Using our Brains:

Sarah Lynn

“Our senses are designed to work together, so when they are combined . . . the brain pays more attention and encodes the memory more robustly.”

                                                                                            ~ Medina 2014
Multimodal Learning

Study after study show that memory improves when more than one sense is stimulated at the same time. The early pioneer in multimodal learning, Edgar Dale found that people learn better from pictures and words than from words alone. In more recent years, Richard Mayer has established that learners who receive input in a variety of senses have better recall than learners who receive input that is only visual or auditory. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%. (Medina 2014)  Furthermore, people who receive information via multiple modalities are more creative in their problem solving by 50% to 75% (Newell, Bulthoff, Ernst 2003).

The ultimate expression of simultaneous and multimodal learning is learning by doing.  When we learn by seeing and hearing, we remember 50% fourteen days later.  But we remember 90% if we actually experience it.  (Dale 1969)   This means that simulations, such as role plays, are very effective in helping students remember the new language they learned.

All the Senses and All the Brain

Language, the subject of our teaching, is quite a brain-stimulating subject. Language activates many parts of the brain. In fact, different lobes of your brain specialize in processing different aspects of language. (Zadina 2014). You process sound in a different location than you process visual information or motor information, so hearing the word cat, seeing the word cat, seeing a photograph of a cat, and saying the word cat all stimulate different parts of your brain. If you engage all these different senses you are more likely to remember the meaning of cat because you have an enriched experience of the concept of cat and you have more pathways to that concept.

Using Expressive Pathways

“Very simply, saying a word aloud leads to better memory than does reading a word silently.”

                                                                   ~ Colin MacLeod (2012)

Within the four language skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, there is also a hierarchy of impact on memory. Reading and listening are receptive pathways. Speaking and writing are expressive pathways. When we reread material aloud (using an expressive pathway) our memory of that information is stronger than if we read it silently (using our receptive pathway). This is called the “production effect”  (MacLeod 2013).  While we cannot always prompt learning experiences that integrate all the senses, we should remember to give our students many opportunities to use their expressway pathways in class. Invite them to speak, enunciate, discuss, print, write, type, and draw as much as possible.

Using Multiple Senses to Stay Stimulated 

“Our sensory receptors become aroused when a new
stimulus begins, but if the new stimulus continues without
variation in quality or quantity, our sensory receptors shut
down from their aroused state.”

                                                                              ~Pierce J. Howard  (2000)

In his popular book, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain Howard points out that our brains need variety. We need to add novelty and variation for our neurons to fire until they wire.

Using multiple modalities is a way to add stimulation to student learning. For example: if you have introduced words in print on the board, introduce them again in typeface on a computer screen, or have students practice “skywriting” the words with their fingers in the air, or have students type the words and “dress” them with the computer tools of font, color, and WordArt to express the word in graphic text. Have students listen carefully for the beginning or end sound of each word. Use gesture to demonstrate stress and rhythm. Introduce the words again with pictures from Google images or have students draw their own illustrations, or have students use their cell phones to photograph an example of the word.

Classroom Applications

Multisensory Checklist
Complete a checklist at random intervals to evaluate how much of the visual medium you use in class. If you haven’t check an item off in a while, figure a way to integrate into your next class.  (See The Multisensory Checklist for Teaching Language: )

Dramatic Dialogues

  • Make sure your students get multiple exposures to a dialogue from a variety of media: audio print, video.
  • Give students multiple opportunities to practice the dialogues in a variety of dispositions: sitting, standing, with propos, whispering, shouting, with gestures.
  • Make sure students use the new language they learned in a role play. You can add layers to their sensory learning by videotaping their role plays and sending them to the students to watch and transcribe short sections.

Multisensory Spelling Practice

  • Sound: Students repeat a word and consider its number of syllables and syllable stress.
  • Print: Students look at the printed word and consider how the letters and the sounds correspond. Are there letters that are silent? Are there sounds that have no corresponding letters?
  • Movement: Students “write” the word on their desktops with their index finger.

Silent Read and Repeat 
This silent step allows students to focus on the mechanical aspects of pronunciation: the movements of lips, jaw, cheeks, and tongue.

  • Read a line aloud to the class.
  • Have students read it by mouthing the words (saying them with no voice).
  • Have students then read the line aloud.

[Thanks to Marc Helgesen for this great idea! ]

Additional links to multi-sensory teaching ideas: