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Home > Reading and Spelling Articles> Multisensory Structured Language: Summary and Reflections

Multisensory Structured Language

Summary and reflections

Susan L. Jones, M.Ed. 1/01

I 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" mean?

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 Society.)

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.

What's "multisensory"?

"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 and situations.


MSSL programs are designed to be done intensively and frequently. They aren't "quick fixes." At The 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" and "a."

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 you use.

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" learner.

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.


Copyright © 1998-2003, Susan Jones, Resource Room/Team Prairie, LLC. All Rights Reserved.