What’s your child’s learning style

What’s Your Child’s Learning Style?

Why Experts Recommend a Multisensory Approach

By Emily Puro

Nick and Ben Condon were second graders when they studied the digestive system at the Touchstone School in Lake Oswego, but it’s a lesson the Sherwood twins, now 12, aren’t likely to forget. Maybe it was the t-shirt each designed showing where the digestive system lies inside his own body. Maybe it was the rap song they composed with their class. Or maybe it was the puree of leftover lunches their teacher made then passed through a pair of pantyhose to illustrate how liquids and solids separate in the intestines.

“I was absolutely amazed at how much even I learned,” says the twins’ mom Karly Condon. “It just shows what kids are capable of if the teaching style works.”

How Do We Learn?

Just as there are different ways to present information, there are different ways to understand and process it. Because students receive information through a variety of senses – and because some favor one sense over others – many educators believe that addressing as many senses as possible in any given lesson allows the greatest number of students to succeed.

“There are three main ways we receive information of the type you get in school,” says Leigh Evans, principal of the Multisensory Learning Academy (MLA), a public charter school in northeast Portland, “auditory, visual and motor-kinesthetic.”

Auditory learners absorb information most effectively through hearing. They tend to read aloud, grasp phonics easily, and have an aptitude for learning foreign languages. Traditionally, classroom instruction has addressed the auditory learner most effectively.

Visual learners “receive their information through what they see,” explains Evans. “It’s tough for those kids if the teacher simply talks and expects the children to pick up everything being said. It’s not that the children don’t hear. It’s that they don’t process as well the things they do hear.”

Even reading, says Linda Moore, Nick and Ben’s sixth grade teacher at the Touchstone School, actually addresses the auditory more effectively than the visual. “A visual process would be teaching a child how to read the words and then picture what they’re reading,” says Moore. Seeing a word written on the chalkboard can help visual learners once they become proficient with reading, but being able to see or create a picture goes further.

Kinesthetic students learn by doing, touching and building. “They need to be active to discover,” says Touchstone principal Ginger Schaffer.

Most people use a combination of the three modes, but some students strongly favor one mode or another. If information is presented through only one sensory channel or “learning style,” some students won’t be able to access it as effectively as they should.

A Multisensory Approach

To fully address the needs of students with diverse learning styles, teachers at the Touchstone School and MLA integrate every lesson to address all three sensory channels.

“It’s not as if we spend ten minutes on auditory and ten minutes on visual and ten minutes on motor-kinesthetic,” says Evans. “It’s getting them all in there together so that the content is accessed by the greatest number of children.”

At George Fox University in Newberg, assistant professor of education Doreen Blackburn teaches future educators to use a multisensory approach to reading and writing, citing the success of New Zealander Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery program which incorporates the three sensory channels.

“You see it, you hear it, and you use movement,” says Blackburn. “It just makes the imprint on the brain so much stronger if you’re doing all three at one time.” In Reading Recovery, textured, magnetic letters are used to address the kinesthetic component. “(Students) see the letter, they say the name of the letter or the sound of the letter, and they trace the letter with their finger all at one time,” Blackburn explains.

MLA uses a similar approach to reading and writing, but a multisensory education goes beyond tracing letters with your fingers. When students at MLA learned about Hawaii, for example, they listened to folk stories, learned to hula, and tasted a variety of pineapple and coconut products.

Similarly, Moore immerses her fifth and sixth grade students in a cross-curricular, multisensory unit on the Revolutionary War and the Constitution. After studying architectural drawings, the class builds a scale model of Boston in 1775. Each student becomes a character from the period, keeping a journal, writing letters and creating a family portrait. Students teach each other about major period events through puppet plays or skits, create a three-dimensional timeline, debate the constitution and read historical fiction about the era. Not only do students use all their senses, they’re able to demonstrate what they’ve learned in a variety of ways.

Something for Everybody

The approach has proven successful for the Condon twins, especially Ben who’s struggled in the past with a processing issue. Ben “really needs to be approached on different levels,” says his mom Karly. “We had him evaluated and what happens is sometimes (information) goes into his ear but it just doesn’t go into his brain.” Karly credits Touchstone’s multisensory approach with Ben’s success in school. “He learns because it’s not just sit at your desk, listen to your teacher and do paperwork. It’s doing things artistically, musically, visually. You’re participating in the process. You’re doing it on all those different levels and so somewhere in the mix he’ll get it in one of those forms.”

While Ben’s brother Nick hasn’t experienced the same processing challenges, Karly believes the multisensory approach is equally beneficial for him. “With the integrated curriculum,” she says, “however your child learns, you’re going to find an avenue through which they can feel comfortable absorbing the information.”

Another benefit of the multisensory approach, especially for students who strongly favor one sensory channel, is the opportunity to practice and strengthen weaker channels. “The reality is we’re trying to educate people to live in the real world,” says Moore. “If (students are) mostly visual, they need to learn to integrate that in an auditory world, to be able to understand and process information in both ways.”

While the Touchstone and MLA models are innovative in their commitment to a multisensory approach to every lesson, the practice of addressing diverse learning styles and multiple intelligences – a closely related theory based on the principle that there are many ways to demonstrate intelligence (see box on page **) – is becoming more prevalent in schools across the board. Teachers are being trained to plan lessons according to the learning styles and intelligences of the students in their classrooms, and to give children the opportunity to practice and develop weaker areas, says Blackburn’s colleague at George Fox, Mary J. Johnson.

Beyond Grammar School

In elementary school it can be easier to accommodate visual and kinesthetic learners with projects like drawing pictures, building models, creating dioramas and putting on skits and puppet plays, but what about middle and high school students? How do we accommodate their diverse styles?
“You have to do it differently,” says Moore, “It’s got to be at a more advanced level.” Drama, she says, like the mock trials she recalls performing in as a middle school student, can be very effective. Visual arts can be adapted to every grade level, she adds, and advanced science classes often include hands-on lab work to engage students kinesthetically.

Field work is another great way to involve older students in multisensory learning, Johnson says, noting that a biology class at George Fox University went to the zoo as part of a unit on animals. Even when field trips aren’t feasible for budgetary or other reasons, field work can be accommodated. “If a middle school is studying biology,” Johnson says, “they can study the pond across the street or the plants on the school grounds.” “It’s getting out there and using the five senses,” she adds, “It’s interacting. It’s first-person learning rather than vicarious learning.”

Supporting Your Child’s Learning Style

Understanding your child’s learning style can help you communicate more effectively with him and guide him through academic challenges, but while it’s important to be aware of your child’s strengths, it’s equally important to help him develop weaker areas. “Parents should be cautioned not to say, ‘My child is strictly a visual learner or strictly an auditory learner,’” says Schaffer. “They need to encourage all of those types of learning and allow children to practice other styles.”

Don’t be afraid to speak with your child’s teacher if you have questions or feel his strengths aren’t being addressed in the classroom.

“I think parents really need to help kids find out what their learning style is and then help teachers,” says Moore. “If I have a parent come to me at the beginning of the year and say, ‘I know my child is really kinesthetic and really needs to be able to do things in order to learn them,’ that’s good information,” Moore adds. “Most teachers really want to help children succeed.”

“When students experience success,” Moore adds, “they feel like good students, and they’ll become that if they believe that.”

Identifying Your Child’s Learning Style

The resources below can help you identify your child’s learning style, but remember, it’s just as important to give him opportunities to practice weaker areas as it is to address his strengths. Even with toddlers and preschoolers – while it’s often too early to identify specific learning styles – activities that engage all the senses can foster cognitive and social development and help them strengthen their ability to process information in a variety of ways.

For an easy to use interactive learning style quiz, visit mla.k12.or.us/learning_style.html.

A simple chart describing characteristics of each learning style can be found at www.chaminade.org/inspire/learnstl.htm.

Emily Puro is a Portland freelance writer and mother.

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