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Teaching experience supports a multi-sensory instruction approach in the early grades to improve phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading comprehension skills. Multi-sensory instruction combines listening, speaking, reading, and a tactile or kinesthetic activity. 

Phonics instruction lends itself to multi-sensory teaching techniques, because these techniques can be used to focus children’s attention on the sequence of letters in printed words. As such, including manipulatives, gestures, and speaking and auditory cues increases students’ acquisition of phonics skills. An added benefit is that multisensory techniques are quite motivating and engaging to many children.

Multi-sensory activities provide needed scaffolding to beginning and struggling readers and include visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile activities to enhance learning and memory. As students practice a learned concept, reduce the multi-sensory scaffolds until the student is using only the visual for reading. Employ the multi-sensory techniques to fix errors and then practice without the scaffold.

Examples of multi-sensory phonics activities

  1. Dictate a word using say, touch, and spell. Students say each sound in the word and place a manipulative (e.g., a tile with a letter or letter pattern on it, such as sh, ch, ck) to represent each sound in the word.

    For example, when the teacher says fin, students move the letter tiles for f, i, and n, to spell the word, while at the same time saying and stretching the sounds orally. If the teacher then says fish, students replace the tile with n on it with one that has an sh.

    Subsequent examples of words in the chain could be wish, wig, wag, bag, brag, and so on. The activity should use only letter sounds/pattern sounds that children have been taught.

    Letter tiles also should represent sounds at the phoneme level. For example, fish would be spelled with three tiles (f, i, sh), because it has three phonemes, whereas brag would be spelled with four tiles (b, r, a, g), reflecting four phonemes.

    Place ending spelling patterns and beginning consonants (or consonant blends) on cards.  Have students work in pairs and arrange as many words as they can on a table. Do a table walk and have each pair read the words they created. Give other teams an opportunity to create a new word.
  2. Organize spelling around the vowel letter. Assign a gesture to each vowel sound. Dictate a word and have students make the gesture for the vowel sound in the word.
  3. Assign a gesture to /sh/ and /ch/. Dictate words. Ask students to individually make the gesture associated with /sh/ or /ch/ when they hear those sounds in a word.
  4. Paddle pop: Teach letter clusters such as ing and ink. Write these clusters on card stock and staple to popsicle sticks.  Dictate words and ask students to pop up the paddle containing the letter cluster in the word.
  5. Sounding out words:
  • Single syllable “touch and read”: Students touch each letter with a finger or pencil point and say the letter sound, then sweep left to right below the word and read the word.
  • Multisyllable touch and read: Students touch each syllable with a finger or pencil point and say the syllable, then sweep left to right below the word and read the word.

Include two or three of these multi-sensory activities in each lesson: speaking, listening, moving, touching, reading, and writing. They fully engage the brain and make learning more memorable. These activities can be fun games or part of a daily practice routine.

Multi-sensory activities are the scaffold for early practice. As students become proficient in the new skill or concept, reduce and then remove the multi-sensory scaffolds.

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