A multi-sensory approach

Our presentation of new material needs to be multi-sensory for it to be effective.

If we want to help our students to learn effectively, we need to use their senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound. We can’t engage smell or taste in the classroom (unless you’re teaching catering!), which leaves us three senses:

  • Sight (vision).
  • Sound (auditory).
  • Touch (kinaesthetic).

This might be one reason why the idea of learning styles is still widely held (see Myths).

A diagram showing the three main senses for learning: action, vision, and sound

There are different ways to appeal to these three senses.


  • For sight, we can use reading, objects and images, and graphical organisers.
  • For sound, we can use hearing words, either live or recorded.
  • For touch, we can do something practical and hands-on.

Sight: reading

This is the most problematic route. Only 3-5% of students would qualify for a dyslexia diagnosis, but we should assume that 40% struggle with reading text to some degree.

It’s such a common difficulty that it makes this a difficult route – however, reading text is very much part of our classrooms and it’s a valuable tool when it’s used within a multi-sensory approach.

An image of a blurred landscape brought into focus by a pair of glasses

Sight: objects and images

Words are symbols for the object we’re talking about. This means that teaching with words requires both prior knowledge and mental processing.

We can greatly increase our students’ understanding by showing them the actual object, or a picture of it. It also helps our students to pay attention.

The reason for this is to do with how the brain works. The visual cortex of the brain is huge and highly evolved in mammals and birds, with few common defects. By contrast, auditory processing of words (hearing) doesn’t have a specialist brain area – it’s a learnt process that uses brain areas which evolved for different purposes.

Sight: Graphic Organisers

Another way that we can make use of our powerful sense of sight is by using Graphic Organisers.

These are shapes with text linked, often by arrows. It’s important to make sure the text is short – it should just be a label, rather than an explanation.

Here are some examples of Graphic Organisers:

Examples of Graphic Organisers for describing or defining
Examples of Graphic Organisers for comparing
Examples of Graphic Organisers for sequencing

Sound: hearing words

As well as talking to our students, we can find other sources of spoken words for our student to listen to.

For example, you could use audio recordings, either with your own presentation or someone else’s presentation, or video recordings. You could use the flipped classroom approach for this, and the students could use earphones and a portable audio player.

An image of a music player and earphones

Touch: hands-on

Hands-on learning is very effective when it’s used as part of a multi-sensory approach. However, there is no direct link between doing and learning – it’s possible for students to carry out a practical task and afterwards have no idea what they did!

A practical component is especially helpful for students who are struggling to learn. For example, some dyslexic students find that forming letters and numbers with pipe cleaners is helpful. Some basic arithmetic students find it helpful to use paper cups (see this video).

An image of two students doing some practical work

Multi-sensory approach

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

  • Watching someone do a task and then doing it yourself.
  • Doing something while listening to instructions.
  • Listening while looking at a Graphical Organiser.

It is possible to use all three senses at once (watching, listening and doing), but most brains cannot listen while reading. This is because the part of the brain which decodes the meaning of written words also decodes spoken words – it can’t 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.

An image with icons for the five senses

Recording multi-sensory videos

Remember to combine images and graphics with your words. It’s less effective to have students watch a “talking heads” style video, where they simply see you talking. It’s better if they are seeing something relevant.

If you’re showing slides or writing things on a board or flip chart, make sure the slide is visible for the entire time that you’re talking about it. Effective slides usually have no more than 13 words, and no full sentences.

No, it’s not ‘Learning Styles’

Although the brain has visual, auditory and kinaesthetic parts, this doesn’t mean that students have ‘learning styles’ or ‘learning preferences’. There is no evidence to support these ideas.

Interestingly, in the classic VAK learning styles method, ‘A’ (auditory) is assumed to include both written/ read and audible/ heard words. These use separate pathways in the brain, which is why many dyslexic readers are excellent listeners.

Find out more

Here’s a video clip from Marzano/ Dean on the use of what they call ‘non-linguistic representations’ – using anything other than written words.

Image credits

Header image: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/02/04/why-some-colleges-are-ditching-the-science-lecture-for-hands-on-learning/

Sight image: https://stippelsenco.nl/focus-en-groei/

Hearing image: http://taiwancpop.com/news/chugokugo.html

Hands-on image: https://www.fi.edu/hands-workshops

Multi-sensory (five senses) image: http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/2016/11/08/dr-natasha-kirkham-does-a-multi-sensory-approach-help-learning-in-the-classroom/