A Multisensory Approach to Reading

A while ago a parent contacted me for help because her child was struggling with reading. He hadn’t picked up phonics in Reception with the rest of his class, and so now his Year 1 teacher wanted to send him back to Reception for another dose of letters and sounds.

His mother was concerned about the effect this would have on his self-esteem and also couldn’t understand how repeating a year of something that clearly hadn’t worked was going to help him move on. She asked if I had any idea for things she could work on at home with him that might help him progress.

My first thought was that if phonics lessons at school hadn’t worked at all, he was possibly a purely kinaesthetic learner. This line of reasoning was backed up by the fact that he learnt more physical activities easily: he had learned to ride his bike without stabilisers with no problems at all, and he was already quite accomplished at several sports. These were all things he would have learnt kinaesthetically. Phonics in school is taught in a visual and auditory way (see the letter, listen to the sound it makes). I know that some people claim that kinaesthetic learners are catered for because there are actions to go with the letters and sounds, but I’m a kinaesthetic learner myself and I know for a fact that tapping my arm whilst saying “a-a-a”, or holding a finger in front of my mouth to pretend I’m blowing a candle out whilst saying “b-b-b” wouldn’t have helped me to recognise either of those letters.

I suggested helping him experience the letters in a different way. He started getting to know the letters by using wooden ones (magnetic ones would do just as well) that he could pick up so he would be able to feel the shape of each letter. He explored which letters had straight edges, which had curved edges and which had sharp angles, and as he picked each one up we said together the sound the letter represented.

From there, I stayed with the idea of 3D letters but we moved on to making them. By using straws, rulers, pens, bits of string, blu-tack, sellotape, etc he was able to make his own 3D letters. With his mum he made some dough, which he fashioned into letter shapes and they baked them. Eating the letters afterwards brought in taste alongside sight, hearing and touch for a truly multi-sensory experience.

Now it was time to start relating these 3D letters to the 2D ones on the page. Again I wanted to bring in as many senses as possible so I used stencils to write out the letters on sandpaper so that he could trace his fingers over the rough surface to feel the shape of the letter. I drew big letters in chalk in his back garden so that he could walk around the shapes, and I got his mum and dad to take chalk to the park so that they could write even bigger letters for him to ride his bike round. Finally we looked at printed letters on paper. While he looked at each letter and we said the sound the letter makes, using my finger I drew the letter on his back so that he could feel the shape of it.

By the time we started looking at printed letters on the page without the additional extra-sensory support, he was so familiar with the shape of each letter that he was able to associate them with the sounds they represented without difficulty.

From then on his reading improved quickly and it wasn’t long before he caught up with the rest of his class. We avoided the knock his self-esteem would have taken by having to go down a year, and his confidence grew because he was no longer the only child in his class who couldn’t read. And that’s why I really love my job!

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Letter to Michael Gove

Dear Mr Gove

I have read the stories in the news about the government’s proposal for a compulsory reading list for primary school children, and I am asking you to reconsider.

I have had a love of books and reading all my life. From the time I could crawl, I headed towards my dad’s bookshelves and sat happily turning the pages of books I was incapable of understanding. By the time I was two, I was able to read them, and I have been reading in every spare minute I have ever since.

I have read everything from War and Peace to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and from Ovid (in Latin) to JK Rowling. I’ve read Asimov and Zola, Oscar Wilde and Lee Child, The Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Flies. But I’ve never read Of Mice and Men. And I never will. I’ve been told it’s a classic. I’m told it’s a fantastic book. I will never know for sure. Why not? Because when I was at secondary school, my well-intentioned English teacher forced me to read The Red Pony and The Pearl, and I hated them and I’m never going to read John Steinbeck again for as long as I live.

If being forced to read something has given a child who loved to read such a hatred that it is still with her 30 years later, just think what effect it would have on the minds of children who are already reluctant to pick up a book.

I agree that most primary school children need to read more, but we need to encourage them, not dictate to them.

As a teacher I have succeeded in turning children on to books. I have tempted them with books as varied as Percy Jackson and Tom Sawyer. I haven’t done it by forcing them to read; I have done it by reading them little snippets from books I thought they might enjoy, and then allowing them to choose whether or not they read the book.  I have been rewarded with comments such as, “Tom Sawyer is brilliant, Miss! Did this author write anything else?” and “I’ve finished all the Percy Jackson books. What else might I like?” Would I have achieved the same result by ordering them to read the books? I doubt it.

We’re all on the same side, and we all want our children to be better read. With this proposal the government can turn them into children who have read some books. Given the freedom to exercise our professional judgement, based on what we know of each individual child’s interests, we teachers can turn them into readers.

Sally-Jayne Braisby