Summary and reflections
Susan L. Jones, M.Ed. 1/01
can't tell you how often a child suddenly became much
"brighter," with improved memory and understanding,
when multisensory strategies were used.
Reading seems to come naturally for some children; many teaching
philosophies and curricula are based on that premise. For
some students, however, reading isn't a skill that develops
as a byproduct of normal interactions. Unfortunatey for these
children, reading is a critical path for both knowledge and
language development, especially in traditional school settings.
Getting behind in reading means getting behind in learning
at all levels.
The good news is: humans can learn things that don't come
naturally to them, and learn them well. Ask any swimming coach!
One group of reading instruction programs with a well proven
track record is known as "Multi-Sensory Structured Language"
programs, or MSSL.
What does "multisensory structured language program"
These are derived from the work of Samuel Orton and Anna
Gillingham; the term "Orton-Gillingham" is often
used to describe either the original program , or programs
based on the same principles. The International Multisensory
Structured Language Education Council
(IMSLEC) evaluates programs to determine whether they
meet their rigorous criteria; and there are many other programs
which are based to varying degrees on Orton-Gillingham methods.
(Just how influential was Dr. Orton? The International
Dyslexia Association was formerly named the Orton Dyslexia
Multisensory structured language programs are not particularly
simple, because neither the English language nor the students
the programs are designed for are simple. Training and experience
are invaluable for learning the logical, if complex, structure
of the English language as well as for the diagnostic and
prescriptive teaching that make these programs work. Thus,
the purpose of this article is not to enable the reader to
begin using a multisensory structured language program with
a child or children, but to provide you with an overview and
sources for further information, and perhaps some insights
to help you make any teaching more effective.
"Multisensory," in MSSL programs, is not a casual
reference to including things to see, hear and touch. It means
that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile learning pathways
are integrated, in every lesson, thorughout the program. This
is in contrast to methods that include multisensory strategies
at some, even most, but not all stages of learning.
Some of these "multisensory strategies" look like
traditional teaching, such as dictating a phrase and having
a student repeat it, write it, and then read it back. Some
modifications include having the student write with the index
finger on sandpaper or in plastic bags with hair gel, to enhance
the "feel" of the writing. Others are more novel,
such as having the student close her eyes while you "write"
a spelling word on her back with your finger and have her
visualize the letters and tell you the word.
I can't tell you how often a child suddenly became much "brighter,"
with improved memory and understanding, when multisensory
strategies were used. Again, training and experience are invaluable
in developing a "bag of tricks" for different students
MSSL programs are designed to be done intensively
and frequently. They aren't "quick fixes."
New Community School, every student had a full class period
- 47 minutes - 5 days/week in tutorial sessions or very small
groups. For some students this intensity is far more important
than the specific techniques used for teaching. The instruction
is direct, with a great deal of student-teacher interaction.
Instead of telling the students five things and asking whether
they understand, each step is demonstrated and then practiced
by the student. It takes energy for both teacher and student.
The other component of the direct instruction aspect is that
you don't assume the learner will fill in gaps along the way.
You make sure the student knows even words such as "the"
Isn't Direct Instruction "Drill and Kill?"
Direct instruction conjures up pictures in some minds of
children parroting back rote answers with ritualistic motions,
and a "learning environment" devoid of any spark
of creativity. While it certainly would be possible to reduce
instruction to this, it is not hard to avoid, especially when
teaching just one or two students.
Learning the structure and routine free the student to focus
on the skill, and keep the student actively and intensely
engaged in learning. It's next to impossible to tune out of
a MSSL lesson.
Multisensory structured language programs are structured,
systematic, and cumulative. Multisensory structured language
programs teach reading in a prescribed sequence, as opposed
to teaching phonics "as it comes up." Different
multisensory structured language programs have slightly different
sequences or emphases, and some leave more instructional details
to the teacher than others. All of them are cumulative. There
is extensive review and additional direct instruction in applying
and generalizing concepts and skills, which is often especially
challenging for students with learning difficulties.
Teaching it "as it comes up" may be fine (though
that's debatable, too) for the student who intuits the patterns
of the language. The things that "come up" tend
to be the exceptions (especially since the most common words
are far more likely to be exceptions). When you understand
the basic rules and how things are organized, then it's fairly
easy to incorporate the "exceptions that prove the rule."
However, the student who has *not* grasped the general predictability
of the language is confronted with the less predictable aspects
of the language before having a structure in which to organize
and understand the foundations (much less the exceptions),
and tends to reach the inappropriate conclusion that the whole
language is a chaotic mess. Humans retain much, much more
information and can use it much, much better if it is organized.
Which is easier to remember, 123456789 or 841976323?
What do multisensory structured language programs teach?
While multisensory structured language programs vary a bit
in what they emphasize, they have many elements in common.
multisensory structured language programs directly teach phonological
awareness and "sound symbol association." These
are technical terms for how the phonics of reading is learned.
Many phonics programs assume that the learner can already
listen for the sounds in words and tell you, for example,
what "mad" would sound like without the "m"
at the beginning. Many learners either do have this skill
already, or pick up this skill from phonics programs, but
some need to be taught the phonemic awareness skills explicitly
and directly. Then the student learns which letters and letter
combinations stand for which of those speech sounds, or "sound-symbol
association." Reading and spelling are intertwined, though
spelling skills almost invariably develop much more slowly
than reading skills.
When the student knows the individual symbols and the sounds
they represent, they learn the predictable syllable patterns.
Instead of having to generalize directly from letter sounds
to the myriad possibilities in different words, multisensory
structured language programs teach that there are different
kinds of syllables. If you've ever struggled with spelling
broccoli, you'll appreciate the differences between closed
syllables (end with a consonant and have a short vowel sound,
such as the broc part of broccoli) and open syllables (end
in a vowel and have a long sound -- the co syllable).
At the point when many reading programs stop direct instruction,
multisensory structured language programs continue in teaching
base words, roots, and affixes, as well as grammar and mechanics
and comprehension. The structure, consistency and cumulative
nature of the program extends throughout all of these elements.
What can you apply to any teaching?
(or, what did I learn teaching multisensory structured language?)
One of the first things I learned when working with students
who struggled with reading was that it helped immensely to
consider "language" of any kind as a "second
language." If you were trying to teach a non-English
speaking child, you would use pictures, you'd speak a bit
more slowly. You'd have the child respond often to nurture
and develop those language skills, and to make sure you hadn't
left them behind. You wouldn't de-emphasize the importance
of learning the language, but you would do what is necessary
to teach it more effectively, and you wouldn't let the challenge
of the language be a barrier to learning other things.
Remember that many of these students do not "think in
words," so each day there may be literally hours of verbal
"practice" that a naturally verbal child would engage
in, but a "picture thinker" does not. This is one
of several reasons why the intensity and frequency of teaching
can matter much more than exactly which method or materials
Is all this review and repetition really necessary for
a bright child??
Some kids just need to be shown a reading skill a few times,
practice it a few times, and it's somehow locked into the
hard wiring. Other kids need a *lot* more practice.
I had underestimated the benefit of frequent review and
drill. For kids for whom language comes naturally, so
much of what they're asked to do *is* review.
It took several years of experience, watching the progress
of lots of kids, for me to realize just how deeply I had underestimated
the benefit of frequent review and drill. For kids for whom
language comes naturally, so much of what they're asked to
do *is* easy review. When a spelling list comes out, they
know more than half the words already, so they're getting
review for those words. Your struggling student, on the other
hand, never gets that review. It's so easy to want to finish
the unit that we don't make time for review, and we don't
take the time for mastery. We "expose" the kid to
the knowledge, have him show he understands and can do it
right then, and move on. However, if you were talked through
landing an airplane, would you expect to be able to hop on
one and do it again six months later?
We tend to attribute the lack of progress or forgetting old
material to the kid's obvious difficulties with language,
when in fact it's our difficulty in slowing down and building
in practice that is the biggest problem. multisensory structured
language programs have cumulative review and practice built
into every lesson, and it behooves the teacher to take the
extra time to do this thoroughly. In my teaching, there were
entire days spent on nothing but review. This is especially
critical for your "big picture" student - your "right-brainer,"
your "visual-spatial" kiddo. When you're reviewing
material, you can give that important overview, showing how
things are organized, that these kids require to be able to
remember and retain the details. Without it, these programs
can be very frustrating for the "whole-to-part"
Another reason review and drill get short shrift is that
in the beginning, when you're developing your routine, there
may be no skills at the "drill" level. They haven't
been learned yet. It's easy to confuse "review"
with "drill" and only do one of them. The "Drill"
part of my lesson takes about two minutes, and is a quick
roll through a flashcard deck or two of anything from the
past, or a question about a spelling pattern with a few quick
examples. If the answers don't come easily, it isn't drill.
When my students complained about drill, it was generally
because it wasn't really learned well enough (read: I hadn't
taught it thoroughly enough and built in enough practice)
to be called "drill." They were still having to
think through the skill. It often takes a "reality check"
experience, when you realize that a skill you thought had
been mastered had been left by the wayside, to alert you that
review and drill are not something you do when you realize
you've forgotten something, but what you do so you don't forget
it. Almost universally, true drill was not boring for the
student, but rather a quick celebration of mastery, for a
student who otherwise didn't often get a chance to do that.
It is far, far, more tedious for teacher than student. If
you are constitutionally unable or unwilling to do the repetition
and drill, find a tutor (computer programs can help too) who
can, and try it for several months before you decide it isn't
worth the effort.