You fill up their senses

30th November 2012 at 00:00
Multisensory learning can bring a multitude of benefits, but don't overdo it, writes Kerra Maddern

Sights, sounds, tastes and smells are all around us. We are constantly exposed to colour, light and music.

We all have memories associated with the senses and understand how inspiring it can be when they are stimulated.

Many teachers have used this understanding to good effect to help children. A large number of special schools - and even mainstream primary schools - have sensory rooms full of light and colour. Teachers of pupils with special educational needs will often use a multisensory approach, as research shows that it works for children with profound and multiple difficulties.

But there is a growing awareness of the importance of making day-to-day teaching more multisensory for other children as well. Teachers are keen to discover if creating more interactive lessons will help those with more subtle learning difficulties.

Of course, the tendency is for the youngest children to get the most sensory opportunities during nursery and reception years, when they are given plentiful opportunities to touch objects. As pupils get older, such experiences normally become far less common.

"It is a mistake to forget that the brain continues to develop after these early years of education, and so quickly opportunities for multisensory learning are missed in primary education and even more so in secondary," says Carol Allen, an advisory teacher for ICT and inclusion in North Tyneside.

A full curriculum and timetable requirements can mean that there are fewer chances for hands-on work in primary and secondary schools. The aim is to achieve ever better exam results, but advocates of multisensory teaching say it is worth devoting time to this approach because stimulating children's senses helps them to learn better: if more areas of the brain are engaged pupils will absorb and remember more information, they argue.

Giving children - especially those with SEN - a broader variety of ways to express themselves, rather than solely through writing, may help them to become more engaged in lessons. Adding colour, sound and excitement to a class can make it more absorbing for those with behavioural problems.

Obviously, pictures, music and film clips may already play a part in your teaching. There are, however, other things you can do. The notion that pupils should be labelled as "visual", "auditory" or "kinaesthetic" learners may have fallen out of educational fashion for being simplistic and limiting. But remembering that pupils appreciate a range of stimuli is important, whether they are images, sounds, opportunities for movement or objects to touch and smell.

The practical reasons for offering a multisensory approach are obvious, Allen says. They offer children an alternative outlet for expressing and processing what they have learned.

"If you have a barrier with reading and writing and the primary route for investigating and finding out is through notes, textbooks and worksheets, you face additional problems," she says.

"If the only way to get the information at the start of a new topic is via a video and you have a sensory impairment, once again you may not pick up all that your peers do.

"Even without additional needs, the chance for your brain to receive information via sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, or as many as possible in a given learning situation, gives the opportunity for deep learning that is assimilated more quickly and linked to the other memories, skills and information that the brain holds securely."

Adapting the techniques

Multisensory teaching has been a key part of the work of SEN teachers for many years. But there is growing interest in the approach among staff in mainstream schools, who have to cater for children with ever more complex needs.

At Shaftesbury High School in Harrow, a specialist school catering for pupils with complex educational needs, learning has to take place in a highly personalised way. The school takes care to ensure that it caters for all needs by using a range of learning styles, including kinaesthetic, visual and aural.

"If you saw one of our science lessons you would see learners taking part in an experience often involving listening, role playing, watching, even tasting sometimes," says Kerry Sternstein, the school's deputy head.

"Our pupils recently studied the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. As well as reading, listening to and acting out the text, they made a sound collage. We even used percussion instruments to make rain noises and the sound of horses' hoofs."

At Shaftesbury there is also a sensory theatre, where pupils can indulge their senses with a range of experiences. These include a starry sky at night, a bubble wall and changing colours and sounds. For some, this can even involve desensitisation - for example, an autistic pupil is shown films on a giant screen to introduce them to, and help them relax during, potentially difficult experiences such as being in a crowd or at a firework display. One pupil who has selective mutism has responded to the sensory experience with exclamations of "ooh" and "ah".

Christopher Davies taught in primary schools before co-founding the Bamboozle Theatre Company, which runs multisensory performance tours and staff training. Using more of children's senses means that teachers can "hook" their interest, according to Davies.

"I think the multisensory curriculum makes sense for everyone, actually - we all respond to different sensory stimulation," he says. "Teaching in a multisensory way engages all channels of the brain."

Davies works with schools to create multisensory areas. One recent project was a sea cave made from boxes, shells and nets to create visual and tactile stimulation for the children. A musical soundtrack of waves washing across sand was played.

"We put this rich environment together very quickly. I know that time and money are in short supply for teachers," Davies says.

Another school created, with his help, an imaginary island. Children used it as inspiration for 3D models; teachers used it to teach coordinates, art, problem-solving and mapping.

Making sure you have a plan

But it's not enough just to provide children with an all-singing, all-flashing sensory room or beautiful home-made sensory area.

According to SEN consultant Joanna Grace, teachers using a multisensory approach can make the mistake of not combining this with a structured learning experience. Children may enjoy using a sensory room, but "without a plan for what they will learn and assessment afterwards it can be hard to move on from exploratory learning to something more progressive," she says.

Grace trains teachers in how to tell a "sensory story". This is a short tale that has to be relayed in clear, crisp sentences, combined with sensory experience. For example, a hairdryer can be used to illustrate a great wind blowing and dried leaves can convey the scent of autumn. Typically, these stories are used in teaching pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties but Grace has found they have been well received in mainstream schools.

"In primary schools, introducing sensory stories can improve pupils' creative writing as they add tastes, sounds and scents to their storytelling," she says. "In secondary schools, pupils can be challenged to pare down a full-length story into 10 sentences conveying its essence. This is a fantastic comprehension task."

Smell can be a powerful way of getting children to link facts together, according to Grace. "Particular smells remind us of particular times," she says, "so if learning is accompanied by a scent, that knowledge can be accessed more easily when that scent is re-experienced. Beginning topic lessons with the same scent each time can link learning together."

Scent can help in other situations, too, Grace says: "Having a drop of essential oil on a hanky when revising and then again when in the exam might just help."

So how do you begin to stimulate more of your pupils' senses? A good place to start would be when planning lessons: identify what effect you are aiming for and allow time and resources within the lesson for it to happen.

Jane Kendall, a teacher, special educational needs coordinator and trainer of teaching assistants, suggests that teachers encourage children to "hear, see, say, write and do".

"A lot of teaching doesn't allow children to do all those things," she says. "If children only see information it is often harder to remember it. They will remember much more if they have to see, hear and write it. If they then have the opportunity to tell someone what they have been learning, they remember most."

Kendall says that giving pupils an opportunity to consolidate what they have learned is a crucial part of this work, especially with SEN children. "Some may not be as good at recording what they have learned through writing, but they can relate information to a scribe or draw pictures," she says.

"Asking children to guess unknown words for either reading or spelling is never helpful, as they are more likely to remember their first guess and possibly continue to use the 'guess' even if it is wrong.

"Using colours, for example on whiteboards or worksheets, helps children to relocate information. As homework, children can be asked to share verbally with their parents what they have learned at school. This way of repeating things helps children to commit information to their long-term memory."

Using a multisensory approach doesn't mean changing your teaching style, she says. "It just means there are extra things you can do - with colour, pictures, talking and doing.

"Allowing children to physically make words with plastic letters can help them with spelling and reading. Have plastic letters that they can put in order to form a word before writing it down.

"A multisensory approach gives children an opportunity to become aware of, choose and use their preferred learning style."

The risk of overdoing it

Surprisingly, there is little research on the impact of multisensory teaching on pupils' learning.

Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of special educational needs organisation Nasen, advises teachers to start slowly.

"Don't do too much too soon and don't do it all together," Petersen says. "You have to be careful not to go overboard - particularly for children with autism who may not cope well with lots of changes.

"It wouldn't be good for them if they came in on a Monday and found that the classroom had been completely altered over the weekend. You can overload the senses as much as you can develop them."

Educational consultant Barry Carpenter, who has produced training materials for the government for teachers of pupils with complex learning difficulties and disabilities, says that many teachers neglect to use kinaesthetic learning, or movement, as part of lessons.

"Children with SEN work in concrete ways or in black and white. 'Making the action' can help them," he says.

"Increasing movement calms them down, helps them to learn how to take turns and share, and aids the learning process."

On one occasion, Carpenter helped a pupil who was nervous about taking an exam in a noisy sports hall by kicking a ball around with him outside to "de-escalate" his anxiety. He took the boy into the exam hall early and allowed him to wear headphones to block out the noise of other children entering the room.

Carpenter also advises teachers to "err on the side of caution" because overloading children with sensory experiences can mean that they have a "negative response". "You can always build it up," he says. "Teachers may think it's wonderful but pupils may not. Do not put out a whole load of sensory experiences at once."

Lights, colours, sounds, sights and smells can gradually transform your lessons and help children to achieve. But sensory overload can be equally as unhelpful as the reverse, so introducing more stimulation to the classroom requires careful planning.


The Quality Improvement Agency on multisensory learning: bit.lyPFW30g

Resources from the TES website on teaching children with dyslexia:


Sensory Matters, a series of teaching resources on the TES website:


Tacon, R. and Wing, T. "A multisensory approach to teaching arithmetic", National Teacher Research Panel (2004).

Davies, C. Creating Multi-sensory Environments (Routledge, 2011).

HOW TO ...

Use these tips to introduce sensory experiences in the classroom:

Make sure that teaching assistants are on board with what you are trying to do and provide training for them if necessary.

When introducing multisensory teaching, observe children's learning styles to spot what is and isn't working for them.

If you are trying multisensory teaching with older children, get them to provide the sensory experience for you - make it their responsibility to find pictures, music or artefacts.

Many teachers use pictures in lessons. Try to use another sensory experience first - for example, smell or sound.


Use the same colours for the same topics to help tie learning together.

Using colour is helpful to highlight facts, but many children find worksheets more accessible if they include white space.

Playing background music can help pupils to relax. Try a middle-of-the- road radio station.

New technology can help multisensory teaching. Devices such as iPads give children easy access to sounds, pictures and games, as well as the chance to make storyboards with photographs they have taken themselves.

Set up "working walls" to refer to during lessons, with the main information related to the topic you are covering. Draw children's attention to it as you talk.

Try to find unusual small objects that can be used as maths counters.

Make a multisensory area in the classroom to inspire pupils. This is easier if you have fixed points where you can attach string or rope.

Hooks on the door allow you to hang objects that give children a visual clue as to what the lesson may be about.

A big piece of corrugated card or a circle of card can be used to make a separate space in the classroom. Covering furniture and walls with paper can also transform the area.

Use a tent to create a sensory area. It can be a cosy (or spooky) area for storytelling and a canvas to shine lights on.

Using colours helps children to recall information. As homework you could ask them to share verbally what they have learned with their parents. Repeating things in this way can help children to commit information to their visual memory.

Use stories. Children can join in with the rhythm verbally and physically.

Sensory doesn't have to mean large-scale. Set up different "stations" where, for example, children can listen to a story, draw, read with a partner, write using a computer and re-enact with puppets and video their own version.

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