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Using a Multisensory Approach to Help Struggling Adult Learners

Using a Multisensory Approach to Help Struggling Adult Learners

by Gladys Geertz
I have been a teacher for about 25 years. When I taught elementary school, it seemed that most kids learned to read almost by osmosis. Even the students of some truly lackadaisical teachers usually learned to read. But what about the children who didn't? I spent many hours working on ways to help these special children, sometimes finding a technique that helped, other times passing a child on to the next grade in hope that another teacher would find the key. What happened to these kids? They are the adults I work with every day at the Anchorage Literacy Project (ALP) in Anchorage, AK. Because no one ever found the answer, eventually many of them became frustrated and dropped out of school. Some of them graduated, but they still could not read.

About eight years ago, I observed the Slingerland technique being used with children in Slingerland classrooms in the Anchorage schools, and with adults at ALP. The Slingerland technique uses multisensory teaching techniques from Orton-Gillingham that were adapted for the classroom by Beth Slingerland (Slingerland, 1996). Orton-Gillingham developed their teaching techniques working one-on-one with dyslexic children and those with specific language disabilities. A colleague and I developed a program that uses these techniques in classroom settings with adult, low-level reading students. What differentiates our method from the Slingerland method is that we move through a lesson more quickly, teaching more concepts in a day than would be taught in an elementary school class. 

Our Program

The ALP multisensory classes consist mostly of students who have gone through the school system in the United States. Some are dropouts; others are high school graduates. They range in age from 18 to 75 years. Our classes are limited to 15 students, but some classes have only four or five. All of our teachers are trained in the Slingerland method, and as of this writing, we have three instructors in the multisensory program who teach a total of nine multisensory classes. Two are spelling classes, three are a combination of reading and spelling, and four are reading classes at various levels, ranging from first to approximately 10th grade level. Each class meets three days a week for an hour and a half per class. Our quarter lasts 10 weeks.

Our classes are not open entry. We continue to accept new students for the first two weeks, but then we close the classes because it is too difficult for new students to catch up. The class atmosphere is casual, but the instructor is in charge. We have found that most adults relish humor and the feeling of camaraderie. Each group tends to become close-knit, and we foster group development.

We have expanded and modified the Slingerland techniques for use with adults with and without language disabilities. The modifications are minor; for example, we do not use tracing procedures (going over the same letter many times) as much with our students. Since our students are adults, and many of them are familiar with the letters, we require them to trace a letter three times, instead of the 10 or 20 that may be required in elementary school. We also proceed more quickly to paper and pencil tasks, rather than spending a lot of time using the pocket chart or board. We also introduce three or four letters during each class session; an elementary teacher may only introduce one or two letters a day. At the beginning of our basic classes, we discuss our teaching procedures with the students, explaining that because they have missed some of the educational experiences necessary for learning, we are starting over.

A Success-Oriented Program

The multisensory approach is a success-oriented program. We only expect students to know what they have been taught. We provide instruction, guide the students through a successful learning experience, and then reinforce this successful learning experience. We make sure that all students leave the classroom feeling that they have experienced success. 

We begin with a single unit of sight, sound, or thought, and then proceed to the complex combinations of these units. We start with sight and sound association, following the same routine day after day, and adding a few consonant letters and then, slowly, the vowels. We usually begin with the short /i/ vowel sound, and the consonant sounds of /n/, /t/, and /p/, using the sequence in Angling For Words by Carolyn G. Bowen (1983). (Teachers could conceivably introduce letters in any sequence, but it is practical to start with high-frequency letters and those that correspond to a selected text.) We spell and read words from these letters, and then we move on. The time involved in teaching the letter sounds depends on the needs of the particular group of students. 

Once the sounds are learned, students move on to the more complex tasks of reading and spelling words, putting these words into sentences, and then mastering paragraphs. With these basic skills, students are able to handle more complex reading and writing material.

A Sample Multisensory Lesson

How does a typical multisensory lesson unfold? People tend to learn through different or unique stimuli. Some of us learn better visually, some auditorily, and others kinesthetically. I have found that most people probably learn best by using two of these modalities. The multisensory technique makes use of all these modalities and combines them into one simultaneous procedure. It requires learners to see, hear, speak, and do at the same time. We follow a set pattern of seven steps in every lesson. This strict adherence to structure provides a consistent, expectable routine that frees students to concentrate on learning.

From the first day of class, we begin class with oral language skills, because the spoken word is much more comfortable than the written word to a low-level reader. First, we, the teacher and the learners, talk, using complete sentences. We encourage each student to participate. Some oral language questions concern the students personally: "How long does it take you to get to class?" "How do you get to class?" "What is your favorite restaurant and why?" "What is your favorite holiday and why?" "How will this class help you?" "If someone gave you a thousand dollars, how would you spend it?" 

In the second segment of the lesson, we introduce the sound - symbol relationship. We introduce a letter while writing it in the air: kinesthetic movement. If the students need instruction in writing the letter, we also do the writing procedure. Most early readers print; therefore, we teach them cursive writing. The left to right directionality of cursive makes it easier to write neatly, helps fluency, increases speed in writing, and gives our students the skill that most adults have: writing in cursive, which we expect our students to do also.

In the writing procedure, we write the letter on the board, using three lines - a head line; a belt, or middle, line; and a foot line - while communicating to the students exactly how the letter is made and that some letters are tall and go to the head line, some fall below the foot line, and some are crossed or dotted. We then make the letter in the air, while explaining exactly how it to make it. Next, the students make the letter in the air, very large, using their pointers and index fingers as their writing tools. 

Typical Lesson Plan 

  • Using oral language skills
  • Learning a sound-symbol relationship, and using cards to review the sound-symbol relationship
  • Decoding
  • Vocabulary enrichment
  • Phrase reading
  • Structured reading
  • Story reading using comprehension skills

After making the letter in the air, each student receives a 12 X 18 inch sheet of newsprint, which has been folded to create lines. We write a cursive letter in crayon on this newsprint. Now the students can trace the letter with their fingers, "feeling" it and saying it. We trace the letter at least three times with our fingers, three times with the blunt end of a pencil from which the eraser has been removed, and three times with the pencil point. Learners then move on to the next box on the paper, tracing with no crayon letter as a guide, using their fingers, then the blunt end of the pencil, and then the pencil point. Then on to the next box using the same procedure. This is the Slingerland technique used for teaching writing. It involves seeing, saying, feeling, and doing simultaneously. We repeat it every day for every lesson.

After saying the name of the letter and writing the letter in the air, we show the class a picture of a key word beginning with that letter, such as turtle for /t/. Next, the sound of /t/ is made as it is heard in the key word turtle. After the instructor demonstrates the procedure, the class follows the procedure as a group, then each student does it. "Write the letter in the air, say the keyword, say the sound of the letter." They have felt the letter, spoken the letter, heard the name of the letter and letter sound, and said the letter sound.

After we have introduced the sound-symbol relationship for a specific number of letters, we review this sound-symbol relationship by displaying flash cards of the letters. This is a review with emphasis on both enabling the learners to feel success and allowing the teacher to ascertain whether everyone has learned the relationship. The students write the letter in the air, speak the name of the letter, hear the name of the letter and the sound of the letter, and then say the sound of the letter. Every lesson has a review of letters using this sound-symbol relationship.

The third lesson segment involves the decoding of words. We decode, or sound out, a list of words every day. We develop these lists by using words that incorporate the sounds taught in the second segment of the lesson. We do not include words that contain sounds that we have not taught. So, for example, if we have only taught the sounds for short /i/, consonants /t/, /n/, /p/, then we can spell or decode only words containing those sounds, such as tip, nip, nit, it, tin, pin. To encourage students to sound out words rather than memorize or sight read them, we often use nonsense words such as "nin," or  "ip." The more vowel and consonant sounds the students learn, the more words we can use. We begin with one-syllable words, progress to two syllables, three syllables, and so forth. We usually decode 20 to 25 words in a lesson, of which one-third are nonsense. To decode a word, the student underlines the vowels, divides the word into syllables, shows what each vowel "says" by writing above each vowel a diacritical mark, pronounces the word, and then defines it. We teach this entire procedure, one step at a time, with each step modeled by the teacher.

The fourth segment, after we decode several words, is learning vocabulary.  From conversing with our students, and from answering their questions about words, we know that many of them have limited vocabulary skills. When introducing a story, we teach the definitions of new words and the learners put them into sentences. One of the reading series that we use with low-level readers is Early Reading Comprehension in Varied Subject Matter (Ervin, 1999), which has four levels. Written for the older elementary school child, the series seems to be successful with adults. New vocabulary in this story includes "shrubs," "snug," and  "den." We also use the Kim Marshall (1999) series for readers above the fourth grade level, which is targeted for adults. Newspapers or Reader's Digest are other sources of informational stories. Our students tend to find nonfiction more interesting than fiction.

The fifth lesson segment is phrase reading, or reading by ideas. We put five to eight phrases on a chart, read a phrase, and the students repeat it. All phrases are read once with the teacher modeling and the students repeating. After that, the students and instructor discuss any new vocabulary, hyphenated words, or grammar. Then a student approaches the chart at the front of the classroom. We say a phrase, the student underlines the phrase with a yard stick, reads it aloud, and the other students repeat the phrase. All the phrases on the chart are read a second time using this procedure. Then a different student comes to the chart and we pose questions formatted as "Find the phrase that . ." The student finds the phrase that answers the question, underlines it, and reads it aloud. The other students read the phrase aloud. We do all the phrases in the same way. A fourth student comes to the chart. That student begins at the bottom phrase, reads it, and the other students repeat it. The student at the chart reads from the bottom to the top of the chart, focusing on comprehension. During this phase, we build comprehension skills, lengthen eye-span, make functional use of word attack skills, make predictions, and build cognitive skills.

Procedure for 
Phrase Reading

The teacher puts the following on a chart:

a very lazy cat
in the shrubs
cold and snowy
He would moan
and eat them

The teacher might ask the learners to:

"Find the phrase that tells where"
"Find the phrase that has a word that means the opposite of warm"
"Find the phrase that begins with an article"
"Find the phrase that is the beginning of a sentence"
"Find the phrase that begins with a conjunction"

Taken from Early Reading Comprehension, Book A, "The Lazy Cat" Paragraph 1, by J. Ervin.

The sixth segment, after phrase reading, is structured reading. The first paragraph of the story is read aloud using structured reading: a student reads a certain number of words (a phrase) specified by the teacher. The phrase may answer a where, what, why, how, or when question. We say to one student: "Read the first three words that tell why." The student reads the first three words. We ask another student to: "Read the next four words that tell who." The student reads the next four words. We choose another student: "Read the next two words that tell where." The student reads the next two words. This phrase reading is done throughout the first sentence. When the first sentence is finished, we pick a student to read the entire sentence using phrasing. The objective is to get students to read by ideas or thoughts, not by words.

Each sentence is read in sequence using the same method. Eventually, the first paragraph - and only that paragraph - is read using phrase reading designed by the teacher. 

Structured Reading

Students read directly from the book using the phrases the instructor indicates to them:

Toby was a wild cat who lived in a city park. He was a very lazy cat. He also liked to eat. Even when it was cold and snowy, he knew how to get his meals without ever leaving where he slept. He would stay in his snug den in the shrubs.

Instructor says: Read the first five words that tell who.
Student 1 says: Toby was a wild cat
Instructor says: Read the next two words telling what.
Student 2 says: who lived.
Instructor says: Read the next four words that tell where.
Student 3 says: in a city park.
Instructor says: Read the complete sentence using that same phrasing.
Student 4 says: Toby was a wild cat (pause) who lived (pause) in the city park.
Instructor says: Read the next two words that tell you what.
The procedure continues until the end of the paragraph. To conclude, a student reads the entire paragraph using good phrasing.

Taken from Early Reading Comprehension, Book A, "The Lazy Cat" Paragraph 1, by J. Ervin.

In lesson segment seven, each student gets a turn to read orally. Each student reads aloud a different paragraph in the story. This enables us to hear the learners' decoding, expression, and fluency. We discuss every paragraph, always pressing for good comprehension. After answering some specific questions about the last one or two paragraphs, the learners read them silently. Then the class discusses the last two paragraphs and someone reads them aloud.


Finding appropriate reading materials for adult students reading at a low level is extremely difficult. Several publishers print books at a fourth-grade reading level and above; materials for adults reading at lower reading levels lower are scarce. Another major challenge is time. Every day we struggle to include all seven steps in our 90-minute class. We may modify the lesson by making steps shorter, decoding fewer words, or reading half the story and assigning the rest for homework, but we do not continue the lesson the next day. Repetition of the seven-step sequence provides useful structure, freeing learners to focus on content rather than methodology. 


Since I have started using this multisensory approach, I have witnessed success. During the winter and spring 2000 instructional sessions, for example, our learners improved their skills in word reading and word attach at a statistically significant level as measured by the WRAT3 (word reading) and the Woodcock Johnson-Revised (word attack) tests. But more than statistics, the successes come from the students. They are now willing to pick up a newspaper and they can laugh and joke about their reading, because they have experienced some success. They tell us that the structure and continuity of the instruction as well as the interactive teaching methods were particularly helpful. They have discovered that they are not the only people in the world with reading difficulties and know that, with time and diligence, they can achieve their educational goals.


Bowen, C. (1983). Angling For Words. Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications.

Ervin, J. (1999). Early Reading Comprehension in Varied Subject Matter. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.

Marshall, K. (1999). The Kim Marshall Series, Reading Book 1. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.

Slingerland, Beth H. (1996) A Multi-Sensory Approach To Language Arts for Specific Language Disability Children Books 1, 2, 3. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.

About the Author 

Gladys G. Geertz has her master's degree in Learning Disabilities and is certified as a Slingerland instructor. As multisensory coordinator for the Anchorage Literacy Project, she teaches four reading/writing multisensory classes, serves as demonstration teacher for the Star School's Adult Literacy Program, and is a teacher trainer of multisensory techniques.