Making learning last: Multisensory approaches

You may be asking why a whole post is devoted to the subject of multi-sensory learning when the other posts in this series have included two or three factors that influence memory. The answer is because multi-sensory learning really implies experiential learning, which accounts for much of what we learn explicitly.  At this point we should take a closer look at ‘explicit’ memory and the other types of memory that together make up the thing called ‘memory’.

Types of memory

The table below shows that long-term memory is divided into two sub-sets: declarative memory, that is to say the memory of facts and events and procedural memory, which is the memory of skills and how to do things. We use procedural memory when doing things like driving a car or tying our shoe laces, activities which we perform more or less as a reflex without any conscious recall of how they are done. It is said that the grammar system of our first language is part of our procedural memory, whereas, as adults, we tend to learn the grammar system of a second language using  declarative memory (1).  (To what extent a second language does or can become a part of procedural memory, i.e. more of a reflex, is an interesting question, but not one I will deal with here).

Declarative or explicit memory is itself divided into two further sets: episodic memory, that is to say the memory of events and experiences, and semantic memory, which is the memory of facts, meanings and concepts.  We have already looked in previous posts at how we can use engaging pictures and stories to harness the former, and how repetition and peer teaching can aid the latter. We will now look at how a multi-sensory approach can promote experiential learning.


Multi-sensory learning

The idea that each of us learns better with one sense rather than another – for example, that one person is more an auditory learner while another is more stimulated by visual signals – has now been more or less dismissed as a ‘neuro-myth’(2). That is almost certainly a good thing, since it is in any case impractical to try and adapt a lesson to 24 students each with a different learning style. At the same time, there has been an increased interest in a multi-sensory approach to learning. Much of this has been driven by Special Needs teaching, where multi-sensory approaches have had fantastic results with children with, say, dyslexia.  The reason such approaches are successful is because they involve different parts of the brain in learning, and we know that where more links are made in the brain, we seem to learn and remember more deeply. (3)

Experiential learning

We learn from experience, so it is said. We all know that that is not always true: people have a habit of repeating their mistakes. It is truer to say that we remember significant experiences, encounters which are themselves a combination of sensory experiences. For example, we remember a childhood holiday from a combination of sights, sounds, smells and emotions.  It logically follows that if we create multi-sensory experiences in our classrooms, we will also aid students’ memory and learning.

Multi-sensory activities

So what do such activities or experiences look like? Here are some examples.

1  Reading. Listening and reading at the same time is known to improve reading speed. It also yields better comprehension results than either reading or its own or listening on its own. Increasingly, coursebooks (e.g. LIFE 2nd edition) are including listening scripts for their reading texts. An alternative is to ask students to take it in turns to read aloud to the rest of the class.

2   Drama. This can range from performance of a functional dialogue from the coursebook to performance of the students’ own short play. Ask the students to draw or visualize where this scene takes place. Ask them to rehearse their lines and to listen to each other to ensure the right tone of voice. Then get them to act out the scene. For example:

Act out ‘Bumping into someone you haven’t seen for a long time’, using these phrases (LIFE Upper Intermediate Unit 1d):

How are things?;  You’re looking very well;  What have you been up to?; It obviously suits you; X was asking after you the other day; Say hello to her from me; Sorry, I’ve got to rush; It was great to see you.

From Life 2E upper intermediate Unit 1D

3   Telling a funny story. Supply the story in picture or cartoon form, all except the last picture. Ask the students identify the names of objects and places in the story. Play a recording of the story. Stop the recording before the punchline and get half the class to cover their ears. Then let the other half hear the punchline. Now ask the students who didn’t hear the punchline to retell the story up to the punchline, using the pictures as prompts. At the end their partner delivers the punchline.

4  Categorising words according to stress. Use Cuisenaire rods (small wooden blocks of different colours and sizes).  Using a word set that students have just learned, ask students to come to the front of the class and arrange the rods to reflect the pronunciation of one of the words. The others have to guess which word it is. For example, you could use this list of words from an email of complaint to a hotel chain (LIFE Upper Intermediate Unit 6e):

Compensation    Ž Ž Ž Ž

Dissatisfaction    Ž Ž Ž Ž Ž

Embarrassing     Ž Ž Ž Ž

Inconvenient  Ž Ž Ž Ž Ž

5  Music. Play the first two or three words of a very well-known pop song. Also tell the students the name of the artist. The students work in small teams and have to write down as many of the next words (up to 10) as they can. When you go through the answers, they can say or sing the missing words. (or lip sync them while you play the song!).They get an extra point for explaining what the meaning or message of the song is. For example:

  • No woman …… (no cry)  – Bob Marley
  • Another one bites ….. (the dust) – Queen
  • Hello it’s ….  (me) – Adele
  • It’s close to …… (midnight. Something evil’s lurking …) – Michael Jackson (thriller)
  • All the single … (ladies) – Beyonce
  • Every breath …… (you take) – The Police
  • Hey Jude … (don’t make it bad) –  The Beatles

6  Food.  Ask students to bring in a sample of their favorite dish or food. They should explain what it is and how it is made.  If it is something they make themselves, ask them to bring in a recipe too. Get the other students to react by describing the taste and texture and whether they like it or not.

Finally, here are three questions to remind yourself of the main points in this blog post.

  1. What is declarative (explicit) memory and what is procedural (implicit) memory? Which type of memory do we use to store the grammar system of our first language?
  2.  What can you say about the idea that we each have a particular way of remembering things: some of us are auditory learners, some are visual and some are kinaesthetic learners (we learn by by actions and movement)?
  3. Can you give two examples of activities that combine different senses to make a deeper learning experience? 


1 Brain and Language Lab, Georgetown Medical University Medical Centre, Second Language & Bilingualism,  [online]

2 Weale, S (2017) Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists. The Guardian, Education, 13 March 2017 [online]

3 Zull, J. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain.  Stylus Publishing

Author: Paul Dummett

Paul Dummett is a teacher and writer based in Oxford, UK, where he ran his own school teaching English to professionals from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches refugee children in Palestine and Jordan with the Handsupproject. His main interests are the use of images and narrative in language teaching and how these can aid deeper learning and memory. Seeking out writing projects that explore these interests he has found a natural home at National Geographic Learning, co-authoring titles such as Life and Keynote , and acting as a Course Consultant for Look, a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.

He enjoys travel, exercise and live music/spoken word performance.

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