Susie Nyman reveals how a multi-sensory approach can help dyslexic students with their learning
The secret of any student’s success lies in finding the thing that makes them “tick”. Students should be given the opportunity to shine in their areas of strength; focussing on what really works for them will help promote confidence and enable them to flourish in the future. Consequently, it is essential to identify the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, and to focus on their strengths when developing strategies to help them overcome their weaknesses.
Many students with dyslexia will be low in confidence and self-esteem, and experience difficulties in class, because of a range of difficulties including visual processing, auditory processing, working memory, processing speed and phonological awareness. Every student is unique though, and strategies and interventions need to be developed to meet their individual needs.
This article draws on my experience working with my own health and social care classes as well as on a one-to-one basis with students in a curriculum support department on science lessons. Most of the students involved had been described as “struggling” by their teachers, and the majority have dyslexia.
Many dyslexic students have difficultly copying notes from the board or textbook and often mix up their spelling, particularly when difficult terminology is involved. During a biology lesson, a very able student would mix up the spelling of “meiosis” and “mitosis” in her notes and strategies had to be developed in order to help her remember the difference. Simple word association, using words that sound similar to the word she was trying to remember, worked well for her: “meiosis occurs in my ovaries and mitosis occurs in my toes”. Attaching images to the words also strengthens the associations, making remembering them easier.
Dyslexic students experiencing auditory processing difficulties will often feel completely overloaded by the teacher’s instructions in class, unless they are broken down into bite-sized chunks and the new terminology is explained very slowly and carefully.
Within the first minute of a lesson, if the student does not understand the task instructions, they will easily forget what they are required to do, lose focus, switch off, become discombobulated and start to be distracted. During a chemistry lesson, a student had difficulty understanding the names of the first 20 elements. He was struggling, in particular, with hearing the word “Beryllium”. As it was unfamiliar to him, he was unable to repeat the name. Consequently, the names of the elements were broken down into different syllables and colour coded using post-it notes. He was then able to see how the different components of the word were made up, say it out loud and eventually spell it.
Another boy was unable to hear the difference between “ureter” and “urethra”. He remembered that the ureter goes from the kidney to the bladder and the urethra goes from the bladder through to the outside of the body. Once more, he had to colour code the separate syllables within each word in order to see and hear the difference.
Working memory can cause difficulties for many dyslexic students in the classroom. Just being asked to read a passage by a teacher during a lesson can become a major obstacle for students. For a dyslexic student, imagine looking at a book in which all the words often appear to be blurred and moving or dancing around the page. In addition, the student may swap letters in words or even jump over words. This can cause difficulty when reading a comprehension passage. Often, a student might read the passage and have no idea exactly what they have read, as they are unable to create any concept imagery and visualise what they have just read. For these students multi-sensory teaching is extremely useful, because students do not have to hold on to large chunks of information at any one time. These techniques, using the five senses, may improve the neuroplasticity of the brain which helps with learning and memory (Nyman, 2019). Most students can remember five to seven pieces of information at a time, whereas dyslexic students struggle with retaining three (Nyman, 2019; Eastap and Gregory, 2018).
Multi-sensory teaching is a bit like layers of an onion. If you build up a concept in different ways (onion layers), dyslexic students are better able to understand the idea and terminology. This could initially, for example, involve explaining the language using different coloured pens with images or stories, through to post-it notes, models, mind maps and diagrams. These techniques may improve the neuro-plasticity of the brain which helps with learning and memory.
In order to relax the students, particularly at the start of a new lesson or topic (for example the heart), key words associated with the heart can be chanted to the tune of a popular song. This could be followed by making models of the heart out of modelling clay on white boards, labelling them with board markers and using small red and blue sweets to show blood flow. Finally, you could play a popular quiz show game to check and reinforce knowledge.
To help with examinations, past exam questions can be photocopied and laminated to A3 size so that the students see them as they enter the room. They can then practise their answers as they start each lesson. These types of learning support can help students’ confidence to grow, while developing learning skills.
Many students with dyslexia have difficulty with phonological awareness – recognising and working with the parts of spoken language. Often, poor phonological decoding and poor phonological awareness are correlated with poor spelling ability in students with dyslexia. For these students, it is important to break words down into their component parts.
Rhyming words and other verbal clues can also be used to aid recall. For example, which organ produces bile, regenerates itself, starts with “L” and rhymes with quiver? The answer is, of course, the liver.
I have used examples from science lessons here, but these types of multi-sensory activities and learning aids can be used across the curriculum. The ways in which different students with dyslexia access learning will be unique to each person, so it’s important to try to find out what sort of difficulties the individual experiences.
A multi-sensory approach deploying a wide range of activities can be valuable to many, if not all students; to those with dyslexia, it is essential. While the expertise and knowledge of the teacher are clearly very important, sometimes it is the out-of-the-box, multi-sensory ideas that can help them to make the breakthrough with individual pupils, and especially those with dyslexia.
- Eastap, L. and Gregory, J. (Ed’s) (2018) Dyslexia Friendly Schools Good Practice Guide 2nd Edition, British Dyslexia Association.
- Nyman, S. (2019) The Multi-Sensory Teaching Toolkit. Chichester: Oaka Books.
About the author
Dr Susie Nyman is Curriculum Manager for Health and Social Care at The Sixth Form College, Farnborough. She also teaches in curriculum support at The Oratory School. She presents at conferences internationally on multi-sensory teaching and is the author of The Multi-Sensory Teaching Toolkit.