With all the buzz about the science of reading, you have probably heard about the characteristics of effective phonics instruction. Most experts agree that phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic and that intervention for struggling students should be intensive. Some experts also suggest that it should be multisensory. Let’s unpack each of those characteristics.
- Explicit instruction includes clear explanations and demonstrations, scaffolded guided practice, and sufficient independent practice to ensure mastery. Explicit instruction is unambiguous and leaves nothing to chance.
- Systematic instruction is carefully sequenced to ensure that the student has the necessary prior knowledge and skills on which to build the new skill. This includes using a carefully planned scope and sequence that moves from easier to more complex skills.
- Intensive intervention includes many more practice opportunities than core instruction. This is usually accomplished by providing instruction in small groups or one-on-one and providing additional time for practice.
- Multisensory instruction uses multiple sensory pathways to enhance learning. This usually means that activities include visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (moving), and tactile (touching) elements. The idea behind a multisensory approach is that connections between the symbols the student sees, the sounds the student hears, and the movements the student feels are consistently reinforced.
Research to support the first three features of instruction is convincing, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious researcher that disagrees with using phonics instruction that is explicit and systematic or intervention that is intensive.
Multisensory instruction is the only one that seems to be controversial. This is due, at least in part, to disagreements about what is considered “multisensory.” Reading is innately multisensory, always involving visual and auditory processes—seeing letters, hearing sounds. However, when proponents of multisensory instruction use the term, they generally mean that tactile and kinesthetic methods should be used, as well.
Research About Multisensory Methods: Macro-Level and Micro-Level
The Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach is explicit, systematic, and intensive, but it also emphasizes multisensory techniques. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the OG approach has been around for nearly a century, no published research has isolated the multisensory aspect of the approach in a study.
In other words, there are studies that demonstrate positive effects for OG interventions, but as far as we know that could be entirely because they are explicit, systematic, and intensive. In fact, given that a recent meta-analysis (Stevens et al., 2021) found that OG approaches are no more effective than other methods of reading intervention, this could very well be the case.
That said, there is research that supports the use of some specific types of multisensory methods. Remembering that reading always involves visual and auditory senses, the distinctions lie in the kinesthetic/tactile elements, or the movement and touch involved in reading and writing words. The terms I came up with to help make this distinction are “macro-level” and “micro-level” movements.
[T]here is research that supports the use of some specific types of multisensory methods. Remembering that reading always involves visual and auditory senses, the distinctions lie in the kinesthetic/tactile elements, or the movement and touch involved in reading and writing words. The terms I came up with to help make this distinction are “macro-level” and “micro-level” movements.
Macro-level multisensory methods include large muscle movements. This kind of instruction may involve clapping or marching syllables, “skywriting” words in the air, tracing letters on sandpaper or in sand or shaving cream, or moving letter tiles.
Micro-level multisensory methods focus on the small muscle movements of the vocal tract. This instruction might include saying a sound, watching the mouth in a mirror, and attending to the placement of lips and tongue. Micro-level multisensory activities emphasize the articulatory gestures, or how the mouth looks and feels when producing specific sounds. This includes noticing the placement of the lips and tongue and whether the vocal folds are vibrating.
Micro-level multisensory methods have been found to promote phonemic awareness (Pieretti et al., 2015) and decoding skills (Boyer & Ehri, 2011; Castiglioni-Spalten & Ehri, 2003), while macro-level multisensory methods are thought to increase student engagement and promote letter knowledge (Birsh & Carreker, 2018).
Linnea Ehri (2014) explains why these micro-level movements may be helpful:
“It is common for teachers to direct students’ attention to the sounds that are heard in words. However, there is reason to believe that sounds processed by the ear are less central than articulatory gestures produced by mouth movements in saying words. According to the motor theory of speech perception (Liberman, 1999), articulatory gestures rather than acoustic features represent phonemes in the brain. Also, ease of processing favors gestures. Whereas sounds are ephemeral and disappear as soon as they are heard, mouth positions are tangible and can be felt, viewed in a mirror, and analyzed by learners.” (p. 10)
So, if a phoneme is represented in the brain by its articulatory gestures, having “phonemic awareness” would mean being aware of those movements. The motor theory of speech perception would then seem to provide theoretical support for the use of micro-level instructional methods. In addition to using the natural senses involved in reading—seeing and hearing—this view suggests that attention to the place and manner of articulation is potentially worthwhile (Roberts, 2005).
Several studies have explored micro-level multisensory methods. Some programs, such as Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing (LiPS), incorporate attention to articulatory gestures as an integral part of intervention, and studies of these programs show positive effects (e.g., Torgesen et al., 1999; Truch, 1994).
Some studies have actually isolated this variable (e.g., Boyer & Ehri, 2011; Castiglioni-Spalten & Ehri, 2003), comparing instruction with and without attention to articulatory gestures, and the results of these studies are compelling.
What Does This Mean for Classroom Practice?
As a result of well-intentioned advocacy efforts, multisensory methods have been mandated in numerous locales. Typically, these mandates are instituted without any accompanying professional development for teachers.
So, sandpaper letters, skywriting, clapping, and hopping have become a common sight during reading lessons. I’ve even heard silly suggestions for incorporating other senses, such as smell (writing with scented markers) or taste (spelling words with alphabet cereal), and calling it “multisensory” instruction. To be clear, there is no evidence that such methods make any difference at all!
Until researchers isolate macro-level methods as a variable and demonstrate them to be effective, mandating the use of this approach seems misguided.
In contrast, there is enough evidence that micro-level methods support literacy development to suggest that using them during reading instruction is probably a good idea. The main take-away from all of this, however, is that more research is needed on the role of and need for multisensory methods of reading instruction.
Birsh, J. R., & Carreker, S. (Eds.) (2018). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Boyer, N., & Ehri, L. C. (2011). Contribution of phonemic segmentation instruction with letters and articulation pictures to word reading and spelling in beginners. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15(5), 440-470.
Castiglioni-Spalten, M. L., & Ehri, L. C. (2003). Phonemic awareness instruction: Contribution of articulatory segmentation to novice beginners’ reading and spelling. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(1), 25-52.
Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5-21.
Liberman, A. M. (1999). The reading researcher and the reading teacher need the right theory of speech. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(2), 95–111.
Pieretti, R. A., Kaul, S. D., Zarchy, R. M., & O’Hanlon, L. M. (2015). Using a multimodal approach to facilitate articulation, phonemic awareness, and literacy in young children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 36(3), 131-141.
Roberts, T. A. (2005). Articulation accuracy and vocabulary size contributions to phonemic awareness and word reading in English Language learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 601.
Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 87(4), 397-417.
Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, T., & Garvan, C. (1999). Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: Group and individual responses to instruction. Journal of Educational psychology, 91(4), 579.
Truch, S. (1994). Stimulating basic reading processes using Auditory Discrimination in Depth. Annals of Dyslexia, 44(1), 60-80.