Modalities for Learning

   Twenty-some years ago when I was attending teacher college, they didn’t mention that students learn by more than one modality. In many of my classes, we were taught how to make lessons plans by using the teacher’s textbook scope and sequence. Wow! How far I’ve come in terms of writing lesson plans (and other areas, too). No wonder it’s so difficult to change the system, or even how teachers teach, for that matter. Most of us were taught to teach they way we were taught when we were in school. From the book, read the chapter, answer the questions, take the test, and on Monday, it starts all over again.

   It wasn’t until I was teaching for a few years that I was invited to take a reading training. I didn’t know it would last two years, or that the information I’d receive would forever change how I taught anything, including horseback riding lessons! We learned a way to introduce sounds of letters by giving words auditorily, visually, and then linking the sound to an object, which was tactile. As the students practiced the letters and the sounds, there was a particular part of the ‘sequence’ that gave the student the opportunity for kinesthetic learning as well (large arm motions as they spelled words and wrote letters in cursive on a variety of surfaces).

   A few years later in a math training, the term ‘discovery learning’ was coined. I used this premise as I offered teacher training in a constructivist approach for teaching math. I carried this over when I worked with trainers from Texas Instruments on utilizing the graphing calculators in Special Ed. math classes.

   By using all 3 modalities (four, if you separate tactile from kinesthetic, which actually are two different ways of learning) when I introduce a concept and when the students practice, I have seen comprehension increase. When I’ve extended this to assessments, what the students created was amazing.  In Arizona, a law was passed that stated each teacher will become SEI certified. When I went to the training, it was an emphasis on using these modalities! I thought, “Isn’t this what good teachers do anyway?”

   Because students learn in different ways, if we’re to reach more of them, we have to teach in different ways. Present information visually if students will be taking notes or watching a movie. As you fill in details about the subject or concept verbally, students are using their auditory skills. By having them move to a different location to study vocabulary words with a partner, or by demonstrating a concept by using their body, students are able to tap into their kinesthetic sense. Different writing utensils, writing surfaces, and objects that represent a vocabulary word, are all examples of the tactile modality.

   While every student has their preferred learning modality (for most teachers it is visual), it is our job to gently push them to expand in the other modes of learning. And often, our learning modality is also our teaching modality. If you’re consistently using only one, then you’re missing two-thirds of your class! If you find your students are bored or believe that they aren’t motivated, try throwing in an auditory assignment if you typically give notes on the board. Have them play a game that requires that they get up out of their seats, and you’ll have one-third of the students (usually boys) completely engaged in the information you’re trying to get across.

   Besides motivating students, the more modalities that are used, the more pathways that are created in the brain for new material. The more pathways, the easier it is for retrieval. The use of technology in the classroom certainly has its place, but the materials I have created are much simpler and use all these modes for learning. You can see them on my web site at I’m always looking for teachers who have great ideas that they want to sell, so check out that page on my site. Leave a comment if you have a particular way you use visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile modalities in your classroom.