Instructional Practices

Multisensory Approaches to Reading Instruction

6 Min Read
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Last weekend, I went to a large used bookstore in my hometown and was rewarded with a familiar sight: rows of books, occasionally misspelled signage, and the overall organization of so much reading material. Customers and staff wandered among the shelves and tables, ran their fingers across book spines, searching for a favorite author.

I pulled out titles one by one. Thumbing through the pages of an unanticipated find, I discovered a passage and quietly read it aloud to refocus my attention away from the din of excited recommendations between readers.

Sight, sound, touch, and movement are often part of the reading experience for adults. Our eyes distinguish words from crowds of letters, our ears attend to read-alouds and audiobooks, our fingers track lines of challenging text as our mouths sound them out. We even position our bodies for attention and engagement. So it's no surprise that reading instruction for children will engage multiple senses as well. Our personal experience with letters and words—from alphabet songs to scrolling through social media—indicates a role for different senses in acquiring reading skills.

What Is a Multisensory Approach to Teaching Reading?

Multisensory approaches to reading instruction use multiple senses to establish several routes between the text stimulus and the brain. Teachers help students integrate the visual and auditory with large whole-body, local manual, or smaller lip and mouth movements. If there is an impairment of the visual pathway, the other senses can add useful information and faulty signals.

Methods that integrate sound and movement can reinforce and calibrate visual input as students make their way through letters and words. Additionally, multisensory activities can help children overcome anxieties, scaffold introductory instruction and practice, increase motivation and engagement, and associate reading with enjoyable physical and social activity.

Multisensory Reading Strategies and Activities

Take a look at examples of combining sight, sound, touch, or movement when learning to read. There are many multisensory ways to blend sounds, in whole-class or small-group settings.

In a first-grade warm-up exercise from HMH Into Reading, the teacher projects a large graphic of an index finger on the board, as it moves across the word hike. Each sound is pronounced as the finger points to: /h/, /ī/, /k/. Students can move their fingers across the word on their desks as they pronounce the sounds. Finally, the sounds are blended into the word hike.

Later, in a similar manner, students use their hands to cover and reveal syllables as they track and pronounce the words sud-den-ly, fin-ish, and near-by. Students can perform syllable work by clapping or tapping the arm.

Letter cards are an easy way to practice phoneme substitution. But this activity gets a mechanical assist with the wordscope, another Grade 1 Into Reading resource teachers and students can make in class. The wordscope card has letters printed on it, such as ap, and a strip of paper with single-letter phonemes, such as s, t, n, and c, that moves up and down in a window. With a push or pull, the student can make the word sap, tap, nap, and cap, and pronounce the word.

Dr. Holly B. Lane, Director of the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI), draws on research to make a distinction between macro-level movements of the fingers, hands, and arms, and micro-level gestures of the lips and tongue. For a simple whole-class activity, have students hold up one finger for short vowel sounds and two fingers for long vowel sounds. As they see and hear the words cut and cute, fin and fine, rip and ripe, fad and fade, and many other pairs, the large-scale gestures can be fun for young people.

Dr. Lane says that focusing on mouth movement and listening to the sounds are especially useful for language skill development. Drawing on the research of Ehri (2014), Dr. Lane explains why micro-level intervention movements may be so effective: “Articulatory gestures rather than acoustic features represent phonemes in the brain. Also, ease of processing favors gestures. Whereas sounds are ephemeral and disappear as soon as they are heard, mouth positions are tangible and can be felt, viewed in a mirror, and analyzed by learners” (Ehri, 2014, p. 10).

Saxon Phonics and Spelling, a foundational skills program, combines visual, auditory, and multiple types of kinesthetic learning to reinforce letter recognition and phonemic awareness. In its kindergarten lessons on the letter L, the teacher guides students to pronounce /l/, with special effort to teach a crisp articulation of the consonant’s sound, without an attached vowel. Then the teacher asks students to stretch out on the ground, look at an alphabet wall with the lowercase l, and make the shape with their bodies.

Once back at their desks, students watch the teacher write the letter l on the board, accurately demonstrate skywriting a lowercase l, with arm extended and large gestures. The teacher points to the mouth, drawing the students’ attention to the lips and tongue as they form the sound /l/. And then the teacher asks students to copy the lowercase l with the same handwriting stroke used on the board. In the classroom, this type of interaction, which encourages students to be active and use the whole body, can help to solidify their reading skills.

We can connect sounds and writing more precisely by phonetically coding words. In Saxon, the digraph er is depicted visually, pronounced with an image of the correct mouth position shown, and then student-coded with an arc under the letters e and r to show the combination. Along with a letter card, spelling card, picture card, and several sight word cards, there are plenty of reinforcements that span sight, sound, and multiple senses for mastering this grapheme.

Many blended solutions combine the power of adaptive multisensory computer support that complement classroom activities. Waggle’s morphology lesson on the suffixes -er and -est starts with video instruction that combines explicit instruction, illustrations, careful pronunciation, and a song to introduce the concept. The lesson then extends to other sentences by having students practice with tapping and drag-and-drop functions, all with immediate feedback. Waggle also provides timed letter-recognition assignments and other activities that connect with many senses in a gamified framework.

The Blending Board, a digital tool available in HMH Into Reading and Read 180, allows a teacher to set up a practice board with specific letters, blends, digraphs, and inflectional endings for reading decodable or phonetically regular words. Here, teacher-led small groups can combine the tactile elements of blending and segmenting on the board, viewing the whole word, and then vocalizing the sounds and word. The app makes quick work of deleting and substituting phonemes, so the fast iteration can show patterns in the language.

Beyond the foundational skills, multisensory reading instruction is useful for vocabulary development. In a Grade 4 Into Reading set of vocabulary cards, students can use a card with the word gratitude, for example. They will see its segmentation into syllables, an image of two people hugging, and a definition. In addition, there are instructions to read the word and its definition, compose a sentence, brainstorm synonyms and associated words, write a list, and discuss with a partner when and how the student has shown gratitude. Here, the combination of seeing, hearing, speaking, and writing lets peers and the teacher check for pronunciation, usage, and understanding.

In secondary grades, multisensory approaches to reading motivate students to build on their growing background knowledge from the media they consume and their community and school.

The school experiences I remember began with a text—perhaps a book, or maybe just a single sheet of instructions—but grew into a group project, a discussion over expectations and process, posters and scenery and murals, a display in the classroom or school library, storyboarding a website, and delivering a presentation. Such wide-ranging reading activities begin in the earliest years, demonstrating that letters and words can be seen, heard, carefully spoken, felt in the mouth and vocal cords, written on the page and in the air, tapped, typed, and dragged with tactile precision. Multisensory approaches to reading can culminate in rich exploration and learning for every student.


Build a solid foundation in phonics and help K–2 students become successful readers with Saxon Phonics & Spelling.

Read more about structured literacy in the blog article "What is Structured Literacy?" on Shaped.

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