Multisensory Learning Activities
It seems that either a person is a natural speller who seems to learn in spite of any curriculum chosen or they are a struggling speller. For many with dyslexia spelling issues remain a lingering challenge even after the student has learned to apply phonics learned through Orton-Gillingham principles for reading.
When I began tutoring using Orton-Gillingham, I soon found that basic Orton-Gillingham can be boring (for the student and the tutor). It can trigger the prime symptom that gets a child the ADHD diagnosis: failure to pay attention to a non-preferred activity that an adult is trying to get them to focus on. I started making practice sessions more interesting for my students by bringing in more multisensory learning–having them use more of their senses in fun ways.
The “see it, say it, write it” principle that Orton-Gillingham uses provides important multisensory learning feedback to the brain. That is essential for helping dyslexics internalize the phonetic patterns for spelling mastery. However, I found that many students need even more multisensory stimulation to keep them engaged enough to learn. I have gathered over 75 different multisensory learning activities to provide further ideas for practice that connect with visual, tactile, and kinesthetic learners.
The multisensory learning activities I developed to help with dyslexia spelling issues provide a wide variety of practice. I encourage students to use them to practice particularly challenging spelling words. Multisensory learning can also help with memorizing anything that requires rote memory, such as math facts. These ideas use the different senses to engage as many diverse connections in the brain as possible, though the student is not likely conscious of how these additional sensory inputs enhance memory and retrieval.
The brain makes use of all the different modes of input; they provide more potential memory hooks to grab on to. By using multiple sensory channels, the brain can rewire around problem areas and tap in to strengths instead. Using a variety of multisensory learning inputs provides the needed repetition to get challenging words into long-term memory without boredom. Whatever other senses are being used, always pair them with saying out loud the word, letters, or facts being memorized.
These multisensory learning ideas should provide much of the needed practice for learning the spellings of rule-breakers, outlaw words, and any other words that cause trouble. They can also be used to learn phonetically decodable words and alphabet letters. However, my intent is to primarily use these multisensory learning strategies to focus on sight words that need to be mastered by memorization rather than by patterns. These types of words often pose extra challenges for those with dyslexia’s spelling challenges and particularly benefit from the added multisensory learning.
Research shows that it takes 60 to 75 repetitions of a word spelled correctly to build automaticity in long-term memory. I recommend using a Daily Basic 5 Multisensory Learning set (as explained below) for each word daily for the first two weeks after it is learned, and then weekly for the next month, to achieve 70 spaced repetitions of that word. Make sure the student does the practice correctly; it can take 600 to 2,000 repetitions to relearn a word that has been learned incorrectly!
For many students the more variety in multisensory practice you can provide, the better the words stick. Empower your student with choices of medium to use on any given day. If they have time to get out the sand tray or the Wikki Stix®, but not the clay or finger paint, make sure the choices offered are equally acceptable to the adult for this given practice time.
Include games to mix up the practice and make it more fun. Some game ideas are provided below. We tend to remember better when we associate what we are learning with having fun.
Wings to Soar Multisensory Learning Activities
Daily Basic 5 Repetitions
Do the first four steps with each word:
● Read the word out loud, then spell it out loud while reading it.
● Write the word while spelling it out loud, then read the word. Vary the medium used, choosing from the ideas in the “Write” section below.
● Go back to the model (the printed accurate spelling of the word) and spell the word letter by letter, then read the word out loud.
● Check what you wrote letter by letter, then read the word.
The fifth step is to choose from one of these sections below: “Trace,” “Visualize,” “Kinesthetic,” “Play with Your Food,” and “Special Ideas.” Vary the option chosen from day to day. With all variations, saying the word and spelling it out loud while writing it adds the auditory component. It also adds the feel of the mouth shaping the words and letters.
For many of our kids with dyslexia spelling issues, picking up a pencil and writing seems like torture. But they do need to write the word in a way that leaves a memory trace of how to make the letters. They also need to be able to see how the word looks when it’s written. Writing on a whiteboard, or dry-erase board, doesn’t seem to carry the same aversion as picking up a pencil. Even writing on paper with a crayon in a couple of different colors, either one over the top of the other or right below it, mixes it up a bit, seems to be more accepted, and is a little bit easier than using a pencil. Using a chalkboard can work better than a whiteboard because the resistance of the chalk against the board provides sensory feedback to the brain that is not received from a dry-erase marker on a smooth whiteboard.
Full arm extension while writing on a whiteboard or chalkboard, or while sky-writing, uses larger muscles and therefore different neural pathways for gross-motor skills than those used for graphomotor, or handwriting activities; which in turn are different from those used in other fine-motor activities. Brain scans show that writing calligraphy causes different areas of the brain to light up than normal handwriting. An artistically inclined student might like to practice this way.
It’s important to provide the brain simultaneous auditory, visual, and kinesthetic feedback. This simultaneous feedback is an important aspect of the core Orton-Gillingham principle of employing multisensory learning. When working on a sight word, have the student spell letter by letter. When working on a phonetically regular word, have the student say the sounds as they write them.
Vary the writing step choosing from these options:
- Paper – with pencil, pen, crayon, marker, or colored pencil
- Whiteboard or chalkboard
- Manuscript; cursive; lowercase, capital letters, and both; and typing, so they get used to seeing the word in different ways
- Sand tray (a thin layer of colored sand in a shallow plastic container with a lid for easy storage)
- Sidewalk chalk or a wet sponge on a sidewalk
- Starting really big and then decreasing the size until it’s tiny
- Rainbow colors, writing the whole word at a time with each color, either on top of each other or one after the other. This is a good exercise in which to vary the use of manuscript; cursive; and lowercase, capital letters, or both.
- On a zip-lock bag with finger paint inside (double bag it, and you only need a very small amount of finger paint)
- With the tip of a bar of soap, on the shower wall
- Use a new sight word in a sentence with one or more new phonetically regular words.
Emphasize phonetically regular vowels using the Wings to Soar color-cue colors by writing the vowels in their special color:
- short a=tan, short e=red, short i=pink, short o=olive, short u=plum
- long a=gray, long e=green, long i=white, long o=yellow (or gold), long u=blue
- /oi/oy/=turquoise, /or/=orange, /er/=purple, /ow/=brown
In addition to reading it, hearing it, and writing it in the first four Daily Basic 5 practice steps, I encourage choosing from the “Trace,” “Visualize,” “Kinesthetic,” “Play with Your Food,” and “Special Ideas” options below for the fifth practice adding more variety to the multisensory learning.
- On a printed model of the word
- On a handwriting model
- finger or pencil
- print or cursive
- decreasing model sizes
- Using glue on the finger to trace a raised glue surface over the model. It can be allowed to dry and be traced over again on another day.
- On a tactile surface with the finger
- on sandpaper, carpet, velvet, fake fur, corduroy, denim, silk, felt
- on a table, leg, hand, arm
- using glue, glue with sand, glue with yarn
- using glitter glue, puff-paint pen
- Over Wikki Stix or a clay model of the word
- Visualize and Other Visual Strategies
Visualize the word spelled on an imaginary whiteboard just above and in front of the forehead. The helper asks:
- What color is it?
- Read the letters off the mental whiteboard.
- What’s the [second letter, third letter from the end, last three letters, etc.]?
- Draw a box around the shape of the word.
- Mark any irregular portion of the word.
- Color-code all the regular vowels.
- While balancing
- using a balance board
- on one foot
- on your head
- while bicycling
- While jumping: say the word, then spell (or sound) one letter (or sound) per jump
- jump rope
- While tossing a Koosh ball with a partner: The partner says the word and tosses the ball; the speller catches the ball and spells the word, then says the word while tossing the ball back.
- While tossing a ball up in the air: say the word, then say one letter per short toss, then say the word.
- While trying to keep a balloon aloft: try to spell the whole word before the balloon touches the floor.
- Sky-write the word using full arm extension, making sure to cross the midline of the body to activate both sides of the brain.
- Writing the word in a swimming pool imparts a different type of resistance during full arm extension than does sky-writing.
- Sky-write or water-write while holding objects of different weights.
- Model the definition of the word in 3-D with clay, then make a model of the word in 2-D with clay ropes.
- Mix up letter cards for the word and then unscramble them.
- Make the word with rope or yarn across the floor – make it BIG.
- Walk along the large rope or yarn word as if writing the letter with your feet.
- Form the letters with your body.
- Spell the word using:
- Manipulative letters: physical letters in the shapes of the letters such as alphabet magnets and tactile letters (such as Alphabet Avalanche™ from the Lauri company)
- Scrabble tiles, letter dice, or alphabet blocks
- Form the letters with pebbles, acorns, dry beans, etc.
- The partner spells the word with their finger on the student’s back and the student tries to figure out what word was spelled.
- Write the word with a squirt gun against an outside wall on a hot day.
- Write the word in snow or sand using a stick.
- Walk out the letters that form the word in the snow or sand.
- Finger-spell using sign language.
- Explore the Braille version of the word.
- Use signal codes. See www.scouting.org/filestore/pdf/historic_signaling_new.pdf for more details.
- Morse code
Have the code card in front of the student.
Tap, buzz, or flash the Morse code one letter at a time to the student.
Have them say that letter and all previous letters buzzed.
Have the student tap, buzz, or flash the Morse code for the word.
Use wigwag – Morse code via signal flags.
- Use semaphore flags.
- Turn it into a cheerleader’s cheer, using pom-poms to wigwag it.
“S-u-c-c-e-s-s. That’s the way we spell success!” is an example of such a cheer.
“T-h-e-r-e. First you’re here and then you’re there,” can help the student learn which spelling refers to position.
Play with Your Food
You may actually want to encourage your student to play with their food!
- Spell the word with alphabet pasta or cereal.
- Spell it with M&Ms, chocolate chips, corn, beans, peas.
- Spell it with spaghetti.
- Write it in pudding – lick your finger if you spelled it right!
- Write it in finger Jell-O® before it sets.
- Cut out finger Jell-O letters with alphabet cookie cutters.
- Spell words in frosting on cookies or cake.
- Spell words with cookie dough (or use alphabet cookie cutters), bake, then say the words and spell them again before you eat them.
- Use your spoon or knife to write the word in your rice, gravy, or mashed potatoes.
- Anything that comes in a squeeze bottle, or can be dispensed in one, can be used to write words on food.
- In syrup on your pancakes
- In mustard or ketchup on your hot dog
- In peanut butter or jelly on your bread
Save these messier or more time-consuming ideas for a treat on a rainy day or for practicing particularly tough words.
- Shaving cream – squirt a little out and then write in it on the table
- Silly String®
- Finger paint
- Pipe cleaners
- Wikki Stix
- Clay: Roll out pencil-thick ropes and shape them into letters and words. You can color-code the vowels.
Increase Engagement with Word Sorts, Games, and Novelty
The first two girls I tutored would get really excited whenever I brought in something special to mix things up. “Yay, we get to do the sand tray today,” they would say. For my third student, who was a more kinesthetic learner, I had to create more games and develop even more multisensory strategies to keep her engaged. I had to actively engage more of her senses. Reading the words off a printed list, as I’d been taught, worked with the first two, but it just wasn’t working with her. Using the standard Orton-Gillingham drill format alone would get her through 10 words, then she’d buck me. But as soon as I made little word cards, worked around a simple track on a game board, or used any other game I could come up with, I’d get her to read between 25 and 40 words a session with no problem.
So I put all of the high-frequency words in a pattern on word cards and we played sorting games. Sometimes I had her sort 30 to 40 words into four patterns, reading them as she went. Sometimes we sorted by long and short vowels, or by spelling pattern. If we were working with a new pattern, we sorted by word families within that pattern. Sorting these words got her to think about the words and patterns more actively than if she were just reading down a list.
She also responded well if we played a simple game using a stack of word cards and a generic game board. She rolled a die and could move that many spaces reading one word per space. Then she aspired to read more words rather than dreading it. Using dice that had four, eight, ten, twelve, and even twenty sides added interest simply due to the novelty of the dice.
Providing her with unique games sparked her enthusiasm and provided her brain with different hooks for learning. She played the games unaware that in reality she was practicing and learning phonics and automaticity while creating a foundation for reading.
In another game we played, I put a cluster of outlaw words, which we defined as “words that break the rules together,” on a card. She could move a number of spaces on the board that corresponded to the number of words she read correctly on the card. For example, she was excited to get the “-ind” card with find, kind, wind, remind, and behind, which allowed her to move more spaces than the “-ild” card which only had three words in the outlaw family: mild, wild, and child. We were building automaticity, and at the same time building awareness of how uncommon these outlaw family words were. It was also a creative way to move around the game board, and she became eager to read more words.
- Susan C. Anthony. Spelling Plus: 1000 Words toward Spelling Success. Anchorage: Instructional Resources, 1999.
Wings to Soar Dictation Sentences for Spelling Placement covers all of the high-frequency high-utility patterns and many rule-breakers and outlaw words to assess which words give a student trouble. The first 100 dictation sentences, which cover lessons 1 through 18 in Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations, allow us to assess short vowels, blends, open syllables, and silent e patterns, as well as 90 sight words. The words tested in these 100 dictation sentences make up over 60 percent of words used in written English. The next 18 lessons focus on common vowel teams and r-controlled patterns, as well as an additional 90 high-frequency sight words. By the end of this level a student will have learned over 71 percent of the words used in written English. All words covered in Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations are assessed in these dictation sentences. This program was created based on Orton-Gillingham principles specifically designed for dyslexia spelling challenges, but can help anyone who is not a natural speller. Request these Spelling Dictation Placement Sentences here.