Phonics is a body of skills and knowledge that we need to be able to use in order to master the language. It is used to teach how the 44 sounds (phonemes) of spoken English are linked to the individual or groups of written letters (graphemes). Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.
What is less well-known is that he also explained that repetition alone is not sufficient to do so. Deliberate practice, in the case of phonics, the multi-sensory approach, is the key to mastery.
So, what is the multi-sensory approach and how can we use it to teach phonics?
Simply put the multi-sensory approach to phonics involves using all five senses when learning to recognise and read different graphemes.
The multi-sensory approach to phonics is the most effective as it engages the whole brain. According to the whole brain learning theory, the human brain has evolved to learn most effectively when in a multi-sensory environment.
A study in 2018 showed that the stronger a child’s literary skills, the more interactivity between parts of their brain, thus suggesting that a multi-sensory approach is the most effective way to teach phonics.
Adopting a multi-sensory approach to phonics means engaging learners using two or more senses. Visual and audio are the most used senses; however, teachers could also choose to include smell, taste or tactile methods.
How Phonics Shed applies the Multi-sensory approach to teach phonics:
Phonics Shed is a complete explicit and systematic phonics program that aligns with the Science of Reading. We provide a narrative driven and multi-sensory approach to teaching phonics. This means there is greater retention of learning, as it is continuously repeated and revisited through auditory, action, application, and speech. The mix of in-class teaching and digital games keeps pupils engaged and learning phonics fun.
Each lesson starts with the same structure using our flashcards, actions, songs, formation animations and character story.
Children are taught to say the sounds that make up a word and then merge the sounds together until they can hear what the word is. The method used to teach this in Phonics Shed is ‘Sound It, Squash It, Say It’:
- Sound the word out, e.g. c-a-t. Be sure to use pure sounds here rather than letter names or ‘cuh’, etc. – pure sounds.
- Squash the sounds together by saying them in order faster than before.
- Say the word that is made by squashing the sounds together.
This is the opposite of blending – breaking up the sounds so that children can spell the words. The method used to teach this in Phonics Shed is ‘Say It, Stretch It, Sound It’:
- Say the word.
- Split it up into its individual phonemes. Again, use pure sounds here. Saying it slowly will help.
- Say the sounds that make up the word.
Some children are able to grasp the letter sounds while simultaneously developing the fine motor skills required to hold a pencil.
For others, this challenge can prevent them from internalising the phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Strategies such as air writing, writing in sand or painting with water employ a multi-sensory approach to phonics without the pressure forming the correct pencil grip.
Tapping out sounds as they read is another good way to incorporate the sense of touch into phonics teaching. One tap for each individual phoneme and, as children learn to blend, a stroke for di, tri or tetragraphs. This physical component creates stronger brain connections as the children learn the sounds.
Adopting a multi-sensory approach to phonics means that learners engage in whole-brain learning and form stronger connections when recognising and reading phoneme-grapheme correspondence. The most effective phonics instruction must involve a multi-sensory approach for children to have the greatest chance of becoming successful readers.