Multisensory learning benefits students of all abilities and is an excellent way for teachers to introduce inclusive practises, says Anne Margaret Smith
Inclusion’ and ‘inclusive practice’ are buzzwords in many educational sectors. Yet some teachers may still not feel confident that they know how to start implementing inclusive practices, especially if they haven’t any explicit training.
These practices are rarely a part of initial teacher training programmes, and it is only with experience that we realise how much we don’t know.
Some institutions, unfortunately, only pay lip-service to the idea. They set up superficial procedures that tick the inspection boxes, without investing in the professional development or resources teachers need to make the curriculum accessible to all their learners.
Many teachers, on the other hand, work constantly to develop a collaborative classroom culture, to create a culture which encourages their learners to recognise the diversity within the group, and to appreciate the benefits that this brings to their learning experience.
A growing body of research evidence, including a European Commission study from 2013, suggest that all students taught in inclusive classrooms benefit from this experience, not only socially, but also pedagogically. Inclusive practice is good practice, and anything that makes the language easier to learn ought to be help everybody.
Often, it is small changes in classroom management that yield the biggest impact. They foster a sense of belonging and mutual respect for all the members of the group.
For example, not all teachers are fully in control of the course material they use, but we can all choose how to present the material, and what aspects our students need to focus on.
We can also supplement our books with multisensory activities, so that students simultaneously see, hear and interact physically with the language.
When we activate several input channels, we stimulate more areas of the brain at once, and make more connections with the new material, which helps us to understand and retain the information. This can be done using elements of drama, for example, adding gestures to new vocabulary items, or acting out dialogues and stories. Larger physical movements have the added benefit of stimulating blood flow, bringing fresh oxygen to the brain.
Some techniques can be borrowed from visual arts: colour coding for parts of speech or producing simple images to support memory of new vocabulary. These strategies are appealing and beneficial to many students.
“Often, it is small changes in classroom management that yield the biggest impact.”
One of the best ways of making lessons more multisensory is to make use of music, because it activates many of the same parts of the brain as language. Apart from playing songs in order to focus on the lyrical content, change the mood of the class, or provide a springboard for creative writing, there are several elements of music that map directly onto aspects of language use.
Rhythm, pitch, volume and tempo can be exploited as an easy and enjoyable entry route for some learners who seem disengaged or are struggling to acquire communicative competence. These elements, of course, are found in all types of music (and speech), but it may be helpful to isolate them and focus on one at a time, before recombining them into genuine utterances.
Language professionals working with dyslexic learners have known for a long time that working on a sense of rhythm, and attention to the syllable structure of words, supports spelling skills. Improving auditory timing allows more effective segmentation and enhances phonological awareness in other ways, too, such as sequencing of sounds.
Some learners may also benefit from explicit coaching in perceiving pitch changes, in order to understand and produce a wider range of intonation patterns. There are good arguments for helping learners to understand the effects of volume and tempo in their speech, in order to communicate their ideas in precisely the way they intend.
Implementing inclusive practices does not have to mean increasing teachers’ workloads or breaking the school budget.
We set the tone of our classroom culture by modelling the respect that we want our learners to show each other. By using multisensory activities in our classes, we allow all learners to work to their strengths and have the opportunity to shine at some point in the day.
Simultaneously, we help them develop areas of learning that may be a bit weaker, giving them more strategies for approaching different types of material. Most importantly, we also send a message that language learning can, and should, be collaborative and enjoyable for everyone.
■ European Commission (2013). Support for children with special educational needs (SEN).
■ Overy K. (2003) Dyslexia and music from timing deficits to musical intervention. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 999: 497–505.