The Multisensory Approach: The Best Way to Teach Languages

You smell a flower or hear a song, and all the memories come flooding back.

You remember everything as if it happened just yesterday.

Do you want your students to remember your lessons as vividly as that? Do you want to make your classes so memorable they’ll be able to easily recall what you taught long after they finish the course?

Well, this post will help make that possible. Here we talk about multisensory classroom techniques that’ll not only tickle students’ senses, but also make your classes positively unforgettable.

The Multisensory Approach: The Best Way to Teach a Language

The multisensory approach to teaching begins as you’re making your language lesson plans.

Let’s say you’ll be teaching about numbers. I’m sure during this stage you’re already scanning the horizon for a bunch of activities and games that’ll really drive home the point, events that’ll make the lesson truly come alive for your wards. Perhaps you decide to bring objects that your students can use to count. For this, marbles, sticks or rubber bands can do the trick.

But let’s add another layer of thinking into the making of those lesson plans, shall we?

When you’re considering your activities, think of what sensory organ is most stimulated by that technique. For example, classroom singing engages the ears. Games that involve movement give the lesson a kinesthetic flavor.

Showing videos stimulates the eyes, and they can provide nonverbal cues to help students understand the language.

Now I’m not saying that they solely engage those senses, (videos, for example, have an auditory element), I’m suggesting that you peg them to a specific sensory organ. Why? So that you’ll be compelled to imagine more classroom situations that can hit the other senses.

The challenge for you is to, for every lesson, come up with activities that’ll excite as many sense organs as possible. If you can, why not cover all five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch!

Whereas before you came up with a fun game and were all set, this time you’re becoming more aware of the medium or channel through which the lesson is reaching your students.

What you’re doing is really catering to the different kinds of learners in your class, giving them the chance to experience the lesson in their preferred medium. Because believe it or not, your class is far from being homogeneous. Although everyone learns through all their different senses, each student does have a preferred way of learning. (You’ll spot this in how a student might react to a specific activity.)

A lot of creativity and some lateral thinking is required here, of course. You may have to wrack your brain, research or even take a page from the inspired strategies you find online. In short, it’s hard work. Both mentally and physically.

But think of what this does to your class. It takes your lessons to another level, and turns them into a truly immersive experience. Suddenly your class transforms into an engaging show with many memorable highlights that students will remember long after they go home. In one lesson, you can engage in techniques and activities that feature a visual spectacle, another can be a kinesthetic romp and still another can be a feast for the ears. You can cater to the senses and really make a simple lesson, such as teaching numbers in German, come alive.

Do you know exactly how to do that?

Well, the next section will start you off with some teaching ideas and techniques geared for the different senses. Although, as mentioned before, they don’t each work with only one single sensory organ, it’ll be helpful to think of them this way.

Teaching Techniques Geared for the 5 Senses

Techniques for the Eyes

Let’s start with the eyes.

With visual techniques, you’ll have to remember four things: size, movement, color and novelty.

With size, you’ll have to engage in some exaggeration. What I mean is that if you’re going to be drawing objects to serve as visual anchors for a vocabulary lesson, then draw those objects big! Teach big. Make your illustrations and props occupy a significant amount of space. Make your gestures expansive.

So, in a Spanish class, manzanas (apple) should be big. Avíon (airplane) should be big.

Doing this aids students so they’ll recall the lesson better, making it obvious to the mind’s eye. It’s very difficult to forget something that’s so in-your-face and practically inescapable.

But more than that, really, think of the possibilities. Let me tell you, it’s limitless. If you teach el avion really big, so big that you can have a little imaginary role-playing activity, then you’ve just elevated your lesson to a whole new level.

Instead of teaching el avion like a matchbox toy you zoom in the air, teach it big. So big it becomes the whole classroom and available for an imaginary exercise (a visual technique in itself). For example, you can invite the whole class to tour inside the imaginary plane. You can be a stewardess, greeting them at the door (there’s your lesson in greetings), you can show them to the different parts of the plane.

Now, suddenly, you have opportunities to teach/review ventana (windows), asiento (seat) and more relevant vocabulary. In fact, you can teach dozens of vividly contextualized vocabularies just because you went big. If you decide to play the pilot, you can scream, “Everybody move to the left side of the plane!” “Everybody, jump three times!” “Together this time!” (There’s your lesson in giving and receiving directions.)

With color, well you already know that vivid colors, the reds, the yellows, can be used to grab attention as well as maintain it. Colors are powerful. A drab drawing will immediately become more interesting when you add color to it. There’s something so inviting about hues that they make learners listen up and assume that something good is in store just because the teacher whipped out a colorful image on the projector screen.

But did you know that colors can also be used to direct attention?

In a row of four boxes: the first one black, the second one black, the third one yellow and the fourth one black. Which of the four boxes do you think your students will be most focused on? Right! The third one, indeed.

What if they’re all yellow…but you circled the second one with a thick red ink. Where does the attention now lie?

Remember these color-related highlighting/emphasizing techniques when you’re making your visual aids.

Next, we talk about movement. Motion pictures, showing clips or movies is one way of making the lessons come alive for your students. And the thing is, the moving people on the screen don’t even have to say anything. Think about it, why would a guy who never speaks entertain millions for hours on end? If Charlie Chaplin comes to mind, then you would be right.

It’s because you’re actually communicating a lot with movement—gestures, body positioning and those wonderful tools called facial expressions. So, when you’re teaching, take a page from Mr. Bean’s playbook and remember to move!

When you’re telling a story, act out the scenes. Be the character you’re trying to paint. Even when you’re just explaining something mundane, like the French and their love for food, be a moving target. Walk around the class, make use of your hands. Think of it like you’re in a game of Charades.

Admittedly, this kind of teaching requires a lot from you physically, but I guarantee that the rewards for you, when you’re slumped at the faculty lounge at the end of the day, will be worth it.

Lastly, we talk about novelty. Your students will set their eyes on something new. If you come to class dressed as a character in that day’s story, you’ve just won precious minutes of their attention. If you bring some strange object and use it as a jumping off point for the lesson, take them someplace else or bring someone they’ve never thought would be standing inside the classroom, you’ve used the power of novelty, of the incongruent, of the unique, to help students learn a language.

One of the reasons YouTube is a hit because it features a lot of videos that show people and events that are quirky, funny, awesome, even unbelievable. You can have some of these YouTube videos to tie up with the lesson and help make you explain your point. (Memes, anyone?)

Techniques for the Ears

When you’re trying to teach a language via the audio route, you have to remember this word: variety.

Your voice alone has at least four spectra to play with: pitch, volume, tempo and melody.

When a teacher finishes her class and not once did she modulate her voice or only used her speaking voice all throughout, chances are that she has been a droning monotone the whole session. And she’s missing the use of a most valuable and virtuous teaching asset. Because you better believe it, if a picture can paint a thousand words, a few sentences spoken right can paint a vivid picture.

To teach effectively, you have to vary the pitch of your voice. How you say it matters a whole lot.

You can really play around with voices. Imagine teaching greetings and phrases in Italian using the chipmunks’ voice. How funny and memorable would that be? Or how about teaching how to ask questions à la James Earl Jones?

Vary the volume too. Volume can suggest size and importance. If you’re doing an aside, lower the volume. If you want to emphasize something, like a word or a phrase, increase the volume. (You can also lengthen the word a bit.) Then repeat.

Changing the tempo of speech also works very well in avoiding the boring trap, especially in the finally stretches of class. Ironically, during the final minutes of class, that’s when you really need to ham it up because students find it harder and harder to focus knowing that any second now, the bell will ring and they get to live their lives again. In these moments, you need to get your energies into your voice, increase the tempo and turn up the volume.

Lastly, let’s talk about melody. Do you know that we speak in notes? There’s a certain musicality to our speech. That’s why you need to vary the other three (pitch, volume and tempo) so that your voice can put on different qualities, different melodies that drive home different points. Think of it like singing to your students. You want to be like Céline Dion, vibrant with her voice.

And since we’re on the topic of melody, using songs and familiar tunes is an important component of teaching a language to the ears. Think about it. How do we know that “Fa” comes after “Mi” or that “S” comes after “R”? Because of the songs! (Sometimes we even need to sing just to get the sequence right.)

The things we take for granted, like numbers, days of the week, months of the year, seasons of the year—we remember them because of songs from our childhoods.

Singing familiar tunes in class is a tried and tested memory enhancer that lingers long after the course.

Other teaching techniques geared for the ears are tapping, snapping or striking the table or the board when you want to emphasize something. Not only does it serve to wake up the hangover, it will also be an excellent anchor to the memory.

Techniques for the Mouth

The most obvious teaching technique that’s geared for the mouth is through food. The thing is, there’s a myriad of things you can teach and the students can learn by placing food in the mouth. Nothing is as vivid as placing something in the mouth. You can teach anything from words to idiomatic expressions.

For example, you can teach the Japanese word tsumetai (cold) by getting your students to eat ice cubes. Well, you can actually also teach tsurutsuru (slippery) or katai (hard) using the same object, depending really on where you want to take the lesson. With bread, you can teach the concepts of “soft,” “sweet” even “dry.” Milk each object so you can teach as many vocabulary concepts from it as possible.

So, while you’re on the topic of bread in a French class, maybe you can go into idiomatic expressions and teach the phrase avoir du pain sur la planche. Literally this means to have bread on the board, and figuratively means that you have a lot to do. Or how about the phrase pour une bouchée de pain. Literally, it means to buy something for a mouthful of bread. Meaning, to buy it cheap. It will be an interesting thing to learn while your students are munching on some delicious bread.

You can teach so much with just a few items, so long as you know how to make the necessary connections.

And don’t just tell your class to imagine what the cold, slippery and hard ice would feel like in their mouths. There’s no substitute for the real thing. So, whenever possible, bring the food to class. It will not only be an immersive experience, it will be an unforgettable one.

Beyond stuffing your students’ mouths, you can teach awareness. Remind them that the mouth is an instrument for speaking. Help them with foreign language pronunciation by making them extra aware of what’s happening with the different parts of the mouth: lips, tongue, palate, teeth.

For example, when you’re teaching word pronunciation, don’t just tell them to repeat after you. Tell them where the lips or tongue should be or how they should move them. One way of adding awareness is by doing pronunciation exercises in front of a mirror. This would allow them to see the mouth in action and witness what its different parts are doing to produce a specific sound.

When teaching pronunciation, exaggerate words. Enunciate them clearly. Lengthen the stressed syllables and then repeat. Pay special attention to sound elements in the target language that may not be as prominent in your students’ native tongues. So, for example, when you’re teaching Spanish, emphasize and repeat the r sounds, as in: “RararararapidoRapido! Raaaaaa. . .Raaaa…Rarararararapido!

Techniques for the Body and Skin

Things get kinesthetic here. I’m betting that you have students who respond best when they’re the ones doing the movements, instead of looking at you doing actions.

They’ll scarcely participate in choral singing activities but are the first ones out the door after you announced that the class will learn Italian numbers by playing basketball outside. For these types of students, their memory and comprehension works best when they can associate things with a certain movement of the body.

For example, they’ll easily understand saltar, the Spanish word for jump, when they’re on their feet bouncing outside the classroom. Now, this may just look like the class horsing around, or the teacher trying to keep the participants awake and engaged, but for these types of learners, this is when the class is finally hitting its stride.

The Total Physical Response (TPR) approach to learning language would prove most useful here. TPR is the coordination of language learning with physical movement. TPR activities usually involve plenty of verbal commands from the teacher which are then executed by the students. So, for example, the teacher might shout verbs like “kick,” “dance” or “swim.” The students would then prove their comprehension of the command by engaging in the required action.

Like the previous section, there are plenty of immersive opportunities here.

In addition to activities that require body movements, you can hit the skin, the largest sense organ in the human body, and drive home a point.

If you want to teach concepts like “rough,” “wet,” “hot,” “hard” or “slippery,” you can simply ask them to touch, stroke or caress objects that display these properties and you would have made these concepts immeasurably vivid and real for them. Some students learn the numbers when they’re actually holding objects. What could be more real than holding two apples and learning that dos is Spanish for two?

Techniques for the Nose

Hitting the olfactory organ as you’re teaching the language is one of the best moves you can make as a teacher. You’ll definitely be repaid in the long term.

When the nose picks up a familiar scent, it floods the brain with memories associated with the smell. That’s why when you’re on the street and you get a whiff of your old flame’s perfume headed for the opposite direction, you instantly remember a lot of things, wholesale, like they were yesterday.

The nose is that powerful and there’s just no reason to skip it when teaching language.

The obvious way of doing this is bringing an object and allowing students to smell it. You can bring flowers, balls, damp soil, candies, socks, curry, blue cheese, orange, flowers, popcorn, perfume or even sour milk. Here, there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the object and the foreign vocabulary word. For example, “That’s what naranja (orange) smells like!”

But smell is not just limited to one-to-one correspondence. You can link a single smell with a class of vocabulary that’s related, however remotely, to it.

Create connections in the minds of your wards. For example, you can fill the classroom with the smell of coffee and teach a thousand vocabulary words all thematically related to coffee. Like breakfast, time of the day, the color black, hot temperature. Because the session is driven by “coffee,” you shouldn’t be afraid to break the conventional groupings of these concepts. They may traditionally belong to different sets, but “breakfast” and “the color black” are related in this case because they both are related to coffee.

Or, you can reverse engineer the whole process. You can have a class-generated set of vocabulary words. Let the class take a whiff and tell you what the smell reminds them of. List down these words. Now, you know the specific vocabulary stimulated by the smell. Bingo! Teach the vocabulary set in the target language.

The thing to remember here is that although there are practically unlimited numbers of smells in the world, there’s only a limited number of them you can take in the classroom. So you’ve got to make them count and associate the smell with as many words as possible. Simply spray the thing around the classroom before you get started and trust it to work its way into your students’ memories.

So think, what kinds of smells will you be bringing inside the classroom? What smell connections or memories are you going to create?

Be creative.

Here are other things you can do. You can set the mood for your story by bringing scented air fresheners and spraying around the class before you start a tale. Or you can ask that the lights be turned off and, using appropriate scented candles, tell a story with the class seated in a circle, as if in a camp fire.

You can blindfold students and present different objects to smell and they have to guess what it is.


And that’s basically it! You’re all set to serve your class with a sensory cocktail that can make any mundane lesson utterly intoxicating.

I haven’t set forth any shortcuts here, it’s all hard work, I must admit, but it’s a journey worth taking.

The multisensory approach to teaching will give your students a language learning experience they’ll find very hard to forget. And so will you!

Good luck!

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