The theory behind a multi-sensory approach to learning suggests that by giving pupils information via different senses, the learning becomes more deeply imbedded in the brain and is then easier to access and use.


So we might contrast learning by reading an instruction book, with learning which involves reading, speaking, touching, hearing, and (less commonly) smelling and taste. In addition, in some situations movement can be used to help learn the spelling of the word.


Pupils might therefore say a word, read the word, write the word, and then take wooden or plastic letters and spell out the word.  And because of this approach of using different senses together, the learning is more likely to remain in the brain.


There is limited scientific evidence to back up this claim, but this is largely because children who fail to learn at the speed anticipated, given their age and their intellectual ability, are not normally available for experimentation!


Instead much of our understanding of the effectiveness of a multi-sensory approach comes from reports of children who have not been able to read and who make much more rapid progress once they are exposed to a multi-sensory system of teaching and learning.


However, it should also be recognised that in using a multi-sensory system there is an inevitable side effect; that is that the teaching process is slowed down.  This too might be having a major impact on the child’s learning ability. 


If, for example, one is teaching the spelling of words in a way that involves the pupil spelling out a word using plastic letters, this will take the child time and involve a certain amount of thinking.  If on the other hand the child is asked to write a word down, the child will probably go straight for the task and write the letters.


That is not to say that the child thinks more about the spelling of the word when using plastic letters, but that the whole process takes longer and gives the child more chance to assimilate the knowledge.  What’s more, if the child has got the spelling wrong, the letters can be rearranged physically to give the correct spelling.


It may therefore be the fact that in a multi-sensory approach an activity such as spelling is slowed down and the child is forced to think more about the spelling, that can bring about an improvement in spelling.


What’s more, if one is teaching spellings using physical letters, far fewer words are going to be attempted in one lesson – which again can help the child.


Certainly the addition of saying and hearing the word once it is written down also appears to help in the process of remembering the word.


We might also note that because this type of teaching generally takes place in a small group, each child gets more attention and again this generally improves teaching.


The act of playing


It has also been found that with some children the mere fact of playing with words can help them overcome their dislike of spelling tests and encourage them to see words as something to be used.


Thus although this may seem against common sense, getting a child to spell out a troublesome word with plastic or wooden letters, and then getting the child to play with those letters and put them in a different order to make up a nonsense word, can heighten a child’s understanding of the correct spelling.


Likewise taking a word and then writing it or setting out the letters backwards, and then saying the resultant nonsense word can engage the child, and enhance the memory of the word when written normally. 


Thus one might take the word “foot” and set it out in wooden letters, and say it.  Then the letters might be reversed and the child says “toof” – a nonsense word of course.  Curiously that seems to enhance the chance of the child remembering how “foot” is spelled.  Some argue that this is a poor approach in that it exposes children to wrongly spelled words; but others find the creation of nonsense words engages the children much more deeply in the whole process of spelling.


In short, there is no single multi-sensory approach, nor one correct way to use a multi-sensory approach, and experimentation which the child finds amusing can lead to enhanced memory of the spelling of words.


The only constant in all this is that the process is slow, but it can be successful, and does enable to the child to develop her or his own approach to remembering correct spellings.


Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.