Not just words

Three main senses for learning

Three main senses for learning

Multi-sensory input

If we want to get information into our students’ brains, we need to use their senses.  Of the five main senses, smell and taste are not usually useable in classrooms as learning tools (in catering, they are!). This leaves 3 main senses for learning:

  • vision
  • sound/auditory
  • touch/action/kinaesthetic

This may be one reason why the idea of ‘learning styles’ is still widely held (see ‘Myths’ under ‘Evidence’.)

This gives five main approaches to presenting new material:

  • Visual: reading
  • Visual: using objects and images
  • Visual: using Graphical Organisers
  • Auditory: hearing words (live or recorded)
  • Tactile/action: doing something practical

The reading problem

The most problematic route is the visual/reading words route.  While about 3-5% of students might qualify for a dyslexia diagnosis, we should assume that 40% of students struggle with reading text to some degree.  However, much rarer learning difficulties apply to the other 4 routes.

Using objects and images

When we use words, they are symbols for the object we are talking about.  This requires both prior knowledge and mental processing.  However, if we can show the student the actual object, or even a picture of it, we can greatly increase their understanding.  The effect-size is modest – about 0.3, but requires little extra work.  Images also help the students pay attention.

The visual cortex of the brain is huge and highly evolved in birds and mammals and has few common defects.  By contrast, auditory processing of words has no specialist brain area – it is a learned process using brain-areas which evolved for different purposes.

Using graphic organisers (GOs)

GOs that define

GOs that define

We can also make use of the power of the visual cortex by using Graphic Organisers (GO).  These are shapes with text linked, often by arrows.  So long as the text is short and is simply a label (rather than an explanation), the brain seems to handle this well.

Not just the teacher’s voice

Using audio recordings.  This generation uses earphones and a portable audio player routinely.  Having your students listen to a recording of your (or someone else’s) presentation works well, as does the use of video recordings for instance, when using the ‘flipped classroom’ approach.


GOs that compare

GOs that compare

There is no direct link between doing and learning.  It is quite possible (and common), for instance, for students to carry out a science practical task and have no idea what they have done afterwards!  however, as part of a multi-sensory approach we see high effects.  If the learning task is a practical one – cooking, bricklaying etc, then clearly the practical side is essential.  however having a practical component especially helps those who are struggling to learn.  Some dyslexic students find that forming letters and numbers with pipe-cleaners is helpful. Basic arithmetic students are helped with using paper cups (see this video).

Multi-sensory approach

The brain works best when it has more than one sense in use at a time:

  • watching someone do it and then doing it yourself
  • doing something while listening to instructions
  • listening while looking at a graphical organiser

    GOs that sequence

    GOs that sequence

It is possible to use all three senses at once: watching, listening and doing, however, most brains cannot listen while it is reading.  This is because the part of the brain which is decoding the meaning of the written words as also used to decode spoken words – it cannot multi-task.

You can get students to prepare a multi-sensory presentation to revise part of a topic.  get them to have a script to say, something visual to see and some action which they do or get the rest of the class to do.  Acting out ‘explosion’, ‘remorse’, ‘retreat’ etc is much more powerful than simply making revision notes.

Recording a video

Remember to combine images, graphics with your words.  having students watch a ‘talking heads’ (where they simply see you talking) is far less effective than if they are seeing something relevant.  If you are showing slides or are writing things on a board or flipchart, make sure the slide is visible all the time you are talking about it.  Effective slides usually have no more than 13 words, (none of which can be in sentence form!)


Another video clip on the use of what they call ‘Non-linguistic representations’ – using anything other than written words.

No, it’s not ‘Learning Styles’

Although the brain has visual, auditory and kinaesthetic parts, this does not mean that students have ‘learning styles’ or ‘learning preferences’.  There is no evidence to support these ideas.  Interestingly, in the classic VAK learning-style method, ‘A’, auditory is assumed to include both written/read and audible/heard words.  These use separate pathways in the brain.  Many dyslexic readers are excellent listeners.