Multi-sensory instruction is a very frequently used term, but what in the world does it really mean? Simply put, it’s a method of teaching that encourages children to use more than one sense at a time during reading instruction. Instead of just asking the child to read the words on a page silently in their head, you'll teach them to engage their senses beyond sight.
The senses we will specifically target are sight, hearing, and touch. We are less concerned with the taste and smell of the letters, this is not the marketplace in The Phantom Tollbooth after all.
When teaching an Orton-Gillingham based (OG) lesson this can look like a few different things. When reviewing the letter sounds you could show your student how to ‘air write’ the letter with their fully out-stretched arm, how to finger trace the letter on their desk with their fingers, or trace using sandpaper letters. These are all examples of adding a touch element to their learning. We also love using these grids to add an additional tactile component that students can trace.
It's worth noting that extra manipulatives are not necessarily required for multi-sensory instruction. The sound card drill is a great example of this. During this drill, the student looks at the sound card and says the sound out loud. The student sees the letter, says the sound correctly, and feels their mouth shape while making the sound. Without any extra materials, they're engaging in sight, hearing, and touch. As instructors, we should focus simply on whether our student is using more than one sense, and if not, how we can change our instruction so that they are.
Let’s look at another way to use multi-sensory instruction within a lesson. Spelling is always an important and difficult element to teach for any struggling reader. In order to support spelling we always include phonemic awareness practice to help connect the sound and mouth shape or touch elements to spelling. Connecting this to spelling helps make spelling feel more predictable and logical.
During the actual spelling dictation, the multi-sensory aspect involves a process of having the student listen to the word that is being dictated and saying that word back to you. They'll then use tiles or finger-tapping to sound out the number of sounds they hear. And finally, they'll experience the touch of writing the word on the page. In this spelling activity, students are using their sight, hearing, and touch senses. The most important thing to understand is that multi-sensory does not need to be overly-complicated or overly messy.
All in all multi-sensory instruction is using sight, hearing, and touch to help a student learn.