Multisensory Structured Language

Multisensory Structured LanguageWhat is Multisensory Structured Language Teaching?

Multisensory teaching is one important aspect of instruction for all students that is used by clinically trained teachers. Effective instruction for students with dyslexia, ADD, ADHD or students with learning differences is also explicit, direct, cumulative, intensive, and focused on the structure of language. Multisensory learning involves the use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways simultaneously to enhance memory and learning of written language. Links are consistently made between the visual (language we see), auditory (language we hear), and kinesthetic-tactile (language symbols we feel) pathways in learning to read and spell.

“Dyslexic students need a different approach to learning language from that employed in most classrooms. They need to be taught, slowly and thoroughly, the basic elements of their language—the sounds and the letters which represent them—and how to put these together and take them apart. They have to have lots of practice in having their writing hands, eyes, ears, and voices working together for conscious organization and retention of their learning.”Margaret Byrd Rawson, a former President of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA)

Teachers who use this approach help students perceive the speech sounds in words (phonemes) when they speak or exaggerate the movements of their mouths. Students learn to link speech sounds (phonemes) to letters or letter patterns by saying sounds for letters they see, or writing letters for sounds they hear. As students learn a new letter or pattern (such as s or th), they may repeat five to seven words that are dictated by the teacher and contain the sound of the new letter or pattern; the students discover the sound that is the same in all the words. Next, they may look at the words written on a piece of paper or the chalkboard and discover the new letter or pattern. Finally, they carefully trace, copy, and write the letter(s) while saying the corresponding sound. The sound may be dictated by the teacher, and the letter name(s) given by the student. Students then read and spell words, phrases, and sentences using these patterns to build their reading fluency. Teachers and their students rely on all three pathways for learning rather than focusing on a “whole word memory method,” a “tracing or mapping method,” and/or “sounding and mapping method or a “phonetic method” alone.
The principle of combining movement with speech and reading is applied at other levels of language learning as well.

What is the rationale behind multi-sensory, structured language teaching?

Students with dyslexia or other learning differences often exhibit weaknesses in underlying language skills involving speech sound (phonological) and print (orthographic) processing and in building brain pathways that connect speech with print. The brain pathways used for reading and spelling must develop to connect many brain areas and must transmit information with sufficient speed and accuracy. Most students with dyslexia have weak phonemic awareness, meaning they are unaware of the role sounds play in words. These students may also have difficulty rhyming words, blending sounds to make words, or segmenting words into sounds. Because of their trouble establishing associations between sounds and symbols, they also have trouble learning to recognize words automatically (“by sight”) or fast enough to allow comprehension. If they are not accurate with sounds or symbols, they will have trouble forming memories for common words, even the “little” words in students’ books. They need specialized instruction to master the alphabetic code and to form those memories.
When taught by a multi-sensory approach, students have the advantage of learning alphabetic patterns and words with engagement of all learning modalities. Dr. Samuel Terry Orton, one of the first to recognize the syndrome of dyslexia in students, suggested that teaching the “fundamentals of phonic association with letter forms, both visually presented and reproduced in writing until the correct associations were built up,” would benefit students of all ages.


Summary: What are the principles of a multi-sensory, structured language approach?

Additional ways to enhance foreign language learning success include the following:

  • Simultaneous, Multisensory (VAKT): Teaching uses all learning pathways in the brain (i.e., visual, auditory, kinesthetic-tactile) simultaneously or sequentially in order to enhance memory and learning.
  • Systematic and Cumulative: Multisensory language instruction requires that the organization of material follows the logical order of the language. The sequence must begin with the easiest and most basic concepts and progress methodically to more difficult material. Each concept must also be based on those already learned. Concepts taught must be systematically reviewed to strengthen memory.
  • Direct Instruction: The inferential learning of any concept cannot be taken for granted. Multisensory language instruction requires direct teaching of all concepts with continuous student-teacher interaction.
  • Diagnostic Teaching: The teacher must be adept at flexible or individualized teaching. The teaching plan is based on careful and continuous assessment of the individual’s needs. The content presented must be mastered step by step for the student to progress.
  • Synthetic and Analytic Instruction: Multisensory, structured language programs include both synthetic and analytic instruction. Synthetic instruction presents the parts of the language and then teaches how the parts work together to form a whole. Analytic instruction presents the whole and teaches how this can be broken down into its component parts.
  • Comprehensive and Inclusive: All levels of language are addressed, often in parallel, including sounds (phonemes), symbols (graphemes), meaningful word parts (morphemes), word and phrase meanings (semantics), sentences (syntax), longer passages (discourse), and the social uses of language (pragmatics).
Facts Credit
Thanks to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and to Marcia K. Henry, Ph.D., for these facts about Multisensory Structured Language Teaching.
jrw-reading-remedyMultisensory Structured Language