Several years back, I was working in an inner city school as a support person for the seven kindergarten classrooms who were using the multisensory Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program for the first time as a pilot. There was a high level of anxiety among the teachers in the early weeks. It is not comfortable to leave what is familiar and launch out with an approach radically different from the standard, especially if you have been teaching kindergarten for years. By Thanksgiving, however, the teachers were elated with the results with their students and, therefore, enthusiastic about the multisensory approach to teaching reading. I was there to answer questions and suggest strategies; I also pulled out small groups of children identified by their teachers as most at risk.
One particular day, I had a handful of kids to work with in my room. They had followed me there meekly and were sitting in little chairs staring at me blankly. The kindergarten teachers had introduced the first 8 sounds and were in the process of teaching how to blend those sounds into words. The skill I’d planned on practicing with the children involved sounding out words that used these first 8 sounds, but my hopes were not high as we sat there sizing each other up. You know how you can tell if someone is “with you” by looking at their eyes? Well, these children were NOT with me; in fact I saw no evidence of active thought at all.
But I forged ahead valiantly. “Let’s go up to the whiteboard,” I chirped. “You can see that each of you have a set of little flags.” Blank stare. I helped each child find the whiteboard that covered one long wall in my room, but my hopes had plummeted and I was casting about in my head for what to do in place of this exercise.
This is the set of flags each child had (I had printed the letters with a marker on sticky notes). I instructed the children to listen to each word I said and then sound it with me. “CAT,” I said deliberately. “C – A – T.” Blank stares. Desperately I said, “Find the flags that have these sounds and put them in front of you on the whiteboard. “C-A-T,” I sounded once again
Just when I thought nothing was going to happen, the children turned slowly to face their flags and began sounding soft and pulling down the flags and arranging them to look like this: WOW! I asked the children to put the flags back and we tried the next word: “The next word is PAT.” Sound it with me. “P-A-T,” we said carefully. “Now, sound it with me again and find each flag.”
I was so excited! We did several more words and the cherry on the sundae was when they spelled STOP using four of their sounds! What was so gratifying to all of us was that these were children from families with a long history of special needs. What made the difference? The multisensory approach to teaching reading.
The elements that worked for these children include the following:
From the very beginning, we taught letter sounds, not letter names. While this was a real sticking point to many teachers at first, in time it became clear why we did this: children were not confused with too many facts before understanding the process of reading.
We taught only 8 sounds at first. Again, this felt wrong to teachers who had spent most of their careers working on a specific sequence that included teaching all letter names and sounds before beginning to teach reading. The reason we teach only eight sounds initially is because this allows children to understand the process of reading while only having to manage a few facts.
We taught each of the eight letters using illustrated stories that showed how each letter came to have its particular shape and that also tied the sound of the letter with the shape.
Each time the children learned a letter sound, they also practiced shaping the letter with a full body motion as they made the sound of the letter.
Each time the children learned a letter sound and shape, they closed their eyes until they could visualize the letter in their imagination, then upon opening their eyes, they formed that letter on their whiteboards while repeating the letter sound they were drawing.
After each lesson, the children went to independent centers where they had time to deepen the lesson by drawing what they heard in the story.
Throughout the day, while in line or as they entered the classroom in the morning, teachers would say a sound and children made the body motion while repeating the letter sound.
Next, the teacher would say a word, the class would sound together as they body spelled the word.
Once children had learned to make a word using their 8 sounds, we showed a stylized version of the word with embedded images so that they could easily understand that the word could be recognized on sight, that it was made of sounds they knew and that it communicated meaning.
We used concrete materials as children learned to manipulate the sounds to make words. (See our flag activity above).
We had the children read books containing text that used only the 8 sounds and a few sight words for reading practice.
By the time the children were very fluent with reading and manipulating the sounds of those first 8 letters, we were able to add the remaining letter sounds and sight words with ease. To read more about this program that is done for you with all the multisensory elements laid out in a simple progression for you to follow, go here .