Multisensory, Tips & Strategies

Taking the Paper and Pencil Away: Using A Multisensory Approach to Learning

By the time a student starts with us for reading and writing support, they are usually feeling defeated in their abilities. Being asked to produce work on paper every day at school can feel especially draining to students who struggle with letter formation and spelling. Every student is different in their learning strengths and needs, however, there are a few strategies that we have found to be helpful in building back their confidence.

The first step is scribing: writing down the student’s ideas while they speak. When a student is faced with a seemingly impossible seeming task (write a paragraph, create a presentation, solve 5 subtraction questions with borrowing, etc.), it helps to take the pencil and paper out of their hands. Instead, have a discussion about their ideas, accepting all wild thoughts, and then narrowing it down to the assigned topic. Write down their ideas and encourage imperfection: “oops I spelled that wrong” or “look I forgot the ‘e’ in this word”. Praise their ideas and effort. Having an adult, or in the classroom, another student, worry about the mechanics of the writing will allow the student to see how capable they are of sharing ideas and completing written assignments.

Scribing works for math as well. When students struggle with number formation or visual tracking, math questions are overwhelming! With the tutor holding the pencil and paper, we ask the student to tell us what to write, as if we are robots and cannot decide even where to write a number. This allows us to see whether more teaching is needed on the concept or if the student understands the math process and was simply struggling to write it down.

While building up a student’s confidence with scribing, we use a multisensory approach to teach the specific skills needed. This often means removing the stress of the paper and pencil and even stepping away from the desk.

Multisensory is not just a buzzword. It means using visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic activities to engage the learner and enhance memory. There is scientific research that backs up its effectiveness (Read more here, here or here).

One of the tools Access Learning uses is a fantastic multisensory language program, The Aardvark Reading Program, which combines physical skill development with language skill development, and is based on the renowned Orton-Gillingham language learning approach. Both of these programs recognize that the key to helping students succeed using multisensory learning is to break concepts and skills down into their smallest parts, then build students’ understanding from that point.

A multisensory approach needs to be explicit (meaning that the student isn’t left to infer meaning or understanding on their own) and cumulative (meaning that each new idea is only introduced when a student fully grasps and is capable with the previous one), but the learning environment and activities remain highly adaptable. Using this approach, every student can find what works best for them and use that to develop skills and confidence in their reading and writing.

Here are a few examples of Access Learning’s favourite multisensory activities:

  1. Drawing letters and sounds in a sand tray.
  2. Using Play dough, Wikki Stix, or other moldable materials to form letters.
  3. Building words with magnetic letter tiles, or word tiles from games like Scrabble or Bananagrams.
  4. Tossing a ball or bean bag back and forth while learning spelling or vocabulary words.
  5. Using craft sticks, beads, stickers, or other manipulatives to teach math concepts.
  6. Drawing letters and words in the air or using their feet, instead of a pencil or pen.
  7. Addition, subtraction, or other math functions using dominoes.

These are just some of the many, many ways you can teach language and math without a paper and pencil!

In his book, “Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness”, Howard Gardner wrote: “Discover your difference—the asynchrony with which you have been blessed or cursed—and make the most of it.” (source) At Access Learning, we understand that language learning doesn’t need to be limited to words on a page, or writing with a pencil, and that breaking things down using a multisensory approach is a great way to help our students embrace their learning differences and make the most of them.


Access Learning is planning a multisensory summer language program! Is your family interested, or do you know someone who might be? Get in touch for more details!