Applying a multisensory learning technique can be as simple as following along in a book as a student reads aloud. It can be as complex as using percussion instruments to demonstrate a mathematical principle. There is no template for student-centered learning.
It can be overwhelming for teachers who are getting started with this whole-brain and whole-body approach to education. I’ve found it helpful to break it down into modalities. Keep in mind that multisensory teaching, by definition, involves using two or more modalities to reach learners.
What Is a Multisensory Learning Technique?
New teachers have told me, “I use multisensory techniques in my classroom! I have an essential oil diffuser! Sometimes I play music during the writer’s workshop!”
These are wonderful ways to create a pleasant, home-like environment for your students. They are also great examples of what multisensory learning is not.
Teachers who utilize multisensory learning techniques utilize multiple modalities to reach their students. We can shorten the list of modalities to VAKT – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Strong multisensory activities utilize two or more senses at once.
Like all solid pedagogy, a multisensory teaching technique must be intentional. Teachers employing this technique are not sending unconscious sensory cues to their students. They are very deliberately teaching students to take in new learning through their senses across content areas.
This is especially important for budding children but ultimately serves every individual we teach. When I think of some of my most memorable former students, my mind goes to their particular strengths and worldviews. The first step toward teaching through all of the senses is to identify and embrace the diverse ways your unique students experience the world.
Teachers who employ multisensory teaching techniques effectively provide various sensory-driven entry points to any area of learning. I’ll be honest; it requires a lot of empathic perspective-taking! You must help students use their own prior knowledge to make meaningful sensorial connections.
How can you help your students touch reading? How can you guide them to hear math? Do they have the opportunity to embody the history and see science?
Why Use Multisensory Techniques?
Teaching students through the senses is a way of teaching children how to imagine the world complexly. You are allowing students to practice using their whole brains to process their unique human experience.
Neuroscience and Connections
While children’s brains are developing, they are creating synapses all of the time. The more synapses they have, the easier they can make connections and recall information. If they don’t make certain connections, they will lose them, sometimes for life.
Engaging the senses helps students create and hold onto information by activating the areas of the brain tied to memory.
While Howard Gardner’s theories surrounding the multiple intelligences and learning styles may be less concise than initially thought, they still inform educational practice. The research shows us that students learn best when they engage in both novel and meaningful ways!
As classroom educators, we know that we are not the students’ only teachers. Their families and environments have taught them first. It is our job to harness that context to support them as learners.
We help build bridges and form connections when we honor the ways that students learn best. Offering multiple entry points to learning is a way of recognizing where children come from and helping them get where they want to be. In that regard, multisensory learning is all about connections.
Multisensory learning has the added benefit of being highly engaging. What student doesn’t rise to the occasion when the material is presented in a way that addresses their individual strengths as a learner? Multisensory learning involves learning.
I am always amazed by the wealth of lessons and experiences that I can recall from my time as a student. It should not be surprising that each of those experiences was active! I was busy reading, making, talking, and moving!
Once I began implementing more intentional multisensory techniques in my classrooms, I found I was equally involved as a co-learner. I also benefited from receiving new learning through my senses! I have many fond memories of exploring beside my students, and all are tied to knowledge.
The most engaged students are using their senses constantly. Project-based learning (in which the student is the researcher) can teach you the many ways students gravitate toward sensory experiences. When given agency, students will show you what they understand using the sensorial languages in which they are fluent!
For a full-body experience to sink in, it must be meaningful. Often, this means that students are reading aloud to other students or using oral language to present findings. The auditory element of multisensory learning means both hearing and making audible.
When my peer is my teacher, I can both hear and see. When my peer is my collaborator, I can speak and create. When my peer is my student, I can guide them toward understanding in the way that best reaches them.
As a result, multisensory learning is inherently a social process! I would go as far as to say that, in a classroom that embraces multisensory learning, engaging fully in one’s education can be an act of service. Students are constantly serving one another in these small but important ways.
What Does Multisensory Learning Look Like?
If you haven’t been lucky enough to see the multisensory approach to learning in action, you may be stumped when it comes to how to apply these engaging techniques. I have found it helpful to break them down into individual sensory modalities.
Remember that multisensory learning involves teaching and learning through more than one modality at a time. The key is combining the modalities in exciting and dynamic ways.
Make Learning Visual
Visual learning seems to be one of the easiest modalities for teachers to implement. This can be as simple as “including visuals” – a PowerPoint presentation, a poster, a picture. Seeing the thing you are talking about can be enough to make ideas click, especially for younger learners.
This can also mean utilizing color in a meaningful way. Students may highlight, organize information, or create some sort of visual sort. This can easily be made tactile or kinesthetic!
It is also meaningful for students to craft their own visuals, which are active and tactile. Students who are drawing, sketching from life, or creating from imagination are all deeply engaged.
Make Learning Auditory
A multisensory classroom is not always a quiet classroom. After all, what does learning sound like? Students who are explaining, reading aloud, composing, and listening are all teaching and learning.
Curate podcasts or audiobooks! Use period music and place your students in context to teach history! Allow students to present to peers and explain what they understand in their own words!
Make Learning Tactile
Even the most traditional pedagogy involves the use of tactile sensory techniques to teach symbols such as letters and numbers. How can students touch the alphabet? How can they use materials to build models that confirm what they understand about the ways numbers work?
Students love to make. Research on young learners has shown that they are less intimidated when asked to make a book than writing one. Providing opportunities for students to become makers is a great way to implement tactile experiences across the content areas.
Make Learning Kinesthetic
Kinesthetic learning has the added benefit of supporting the young child’s developmental needs. Fine and gross motor development is essential for engagement in more complex academic tasks. Kinesthetic learning supports a learner’s need to build muscles and proprioceptive skills.
Most of the time, kinesthetic learning means incorporating games into the classroom. These games don’t need to be competitive, but they should be engaging! How can you incorporate materials like tweezers, beanbags, or skipping rope?
Better yet, have the students develop their own games to teach, review, or reinforce learning.
Multisensory Teaching and Learning for a Harmonious, Engaged Environment
By now, creative teachers will be making their own connections and finding ways to mix and match these sensory modalities to create high-engagement experiences for their students! What are you doing in your classroom to implement this multisensory learning technique? What new ideas might you try to encourage students to participate in their education with their whole-brain and whole-body?
I would love to hear from you and learn more about your experiences! Visit my website to contact me and tell me what you’ve tried. While you’re there, feel free to read some of the other helpful posts intended to support teachers.