5. Multi-sensory teaching methods for teaching the English language
5.2 Learning styles and teaching methods
As a result of the English language’s deep orthography, the field of literacy teaching in both young and adult EFL students has experienced a growth spurt of various teaching methods in the past 60-or-so years. Researchers have found out that memory is better retained when a piece of information is connected to more than one piece of data. In other words, the more associations you make with the piece of information you are trying to embed into your memory, the better are the chances of it being retained.
Concerning the fact that synaesthesia is grounded in the stimulus-response basis, it is no surprise that Whiton Calkins, who was an avid synaesthesia researcher during its golden age in the 19th century, invented the Paired-Associate Learning method in 1894, which was supported by her report on associations created between numbers and colours (cf. Jewanski 2019, 18). The core of Paired-Associate Learning is the connection between two objects or words – the associations are created between them in order to be better stored and accessed in memory.
Paired-Associate Learning is essential in learning how to read. Distinguishing various letters and phonemes is only the first step – the following being the construction of associations between the two sets of information. To illustrate, the learner needs to learn to associate the letter “p” with either the phoneme /p/ or /f/ (or perhaps with silence as in “pterodactyl”), depending on the combination with other letters present in the word (“pain” vs. “photo”). More about this learning of association between graphemes and phonemes later in the chapter of Phonics.
Now, the existence of synaesthetic concurrents already proves that a subconscious process of Paired-Associate Learning has taken place in a synaesthete’s early childhood. However, applying this same method consciously in combination with grapheme-colour synaesthesia when a synaesthete is studying a foreign language, could be beneficial if done right and with proper motivation.
24 5.2.1 Orton-Gilingham approach
While searching for a teaching method resembling the workings of a synaesthete’s learning style, I came across an acclaimed language teaching approach incorporating multi-sensory elements in their methods: the Orton Gilingham approach. It results from joint work of a neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Samuel T. Orton (1897 – 1948), and a psychologist and educator, Anna Gillingham (1878 – 1964). The former was especially interested in researching the difficulties with reading and language processing, whereas the latter possessed knowledge about the teaching and workings of language. In the 1930s, they wanted to uncover how a student internalizes the structure of a language by explicitly teaching the students the elements of language, such as morphology, phonology, etc., and training their automaticity with applying this knowledge when reading and spelling. In the 1960s, the Orton-Gillingham principles were finally published by Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman, Samuel Orton’s colleague. In other words, Gillingham and Stillman established a language-teaching approach in which the students are systematically taught to become aware of the inner structure of words, and keep this awareness in mind when reading and writing. (Birsh and Carreker 2018, 784; Joshi et al. 2002, 231-232; What Is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?, https://www.ortonacademy.org/resources/what-is-the-orton-gillingham-approach/; accessed on August 15 2021).
The approach utilizes multisensory tools which cater to various learning styles: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile. For example, the teacher would not only present the graphemes and pronounce them, but he or she might also use shaping play dough or instruct students to retrace the letter shapes in the air or sand. The multisensory tool which caught my attention most was a colour-coded alphabet (What Is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?, https://www.ortonacademy.org/resources/what-is-the-orton-gillingham-approach/; accessed on August 15 2021).
In one such Orton-Gillingham-based teaching curriculum, named Lil' Reading Scientists'™
curriculum, the teachers use specifically chosen colours for various types of letters and their combinations/clusters. For example, if the focus of the lesson is on the most basic structure of words, then the consonants are red and the five vowels are blue; at the program’s higher level, the focus is on combinations of vowels and consonants (clusters or chunks), the former being orange
25 and the latter black; furthermore, a level higher adds an attention to affixes which are either green or light blue. This is acknowledged as a great multisensory tool for teaching young students reading and writing. The students end up regarding the letters or segments of words as building blocks, which can be put together or taken apart; their coding and decoding skills are thus improved. Here is the explanation of the alphabet system and some examples of result words, as written on the teaching program’s official website by Jenelle Erickson Boyd (Using a Color-Coded Alphabet to Teach Reading and Spelling, accessed on August 15 2021):
Consonants are red: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z
Short Vowels are blue: a, e, i, o, u Long Vowels are pink: a, e, i, o, u Digraphs are purple: ch, sh, wh, th, ck Chunks are black: an, am, ang, ank, ing, ink, ong, onk, ung, unk consolidation of words and their pronunciation in the mental lexicon; for example, in the Silent Way approach along with the Gattegno’s literacy approach named Words in Color with the use of Fidel spelling charts (see Figure 11) (cf. Cherry 2008). Grapheme-synaesthesia works in a similar
Figure 9: Lil’ Reading Scientists’™ word building board with foam letters. (Obtained from:
https://www.lilreadingscientists.com/product/extra-lrs-word-building-board-module-1-only-with-letters/. Accessed on 15 August 2021).
26 way, but the synaesthete always has his or her own set of colour-coded alphabet letters at hand with which they can work. Ironically, the Orton-Gillingham approach with a coloured alphabet would be a terrible choice for a synesthetic learner, since its universal colouring of letters, morphemes, etc., would not match their own concurrents, thus posing additional challenge to the brain trying to perceive the graphemes. Additionally, the prefixes and suffixes could only in very rare cases be coded in the same colour in synaesthetes’ brains, therefore using only, for example, green colour for all suffixes would most likely be too taxing or tiresome for the student, since colours would clash and focus would be hard to upkeep (cf. Smilek 2002).
Now that I have described a multi-sensory tool of teaching, I present a teaching method, which focuses on deconstructing the English words. Phonics is a popular teaching method for students (usually children) to learn the grapheme-phoneme correspondences. It helps them code and decode words; they learn how to take apart words into separate letters (or groups of letters – digraphs) and associate them with certain speech sounds. For example, the word “fish” has four letters, yet three phonemes /f/, /ɪ/, and /ʃ/. Since the English spoken language has more than forty distinct phonemes and only twenty-six letters, there is bound to be some difficulty with certain letters or combinations of letters, which is why phonics is a great way of ensuring the students of English are taught how to recognize the exceptions in pronunciation of certain graphemes – for example, how the sound /f/ can be spelled as <f>, <ff>, <ph> or even <gh> (cf. Birsh and Carreker 2018, 274; Blevins n.d.; Literacy Teaching Guide: Phonics 2009; What is Phonics?, accessed on August 2021).
Figure 10: An example of text written with the use of Fidel spelling chart.
(Obtained from: https://www.pronunciationscience.com/materials/silent-way-for-english/. Accessed on 20 August 2021).
27 What usually helps the students of phonics is additional material for them to help construct the appropriate associations. These most often come in the form of workbooks – or decodable books with illustrations, games and a clear progression of phonic difficulty. The teacher can also use pictures (in the form of flashcards) or coloured phonograms (characters or symbols which are used to represent a phoneme, for example /eɪ/ or “ay” in “play”, “tray”, and “clay” – see Figure 11 for an example with /uː/).
Another thing which the phonics teaching method makes use of and is a great assessment of the students’ phonetic decoding progress, is reading of nonsense words. Shifting the focus onto different parts of a word is beneficial in teaching the students how various combinations of letters affect each other. Therefore, the children not only learn how to pronounce existing words, but also nonsense words, which can be valuable segments for creating and grasping new words and their pronunciation (cf. Birsh and Carreker 2018, 346, 865).
One such closely-connected important activity is called “chaining”, as Birsh and Carreker (2018) illustrate with an example of the activity’s instruction:
Provide a few colored chips (in a minimum of four different colors) for each student and give them a CVC word. Have them select a different colored chip for each sound in the word. Then, have them change the colored chip to represent a new word. For example, a chain at the initial word position might be, “Say hat and change the /h/ to
Figure 11: An example of a phonics’ teaching material – a flashcard involving a picture and red phongrams. (Obtained from: https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk/advice-and-resources/free-teaching-resources/one-sound-different-spellings/one-sound-different-spellings-oo/. Accessed on 20 August 2021).
28 /k/ to get cat, change the /k/ to /p/ to get pat, change the /p/ to /r/ to get rat […]”
(Birsh and Carreker 2018, 308)
To illustrate an example of a combination of both chaining and nonsense words activities, let us say the teacher chose to work with the word “parrot”; first, they would read the whole word and then take away the first letter and end up with “arrot”. Then the students would be instructed to take away the last letter and create “arro”. Next, the instructions would dictate to add a letter at the end in order to create a new word (“arrow”).
I believe such exercises could be very beneficial to synaesthete students to practice their micro-focus; it is important that they are not too affected by the whole-word colour, and that they associate certain letter combinations with their pronunciations.