By Amber Lamprecht
Co-Founder of the Literacy and Language Center in San Francisco
Originally published by India Parent Magazine
Reading, in general, is a skill that requires our brains to use a variety of functions. While reading, we need to have the ability to sound out words, the ability to recognize words quickly and the ability to understand what words mean. Not only do we need to do these skills individually but we need to be able to blend these skills together at the same time. To study this, researchers are using functional MRI’s, a brain imaging technique, to study what areas of the brain are working for different reading skills. They have found that the ability to sound out words is a different cognitive function than recognizing sight words. In other words, we use a combination of cognitive functions to complete the task of reading.
The reading programs that are used in schools often focus on one part of the process. For example, the Phonics Program that has been used for decades focuses on builds the ability to sound words out one sound at a time. However, readers that are taught with that program often are slow at processing language because their sight word recognition has been neglected. The Whole Language Program focuses on using contextual clues and meaning of words as a reading strategy. Readers taught with this program often are weak at decoding, spelling and recognizing words. In essence, with both commonly used reading programs, one part of the puzzle is strong but other skills haven’t been developed and therefore can become the weakness in a person’s learning style. This doesn’t mean these programs are not effective but enhancement would be beneficial.
This is where multi-sensory teaching comes in. We take in information using what we see, what we hear and through movement. The best learning programs integrate all three senses at the same time. Multi-sensory learning 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).
How can these ideas be integrated into reading instruction? Reading exercises should involve a tactile component as well as the visual and auditory elements. This could mean tracing letters with the student’s fingers on desks to practice spelling or on surfaces like sand. At higher levels multi-sensory elements could include visualizing content they are reading and describing the image in words, both in speaking or in writing as a tool to develop detailed language. To develop comprehension, physical movement is extremely useful, such as acting out what has been learned. Some research proves that when students learn with classical music being played with a strong rhythmic element in it, retention is increased. When students are taking notes they should be encouraged to draw pictures in the margins that match the content since this is an effective way to increase the retention of the information presented.
There are several teaching methods that integrate these ideas that have been proven to be successful, regardless of the student’s learning styles. The Montessori Method uses a multi-sensory approach. There are more Montessori programs for ages 3-6 than for any other age group, but Montessori is not limited to early childhood. For reading instruction, the Orton-Gillingham Method was developed in the 1930’s and integrates learning through the senses. Several programs evolved from this methodology. Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes and Slingerland programs have been adapted to be even more multi-sensory in nature. These programs are especially effective in helping students with learning differences and diagnosed disabilities.
Since multi-sensory programs are scientifically proven to be advantageous for all students, why aren’t the schools using them in all classrooms? The training in these programs is expensive and it takes a long time to master the techniques so that they are being taught properly. Also, generations of educators are being taught out-dated methodology and may not be familiar with these methods. However, parents can seek these methods out and ask educators questions about how they are integrating these practices in the classroom. If a student is falling behind in school, there are many successful outside programs and learning centers to get students caught up using multi-sensory techniques.