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Multisensory Instruction: Do you really need Play-doh and pop-its?


As Orton-Gillingham based instruction becomes more and more widespread, so too has the idea of multisensory instruction. The term “multisensory” often brings to mind exciting materials like Play-doh, pop-its, and puzzle pieces. Or we think of songs and dances to introduce new ideas. And while it is true that these materials and activities create memorable learning experiences that engage multiple senses – multisensory instruction when it comes to reading may actually be a bit simpler than you think!


Multisensory learning incorporates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile activities. In reading instruction it connects these modalities by linking speech sounds to the letters we see, as well as linking kinesthetic movements of speaking and writing to the sounds we hear.

Dr. Samuel Orton (of Orton-Gillingham) was one of the first to suggest teaching students the alphabetic code by engaging all modalities. A key components of the Orton-Gillingham approach is that it engages “all of the senses in learning about letters and sounds” (Shaywitz, p. 288, 2020). Multisensory instruction promotes the use of all language pathways in the brain in order to strengthen the connections between speech and print (Farrell & White, 2018).

Multisensory instruction does not yet have concrete evidence that it improves reading outcomes in and of itself. However there are programs based on the Orton-Gillingham approach, including some structured literacy programs, that have demonstrated positive results for students (Shaywitz, 2020).


As we first learn the associations between letters and sounds, we are building connections in our brains. We then use these connections when we encounter new words to sound them out. This is great! We’re starting to read!

BUT – if reading relied on these connections alone, we could not be fluent readers. We would have to process every letter each time we encountered a new word.

Fortunately, these connections in our brain are not built in isolation. We also begin building pathways connecting words to their meaning. We create pathways for the sounds, spellings, and meanings of words as we hear, read, and learn them. We also begin connecting larger “chunks” of letters with their associated sounds. The stronger these pathways become, the quicker we can recognize the word. These neural pathways seem to be reinforced and strengthened by repetition (Shaywitz, 2020).

Students with dyslexia have difficulty creating these pathways. Shaywitz (2020) explains in “Overcoming Dyslexia” that neural connections for words may be “imperfect and incomplete,” because students with dyslexia are not able to easily link the way the word looks, the way it sounds, and what it means. As a result, automatic retrieval of words and reading fluency can be impeded. Dr. Orton suggested that teaching students the alphabetic pattern by engaging all modalities may better help these pathways form!


Most reading activities are multisensory by nature, as we translate those visual symbols on the page into speech sounds. However, there are certain multisensory activities that are commonly incorporated in structured literacy lessons. Notice that most of these activities require no additional materials or extensive preparation!

Below are a few examples of multisensory phonics and phonology activities:

  • Write & Say: writing or tracing a grapheme while simultaneously producing the associated sound

  • Sky or Air Writing: Using the whole arm to “write” the grapheme in the sky

  • Simultaneous Oral Spelling routines: naming letters while spelling the word

  • Finger Tapping: segmenting a word into phonemes by tapping one sound or moving one manipulative per sound

  • Assigning gestures to vowels or other sounds

  • Discussing the physical characteristics of articulation when learning new sounds (mouth open or closed, voiced or unvoiced)

Structured Literacy programs use multisensory strategies when teaching other areas of language as well, such as morphology, grammar, and writing composition. Below are some examples of what engaging multiple modalities looks like in each area.


  • Connecting parts of speech with various colors (e.g. nouns = yellow) and coloring written sentences

  • Listening to an oral sentence and using color tiles to represent parts of speech (e.g. The cat sleeps = red yellow blue tiles)

  • Cutting sentences up into phrases for students to order or rearrange, then read aloud


  • Instructional routines where students hear, see, and say words with the targeted morpheme, in addition to opportunities to read, write, and converse with these words.

  • Tiles or cards to manipulate affixes to build words (e.g. re + play + ing)

Written Composition

  • Connecting different parts of paragraphs to various colors (e.g. introduction sentence = green, details = yellow) and coloring written paragraphs

  • Arranging or reordering cut-up sentences from a paragraph


Multisensory instruction engages auditory, visual, and kinesthetic elements. Fun materials like play-doh, pop-its, and sand trays can certainly supplement multisensory procedures in a way that gets kids excited. But the good news is – they’re also not essential! Finger tapping, sky writing, cut up sentences, and see-hear-say procedures engage all modalities while costing nothing extra. Your child or student can be building those strong neural pathways with (free) activities that are easily added into your daily routines, whether you are following a structured literacy curriculum or not!

Written by: Rachel Draper & Taryn Quaytman

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC



Farrell, M. L. & White, N. C. (2018) Structured literacy instruction. In J.R. Birsch & S. Carreker

(Eds.), Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills: Fourth Edition (pp. 88 - 138) Paul

Brooks Publishing Co.

Moats, L. C. (2020). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers (Third Edition). Paul

Brooks Publishing Co.

Shaywitz, S., & Shaywitz, J. (2020). Overcoming dyslexia (2nd ed.). VIntage Books.


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