How to Add Excitement to Your EFL Activities: Multisensory Learning

Have you seen the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”?

Anyone?… anyone?

Remember Ferris’s boring high school economics teacher played by Ben Stein, who could put anyone to sleep with his monotonous voice?

Anyone?… anyone?

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, that “Anyone?… anyone?” is actually the teacher’s well-known line, used to ask his understandably non-responsive, dozed-off class questions during the lecture. No one jumps in to answer, of course, so this teacher answers himself without pause and then drones on in a monologue about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and “Voodoo Economics.”

Born in 1978, I was too young to appreciate the genius of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when it came out in 1986. Through the magic of video however, I later found a connection with so many of the scenes, especially those involving Ben Stein’s teacher character.

For most EFL teachers, we can understand.

Foreign language is a subject matter that most young people, especially those in monolingual societies, find tedious at best. After all, if your dream in life is to be a car mechanic, or even an accountant, what is the purpose of learning a foreign language?

The esoteric advantages (flexibility of thought, greater cultural appreciation, lack of myopic thinking, etc.) are lost on students who find zits, soccer practice, movie stars, and perhaps what that cute girl two rows over thinks of them as vitally important. Lack of appreciation leads to boredom, which leads to droning, boring classes, which leads to a teacher trying their best to get through to a group that varies between disruptive and zombie-like, like in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

So how can we add excitement to our EFL/ESL activities? Enter multisensory learning.

What is Multisensory Learning?

In short, multisensory learning means using more than just visual and auditory input for learning a subject.

People are born with five senses: touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. Studies have shown that people react very strongly in certain areas of the brain, depending on which senses are used and how many are used in learning.

Also, people react differently depending on which senses are engaged. Some people react more strongly to sight, some to touch, some to taste, etc. Few people are equally adept at learning with each sense.

However, normal education depends on students using just two senses: sight and hearing. Students sit and do nothing but listen and look as the teacher speaks.

Benefits of Multisensory Learning

The benefits of using multisensory learning are numerous. Firstly, it can simplify concepts and ideas. For example, describe what “sweet” tastes like. You could prattle on using simile, allegory or verbal examples, or you could hand someone a glass of sugar water to drink.

Concepts such as cold, furry, slick and others can be taught more easily using touch than with verbal examples. Until you get into higher level esoteric concepts such as honor, love or moral, students can be given a multisensory example.

The second benefit of multisensory learning is that it makes classes more fun. Recognize, students sit in their desks roughly six to seven hours a day. Six hours of listening and looking only, five or six days a week. Even for adults, this sort of activity is monotonous, boring and not very fruitful. By breaking up the monotony and giving students some fresh and innovative input, you can make a greater impression than merely being another dry hour out of 35 that week.

Multisensory learning also gives you the ability to reach students whose brains are wired in ways that don’t respond best to visual and auditory learning. If we look at many successful people, you can find examples of these types of people. Richard Branson, Marco Pierre White and Walt Disney all created wildly successful careers, even empires in their own right, but struggled in normal schooling. Some have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, but by using other senses to engage their learning abilities, they became educated and successful.

Finally, multisensory learning is often more efficient. Research has repeatedly shown that by using more than just our ears and eyes in learning, we retain more. And by learning through something we already have an interest or connection with, we retain even more.

So what does multisensory learning look like? Here are two great multisensory activities you can use in EFL class!

Multisensory Activity: Cooking in EFL/ESL Class

This type of lesson works great with adults and kids alike. Cooking connects with us on a primal level. It’s an activity that uses all five of our senses, and the end product is (hopefully) enjoyable. Also, food has such deep cultural meanings for many countries that it can be a great cultural lesson as well as an English lesson.

I’ve had success teaching elementary school students how to make Christmas cookies, cornbread, enchiladas, and more. Even at my Montessori preschool, we have students make salads and prepare vegetables weekly as part of the Montessori educational curriculum.

Select a recipe to cook in class

The first step of course is to pick out a recipe. Sweets and other comfort foods are an easy target, as few people will turn down a chocolate chip cookie, but expanding ideas by finding a delicious vegetable dish is great too.

When selecting a recipe however, take into account student allergies, prep time and cultural norms. Eggs, milk and even wheat could possibly be no-nos for your group. Alternatives exist, but sometimes you just have to find a different recipe.

Budgetary restrictions also come into play here, as most schools will not have huge funds to spend on a single cooking lesson.

Make sure you pick out a recipe that can be done in the amount of time that you have class with the students. And of course, please be careful not to break dietary laws such as asking Jewish or Muslim students to prepare pork. Get the advice of your school when selecting a recipe.

Prepare cooking materials for your EFL/ESL class

The next step is to prepare your materials. Hopefully, you can source most of your materials from local markets, but you might have to get creative. For example, finding an American style country sausage for Thanksgiving cornbread stuffing is very difficult in my part of Japan. But, by combining easily found ground pork with spices from the spice aisle and aging the mix, I can match anything Jimmy Dean could put out (and is a recipe in itself).

Also, check out and prepare your cooking room. Most schools will have some sort of home economics room, and many local community centers have cooking rooms as well. Go there, and make sure you have the hardware to match what you need to do. Lay it out before students arrive and have the room well prepared.

Finally, print out and have copies of your recipe on hand. Even if your students are not reading it directly, it can serve as an additional resource or even as homework later on.

Teach the multisensory cooking lesson to your EFL/ESL students

Finally, do your lesson! Depending on the level of your students, you might need to do a full demonstration with speaking. For older students or more advanced students, sometimes all it takes is handing them the recipe, giving them a brief outline, and then going around helping groups as they work through the written instructions.

Either way, at the end be sure that everyone enjoys the fruits of their labor.

Multisensory Activity: Sports in EFL/ESL Class

Sports is another great alternative activity that can be used to liven up a class. This activity is great for getting the attention of boys especially, although don’t discount your girls. Alternatively, you could even make this a permanent class or a course.

I currently run successful weekly classes combining English education with children’s tumbling, adult exercise and martial arts for children and adults. However, as a one-off activity or short class series, mixing in sports with foreign language education can be a lot of fun.

Choosing the sport to play in EFL/ESL class

When you are picking out a sport, be sure of a few things. First, pick a sport that is relatively safe. While I personally love martial arts and wrestling, there is no way I would do such sports as one-off alternative activities for a regular English class. Make adjustments as necessary. Touch football can teach just as much, if not more, than full on tackle football.

Secondly, pick a sport that, while having some similarities to a sport or activity that is locally popular, is not commonly known. If the students already know the rules, how to play and have no need to use foreign language skills in the class to participate, then the class misses the point.

It might be fun, it might be good exercise, but it isn’t foreign language education. I’ve seen in Japan successful classes using touch rugby and cricket, since the skills of running and the types of throwing used in both are common among Japanese school children. Meanwhile, American-style football has had less success, as few students can quickly grasp the mechanics of throwing a spiral pass.

Keep it simple by using the sport’s standard rules

As one caveat, don’t try to overly contrive the rules to shoehorn in extra foreign language education. For example, one stinker of a class I saw had the students playing “English kickball” with the students having to ask and answer a question before they could run the bases or even have a turn to kick. The overly contrived rules ended up ruining the fun for everyone, and ended up making the students not like English even more.

For adults, transferring this idea to their hobby can also be a great way to passively practice both English and a fun life skill. I’ve learned more Japanese being part of a judo team than I did in formal classes. Whatever the sport is, doing it in a foreign language can be a great way to enhance their learning.

Multi-sensory learning has often been said to be the wave of the future when it comes to learning. Books, paper, pens and pencils have their places, but too often they lead to boring classroom scenes – like Ferris Bueller’s economics class. To really get the most out of a learning experience, engaging as many of the five senses as possible is key. Try these two methods of engaging multi-sensory learning for your students, and enjoy!

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