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Multi-Sensory Instruction

In discussing its marketing strategy with a documentary filmmaker, the CEO of an airline spoke of the “across the board” changes they were making, from their advertisements to the look of the interior of their airplanes. Even their luggage compartments were being redesigned for the purpose of increasing customer loyalty. When asked to explain how the shape of luggage compartments could have an impact on customer loyalty, he stated that this was a trade secret. “Other airlines may try to duplicate what we do, but if they don’t know why they’re doing it that way, it won’t work.”

In this situation, his statement sounded a little dramatic. However, generally, one should know why they are doing what they are doing in order to insure effectiveness.

So what does this have to do with reading difficulties?

It is now common knowledge among dyslexia advocates and researchers that standard reading instruction is ineffective for people with dyslexia, and that struggling readers need multi-sensory instruction. What seems to have eluded so many program developers and advocates is why.

Conventional wisdom suggests that when instruction incorporates two or more senses, students “get it” more easily and that “it’s more likely to stick.” Some even go a bit further to say that including more senses means using more pathways in the brain, which leads to better assimilation.

Sounds very scientific; but this is true for all people.

boy holding rockIf a person holds a rock in their hand, examining it with their fingers and eyes, before reading a paragraph about that type of rock, and listening to an audio recording of an expert talking about that type of rock, clearly they are more likely to understand and remember the information than if they had simply read the paragraph. This tells us nothing about why people with dyslexia need specific multi-sensory instruction.

To understand that, we have to look at the unique skill deficits most often associated with people who struggle to read.

Some people argue that students with dyslexia need multi-sensory instruction as a “work around” for weak visual processing skills. However, we know dyslexia is not a visual problem. People with dyslexia are no more likely to have vision problems than the general population. Nor is it a problem with hearing. The weakness lies in the processing of language sounds, specifically in awareness of the multi-sensory features (what they see, feel, and hear) of language sounds, and the ability to manipulate or identify changes in sounds. Ask a person with dyslexia to identify what their mouth is doing when they make a specific language sound, and they are less able to do so than someone who does not have dyslexia. We know this because someone studied it.

The graph below from a study completed in 1981 (Montgomery, 1981), shows a dramatic skill difference in ability between children with dyslexia and children with typically developing reading skills. When asked to accurately identify pictures of the mouth when making specific language sounds, children with dyslexia were far less likely to accurately do it. They scored slightly better than “chance.”


These are spoken language skills. Most children learn them naturally, starting at about 8 months of age, long before they ever identify sounds with letters. Yet, they provide the foundation for strong reading skills. Like a foundation, if it is weak or faulty, the structure above is going to be impacted.

So what does this have to do with multi-sensory instruction for reading?

While most children learn reading naturally, some do not. Some have to be explicitly taught the connections between what they hear, see and feel when they make language sounds. Such instruction, by its nature, is going to be multi-sensory. Multi-sensory instruction that is most effective for people with dyslexia will target and strengthen the weakness seen in the graph above.

So, back to the question: Is it possible for people to try to duplicate something (in this case, effective reading instruction for people with dyslexia), but fail miserably because they don’t know how to answer the question, “Why?”

The most popular programs for people with dyslexia have children drawing letters in the air, writing on sandpaper, or drawing letters in glitter. Other programs have kids tap their arms or shake their legs while spelling words. One website claims that the purpose of multi-sensory instruction is to “just have the kids do SOMETHING” to include their touch/movement sensory system, with the idea being that if the CONTENT takes different paths through the brain, maybe it will stick.

sn-brainstructureHWhile these items may increase attention due to the novel instructional approach, what the developers of these programs fail to realize is that for many students, it is not a lack of content at the root of reading difficulties, but weak skills, particularly the lack of phonological awareness and processing. Multi-sensory instruction has to strengthen those skills. For reading instruction to be effective, not just any sensory pathway through the brain is acceptable. The targeted paths need to be language-specific and phonological-specific. If they aren’t, the activity is simply a more engaging way to learn content that, in the end, won’t make it any easier for people with dyslexia to become fluent readers.

Dyslexia advocates have done a great job spreading the word that multi-sensory instruction is needed. Unfortunately, many programs themselves often don’t understand the research enough to know how to effectively use multi-sensory instruction. Stamping “Orton-Gillingham” on a program because students move around during instruction should not be enough anymore. It’s time to dig deeper and understand why multi-sensory instruction is important and which skills to target.

Montgomery, D. (1981). Do dyslexics have difficulty accessing articulatory information? Psychological Research, 43, 235-243.