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Workshop 14 What is active and multisensory learning?

What is multi-sensory learning?

All of us learn through all our senses. Some of us learn better through one sense than another. Some pupils learn best through visual approaches; others through auditory approaches; yet others through a combination of the two.

For some pupils the written word is not an optional extra but an integral part of their learning process. Many pupils enjoy work which involves an active, physical response and learn well where such methods are employed. One of the advantages of using visual, audio and tactile materials to support textual ones is that the resulting mixture of styles means that teaching will be appropriate for a wider range of learners. It's not all that difficult, just look at what you're already doing, see what senses are already being used, see how the task could be extended to use at least one other sense too. Try to involve all the senses from time to time. Some examples:

Sight text, pictures, graphics

Sound listening to teacher and others, to recordings, videos; talking, shouting, whispering, singing, rhymes, story-telling, clapping rhythmically to indicate syllabic stress, etc.

Touch handling objects, making things, describing shapes, gesturing, using computer keyboard, etc.)

Taste sampling food and drink, 'savouring the language' (articulation? intonation)

Action manual and physical activity; games involving manipulating objects or moving about.

Why should we provide multi-sensory learning opportunities?

We need to accommodate different learning styles; not everyone learns best in the same way.

  • In the past, language too often just meant text, and increasingly learners are finding text difficult and de-motivating.
  • Research tells us that just telling someone something is not the most efficient way of getting them to learn it.
  • For learners with special needs, understanding of concepts depends on experience rather than on 'telling'.
  • Pictures provide a 'peg' to hang language on and as an aid to memory and recall.
  • Frequent change of activity prevents boredom, sustains interest.
  • Learners need lots of practice in manipulating the elements of the language (consolidation) before attempting to use the language to speak, listen, read or write.

Learners' need for consolidation

The most common reason for failure to progress in second language learning is lack of opportunity for consolidation. Insufficient familiarity with core material makes it impossible for a pupil to perform as desired and quickly results in lack of confidence, often leading to lack of motivation and behavioural problems. It is better to offer learners half a dozen two-minute activities which will allow them to consolidate what they have learned rather than one ten-minute activity which may not sustain their attention. The keys to success are: small steps, frequent repetition, and a wide variety of consolidation activities before productive use is expected.

Games are particularly useful in mixed ability classes since they are essentially repetitive in nature - thus aiding consolidation of language recently presented by the teacher. Their randomness and unpredictability help to maintain motivation and to sustain the interest of quicker pupils. However, it is important to ensure that all the generic language (rules, instructions etc.) is clearly understood and can be used by all pupils. Unless learners are confident of their ability to use the games-specific vocabulary they will be tempted to stop playing the game or to revert to using English.

Some pupils find face-to-face communication very difficult and do not like to be the centre of attention. Using games in language work helps to divert attention away from the individual to the materials being used and this can allow pupils to participate who would otherwise be too self- conscious to do so.

What materials can I use?

Almost anything that learners can handle can be used to engage and motivate them. Some examples:
Puppets can be bought or made inexpensively, and can be used with learners or all ages provided that their 'street cred' is respected: e.g. by asking them to make up plays and dialogues that can be used to teach younger learners. Puppets can:
- carry the fiction that they speak only the language that is being learned;
- be blamed for mistakes;
- provide a focus of attention which is appreciated by learners who are self-conscious and reluctant to speak, or those who find it difficult to make eye-contact.

Picture cards can be used:
- singly, in packs, in selected groupings, in sequences;
- incombination with other elements, such as dice, spinners, text to provide practice with simple or more complex linguistic structures;
- to stimulate various activities: speaking, listening, reading, writing, mime etc.;
- to provide work for individuals, groups or the whole class.

Photocopiable visuals can be used instead of (or to supplement) the cards, in any of the ways listed above. In addition, they can be:
- copied in whole sheets to serve as boards for games;
- copied, cut, and used in new combinations for games of the teacher's or pupils' devising;
- used to make a picture dictionary; this will both create a record work done and serve as a source of reference and revision;
- enlarged for use as flashcards, worksheets, aides-mémoire, wall displays, etc;
- copied onto acetate for use with the OHP;
- provide a bank of visual material that can be used to illustrate a wide range of textual products.

Dice and spinners and other 'randomisers' can be used:
- to add an element of unpredictability to tasks;
- on their own, individually, to prompt certain linguistic responses;
- in combination with one another, to prompt more complex structures;
- in conjunction with cards or photocopied visuals.

Stile Trays can be used in conjunction with sheets of 12 visuals:
- to encourage group or independent learning;
- to teach the skills of self-assessment;
- as a challenge, to see who complete the most quickly.

Language Master systems and cards can be customised to provide a source of practice and revision of all the core vocabulary for a unit of work. They can:
- provide a model of correct pronunciation and/or spelling;
- provide, on one card, pictorial, audio and textual support for learning;
- provide practice in listening, reading and speaking
- encourage independent learning and self assessment.

ICT And, of course, there are many other ways to make learning more active and multi-sensory using computers software that is rich in visual, auditory, animated, interactive and randomised approaches...



Research published recently by Wake Forest University School of Medicine suggests that the neurons in the brain that respond to sensory stimuli 'have the capacity to amplify their signals when confronted with stimuli from multiple senses'. a species, we remember 20 percent of what we hear and 30 per cent of what we see. Combine these senses and recall is dramatically increased to 70 per cent.


Gather a selction of everyday items representing a range of different textures, shapes, colours: rough, smooth, hard, soft, round, square, etc. Use your foreign language assistant to run small group workshops in which learners learn words to describe the objects.

A similar workshop can be used for exploring vocabulary like 'sweet', 'sour', 'salty' etc. along with phrases for likes and dislikes, expressing pleasure or disgust, etc.

Please see note on copyright

Download a copy of the text on this page
Active and multisensory approaches

Maximising the potential of multisensory materials
Using multisensory resources

How do I know they are getting it right?
Using games etc.

An example of an active learning task
Treasure hunt

Some thoughts on using multisensory support for learners who have
difficulty with concepts
Introducing new concepts

Thanks to Suzanne Milne of Angus Council for permission to make available her PowerPoint presentation on the subject of Active Learning.
Active learning (PowerPoint presentation)

An example of an active writing task suitable for mixed ability groups in the run-up to Christmas.

Can using video be taken as active learning?
Using video


[Links last checked 28.7.11 unless otherwise indicated]


Learning and Teaching Scotland

Teaching the target language through the lyrics of melodic music

Pupils learn Spanish by dancing

An intriguing scientific article on the effect of colour on ability to pay attention to detail:

Multisensory learning in inclusive classrooms
An article packed with useful ideas and further references

Strategies for Learning: Sensory Learning Styles
There are numerous resources that will help you identify your own or your pupils' own learning styles and preferences. Here is one example. Once gained, you can use the information to broaden the multisensory scope of the learning activities you offer.

Sound patterns
Exposure to the sound patterns of another language, even if it is initially meaningless, could hold the key to quickly picking up a foreign tongue, says a researcher.

Listening practice with vision and textual support
Videos in French from Quebec, with online activities and optional subtitles.

How music helps language learning

More about "the Mozart Effect"

Article: The sense of touch allows us to make a better connection between sight and hearing
With links to related articles.

Tools for generating your own active/interactive activities

Verbs and music
John Bald  and Joseph Biswell on an approach that combines music and brain research to provide a fun way to practice French verbs.

Using mind maps and brainstorming to explore ideas
From an interesting website for teachers in sub-Saharan Africa; ideas can be applied generally.

The power of multisensory learning
A short item about early language learning

The Quality Improvement Agency's definition of multi-sensory teaching

Researchers at the University of Michigan, investigating the effectiveness of pictured-based and word-based strategies for vocabulary learning, have concluded that the picture-based method leads to a better performance (except for cognate words). For the full report see: L2 Vocabulary Acquisition in Children: Effects of Learning Method and Cognate Status, Claudio Tonzar, Lorella Lotto, Remo Job. Language Learning, Volume 59, Issue 3, Pages 623 - 646. See the abstract here:

Some nicely illustrated vocabulary sheets available to download from the publisher of Collins Easy Learning Dictionaries.

About 30 new tunes were recently posted to "French through Songs and Singing / Chansons françaises et francophones en cours de FLE," a free educational resource for students and teachers of French. The site,, features streaming MP3s, annotated lyrics, articles and links. The recordings are primarily of traditional songs in the public domain, along with an occasional original.

Twenty movement activities and games for elementary classrooms
Ideas for physical activities that lend themselves well to language practice.

Multi-sensory learning and creativity
Report of a partnership project by two Edinburgh schools. Though it doesn't directly cover languages, its general points make interesting reading.

Learning languages through games
A games training module from CILT (primary)

Active learning strategies in classical languages
The strategies in this case study show innovative practice in Classical Languages with a focus on incorporating active learning in language learning.

The best language learning games (that are not online)
Teachers sharing ideas, ostensibly about learning English as a second language, but adaptable for other languages too.

[6.8.11] Online training materials for MFL teachers
CILT Cymru's training modules are based on short video clips that could be used in departmental meetings.
The first module is about using interactive starters and games to raise motivation and achievement.

[12.8.11] BBC Class Clips
Class Clips is the BBC’s archive of educational video and audio material for use in primary and secondary schools. There are currently more than 10,000 clips in the Class Clips archive, all searchable by level, subject, topic and keyword and all accompanied by notes from teachers on the content and how it could be used.

[4.9.11] Teaching methods for dyslexic children
With a focus on mutisensory approaches...

[13.12.11] Touch helps make the connection between sight and hearing
An article about recent research, from Science Daily.

[16.1.21] Learn language faster with gestures
An article from the New Statesman

[2.2.12] Multisensory approaches
An intoduction to multisensory techniques for use with dyslexic learners, but of wider relevance too.

[16.3.12] To learn a new language, you've got to move more than your mouth!
An article about research that underlines the importance of gesture in language learning.

[24.7.12] Pinterest – Multisensory learning
Lots of practical ideas, resources and links related to multisensory learning generally, and adaptable to language learning.

[16.6.12] Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
The principles of UDL focus on access to all aspects of learning. The US Centre for Applied Special technology (CAST) has produced detailed Guidelines on how to apply the principles of UDL to the practice of mainstream teaching.

[16.6.12] Getting started in French
First stages in language learning, using active approaches, from John Bald's blog.

[29.8.12] Sensory integration techniques for the special education classroom
Lots of ideas that could be adapted to the language class and some interesting links.

[15.10.12] Folk music and Languages
The Digital Children’s Folksongs for Language and Cultural Learning project is a European Union project designed to motivate young language learners through using Folk songs, and activities around the songs.

[31.3.31] Teaching tips – using games




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