Studies from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development have shown that for children with difficulties learning to read, a multisensory teaching method is the most effective teaching method.
This is especially crucial for a dyslexic child. But what does it mean?

Using a multisensory teaching approach means helping a child to learn through more than one of the senses. Most teaching in schools is done using either sight or hearing (visual or auditory sensations). The child’s sight is used in reading information, looking at diagrams or pictures, or reading what is on the teacher’s board. The sense of hearing is used in listening to what the teacher says. A dyslexic child may experience difficulties with either or both of these senses. The child’s vision may be affected by difficulties with visual tracking, visual processing or seeing the words become fuzzy or move around. The child’s hearing may be satisfactory on a hearing test, but auditory memory or auditory processing may be weak.

VAK Modalities

Multisensory methods are also known as VAK Modalities:

The three modalities of learning styles have been summarized by the acronym VAK, for:
Visual,
Auditory, and
Kinesthetic:

1. Visual: That which you see.
2. Auditory: That which you hear.
3. Auditory-Digital: Your self-talk.
4. Kinesthetic: The tactile … where the child touches and handles objects.

The best teaching method is to involve the use of more of the child’s senses, especially the use of touch and movement (kinesthetic). This will give the child’s brain tactile and kinesthetic memories to hang on to, as well as the visual and auditory ones.

An example

An example will make this clear. The majority of dyslexic children experience confusion over the direction of ‘b’ and ‘d’. They can both be seen as a stick with a circle at its base. But on which side does the circle sit? A teacher might give the child a tactile (touchy/feely) experience of the letter ‘b’ by getting the child to draw the letter really large on the carpet. This will involve the child using their arms, their sense of balance, their whole body. They will remember the day their teacher had them ‘writing’ on the carpet with their hand making this great big shape, and can use that memory the next time they come to write the letter.

Some teachers purchase letters made out of sandpaper so that the children can run their fingers over the letter ‘b’, giving them a strong tactile memory. The thought of it sends a shiver down my spine!

Writing the letter ‘b’ in cursive handwriting on paper and with a big movement in the air puts a quite different slant on this letter. The letter starts on the line and rises to begin the down-stroke: there is nowhere else to put the circular bit but ahead of the down stroke.

Use plasticine, play-dough or clay

Yet another way to give a strong tactile memory of ‘b’ is to make the letter out of plasticine, play-dough or clay.

A commonly used ‘trick’ to remember the direction of ‘b’ and ‘d’ is to show the child the word ‘bed’ on a card. This word begins with ‘b’ and ends with ‘d’, so that if you draw a bed over the letters, the upright part of ‘b’ will become the head of the bed, and the upright part of the ‘d’ will become the foot. You can draw a child lying on the bed to complete the picture. This gives a strong visual memory for the child to use each time the letter has to be written.

You can also show the child how to hold up their index finger on each hand, with the thumb and second finger touching, making the word ‘bed’, but without the ‘e’. If they learn to do this, they can make this shape discretely with their fingers each time they need a reminder in class.

The net result of these activities will be that a child has a visual memory from seeing the letter, an auditory memory from hearing the sound it makes, a tactile memory from writing the letter in cursive handwriting, in the air, and from touching the sandpaper letter, and a kinesthetic (body movement) memory from having drawn the letter really large on the carpet. Altogether a multisensory experience!

This tried and tested method has been used successfully for a long time, and its success lies in the fact that the dyslexic child is not limited to visual and auditory experiences but can make use of other areas of the brain in trying to establish clear memories of letters, words and numbers that are difficult to remember.

John Bradford (with apologies for my drawings!)
2008

References
• VAKT Reading Method – Visual-Additory-Kinesthetic-Tactile Method – V.A.K.T.

• Every Student Benefits From Multisensory Education (Orton-Gillingham)

• NICHD Reading Research Offers Crucial Data for Educators

• Dyslexia Action Literacy Resources (UK)

• Free ‘b’ and ‘d’ Exercises

Feedback

• I was on your site today. I am a great-grandparent by marriage working once a week with a soon to be 9-year old. These two little “tricks” will help me immensely as I work with Maranda. Thank you, thank you!
Sending smiles! (A.R.O.)

• You mentioned that some parents/teachers had the children use sandpaper letters to give them another sensory approach to letters and you cringed at the thought. I am a Montessori pre-school teacher and the sandpaper letters (and numbers) are part of pedagogical materials that Montessori designed. These letters and numbers are made of sandpaper that are the equivalent of an emory board used to file your nails – very fine sandpaper. In addition to using the fingers directly on the sandpaper, velum paper can be placed over the letters to help the pre-schooler “feel” the letter as they trace over the letter, sending a vibration up the arm and to the brain. If you are not familiar with Maria Montessori, she initially developed her materials and methods to foster learning and self-esteem to children that were deemed “unteachable” and realized they would work for “normal” children. (M.P.)

• I would like you to know that I have tried the suggested method of ‘bed’ with one of the children and it has helped him tremendously. (D.M., India)

• We have made words and letters in various ways and used plasticine. This was quite successful but it does go hard after a while. We have also used pipe cleaners. These are easy to bend into shape and very tactile. They can be carried with us on holiday etc and are not messy or sticky. My 11-year old daughter enjoys making letters with pipe cleaners. When making words she uses only one color. She has a very good visual memory and can recall the color used and how it felt. When she has made words or letters we feel them with our eyes open and closed. She seems to be able to store the words in her memory best with her eyes closed. (R.H., Switzerland)

• I was working with a child who found it hard to form the letters in the correct way, they were upside down, backwards, bits were missing etc. He did not have a strong grasp of how letters should look. I took some pipe cleaners and used them to form the letters (in both upper case and lower case form). The letters for the lower case were a little difficult as we bent them to show the letter in its cursive form.
The child said the letter name and letter sound as we did this. Once we had worked through all of the letters, the child drew around each one and illustrated it. The child had to think of an original illustration that they would remember (e.g. not a for apple). We then stuck on the pipe cleaners onto the correct page for each one. This was made into a book for the child to take home and use whenever he needed to remind himself how the letters should look. Because the pipe cleaners were stuck onto the page, he could trace over it with his finger which helped improve his memory of how it should look. He now does not have a problem with drawing the letters. (J.S., Sheffield, UK)

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