates auditory, tactile and visual stimuli, children will be able to build a relationship between the sound, feeling and appearance of that learning activity, which will enable learners to better remember the main information of that task.

In mainstream environments, teaching mostly comprises of activities where children are asked to learn by only listening and reading the information. It can make learning difficult and children, especially those with learning difficulties, are not able to sustain their attention on the tasks. Of course, it is not possible to integrate all of the senses into multisensory lessons. But, whenever integrated, a multisensory approach is sure to make teaching more inclusive and engaging. Using speech alone can cause difficulties as the learner has to have basic language skills to access the meaning. If a child is trying to understand curriculum content without a proficient level of academic skills, then they may struggle to extrapolate the meaning hidden behind the words. Using multisensory instruction techniques enables children to bypass some of the barriers that they might otherwise encounter. Decoding large amounts of text is a basic language skill that we take for granted. Very quickly, our working memory can be overloaded with the complexities of a cognitive task like reading. Taking a multisensory speech processing approach using visuals and other cues enables the child to dedicate some of the processing to the content and meaning. Approaches such as dual coding use audiovisual speech integration to reduce the cognitive load.

Multi-sensory instruction approach
Multi-sensory instruction approach


Which subjects can be taught using Multisensory Learning?

Multi-sensory techniques can be used and adapted to support students learning in any topic area or subject. It is suitable for every student from the early years, to secondary and higher education. The traditional learning process of some subjects involves multisensory learning as a normal way to teach relevant subjects to the students.

For instance, Multi-sensory instruction is one of the most frequently used methods to teach alphabets to children in early education years. Combining kinaesthetic, auditory and visual teaching methods in multisensory language instruction is a frequently used tactic to first introduce children to magnetic letters and to develop phonemic awareness. Research shows that multisensory instruction helps young learners to develop connections between sounds, words and letters at a faster rate.

Also, in a science classroom students carry out practical experiments and note down the experiment results. It is an excellent example of a multisensory learning experience as students use a hands-on approach with equipment and then they use tactile learning and visual senses to see and note down the results of their experiment. Below is a brief description of some of the different kinds of multi-sensory learning techniques.

  • Visual Techniques: Visual learners prefer vision in teaching. These techniques may include anything from reading the text to the most creative visual arts such as posters, painting, video, or any artistic visual design element used for teaching.

Multisensory instructional approaches
Multisensory instructional approaches

Visual techniques may also help support dyslexic readers and auditory and tactile learners. For example, using pictures to show how to knit or sew, or writing musical notes on paper.

  • Auditory Techniques: Auditory learning strategies are meant to help a learner, who learns most effectively by listening. These students prefer listening to the directions for a project rather than participating in hands-on activities or they would like to listen to a lesson as compared to reading a book.

Some examples of auditory processing techniques include the use of songs, music, audio tones, rhymes, lyrics, dialogue, and clapping anything that involves the ear.

  • Tactile Techniques: Learning through touch is called tactile learning. Mostly coinciding with Kinaesthetic learning, tactile instructions mostly involve fine motor skills.

Specific auditory techniques may involve the use of finger paints, coins, letter tiles,  dominoes, sand, poker chips, textures and raised line paper. Also, modelling materials such as plastic one or clay create good tactile learning media.

  • Kinaesthetic Techniques: These are also called learning by doing. Kinaesthetic learners prefer learning by motion and doing, using both gross and fine motor skills.

The kinaesthetic technique is a way to effective instruction that occurs when learners engage in hands-on experience. An example is when a child learns to ride a bike or use a swing. From clapping in rhythm to jumping rope, anything that connects learning to body movement is Kinaesthetic activity.

Multisensory approaches in secondary school
Multisensory approaches in secondary school


What are the benefits of using multisensory instruction in the classroom?

The major benefit of using the multisensory method of teaching is that it helps learners to retain more knowledge. The best way to apply multisensory instruction for students is integrating a variety of sensory experiences in a fun activity to ensure that all of the learners can access and engage in the learning.

Why not try out activities that get students 'thinking with their hands'. These sorts of activities involve pupils manipulating objects and may involve other sensory elements and multisensory activities.

Adding a variety of senses in learning activities does not only make learning more pleasing and engaging, but it also adds to its effectiveness. Sensory stimulation is associated with improved memory retention and mental cognition.

It is important to note that learning differences and learning difficulties such as dyslexic students or students with ADHD and Autism can often remain undetected until adulthood. Integrating multisensory techniques into the teaching ensures that any person with undiagnosed special educational needs will still find multi-sensory instruction engaging, helpful and fun way of teaching.

For instance, if a student struggles with retaining information with kinesthetic processing, simply performing in the class activities will not be enough to help him retain knowledge. Adding other senses like listening and sight will be needed for supporting his particular needs.

When kids use multiple senses to perform multi-sensory activities, it gives them more ways to connect with their learning. This kind of multisensory instruction techniques involving hands-on learning enables learners to:

  • Gain knowledge;
  • Make connections between what they already know and the new information;
  • Understand and solve problems
  • Use non-verbal skills of problem-solving.

Multisensory learning techniques are designed while considering that every child is different and using the same teaching strategy is not going to help every individual student.

Multisensory activities for promoting comprehension
Multisensory activities for promoting comprehension

Embracing multi-sensory learning in your classroom

Using a multi-sensory instruction approach and activities is a simple remedy that can provide different teaching strategies to teach the majority of subjects to every student with multiple ways to learn. Multisensory teaching techniques are essential for providing equal opportunities to every child so that they can meet and exceed expectations. One word of caution, as we mentioned, the learning styles myth has come into a lot of controversy in recent years. This is largely due to the approach being taken out of context. We have seen some schools play stickers on children physically labelling them with a 'preferred learning style'. This can be damaging and counter-productive as we all use our different senses to make sense of the world around us. Embodied cognition is a growing field of research that we can all learn from. Simply put, learning doesn't just happen all alone in our heads. This reductionist approach only adds to the barriers that our pupils encounter on a daily basis. In closing, provide more opportunities for your students to use their hands, voices and minds. Getting those thoughts out of their heads might be the perfect step towards creating an environment where everyone has better access to the curriculum.