What Are Multisensory Techniques?

Multisensory means just what it sounds like, using the visual, aural, tactile, and kinesthetic senses to teach musical concepts. By tapping into the different senses, it creates a more concrete and more complete learning experience. I have developed my own special brand of multisensory strategies that I have geared for use in music, some of which were published in the Dyslexic Reader. You can also find many useful tips in Margaret Hubicki’s chapter, “A Multisensory Approach to the Teaching of Musical Notation”, in Music and Dyslexia: Opening New Doors.

Multisensory methods are not limited only to students with learning disabilities and special needs. As I mentioned in the What is LD & What is ADD? page, both the strengths and struggles of learning disabilities stem from the student being a visual thinker, this is why mutisensory learning techniques work so well with learning disabled students, but almost all students under the age of eleven are going to have a strong tendency to learn better through concrete examples.

One model of childhood development, proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, has children making different cognitive shifts around ages 2, 7, and 11. Dennis Coon gives a summary of the four stages:

The Sensorimotor Stage (0-2): In the first two years of life, a child’s intellectual development is largely nonverbal. The child is mainly concerned with learning to coordinate purposeful movements with information from the senses… Active play with a child is most effective at this stage. Encourage explorations in touching, smelling, and manipulating objects…

The Preoperational Stage (2-7): During the preoperational period the child is developing an ability to think symbolically and use language. But the child’s thinking is still very intuitive… Although children are beginning to talk to themselves and act out solutions to problems, touching and seeing things will continue to be more useful than verbal explanations. Concrete examples will also have more meaning than generalizations. The child should be encouraged to classify things in different ways…

The Concrete Operational Stage (7-11): During the concrete operational stage a child’s thought begins to include concepts of time, space, and number. Categories and principles are used, and the child can think logically about concrete objects and situations. Another important development at this time is the ability to reverse thoughts and operations… Reversibility of thought allows a child in the concrete operations stage to recognize that if 4 * 2 = 8, then 2 * 4 does, too. Younger children must memorize each relationship separately… Children in this stage are beginning to use generalizations, but they still require specific examples [i.e., concrete examples] to grasp many ideas. Expect a degree of inconsistency in the child’s ability to apply concepts of time, space, quantity, and volume to new situations…

The Formal Operational Stage (11 Years and Up): Sometime after about the age of 11, the child begins to break away from concrete objects and specific examples… The stage of formal operations represents attainment of full adult intellectual ability… From this point on, improvements in intellectual ability are based on the accumulation of knowledge, experience, and wisdom, rather than on an enlargement of basic thinking capacity… At this point it becomes more realistic to explain things verbally or symbolically to a child. Helping the child master general rules and principles now becomes productive. Encourage the child to create hypothesis and to imagine how things ‘could be'” (Coon, p. 376 – 378, 380).

As a child gets older he is able to deal with more and more abstract concepts. After age six or seven, the child will be able to do some abstract reasoning, but will still benefit from concrete teaching. Around eleven or twelve years old the last cognitive shift will take place, at this point the child will be thinking like an adult, but will not have the experience of an adult. (It is my theory that students with learning disabilities make the cognitive shifts at a later age than traditional learners.) This is why multisensory techniques work so well with the younger student, because it links into his concrete style of learning.

From another angle, Dr. Linda K. Silverman who works with gifted students, found that over 63% of students will have at least some preference for visual thinking. She studied 750 middle schoolers using the test she developed, called the Visual-Spatial Identifier. The results showed that 33.3% of the students where firmly visual-spatial, and another 30% had a small preference for visual processing, but only 23% where firmly verbal-sequential, which suggests that almost two-thirds of students would benefit, to one degree or another, from multisensory teaching methods, but it is my belief, based on decades of teaching experience, that virtually everyone can benefit from a multisensory approach (par. 5).


Coon, Dennis. Introduction to Psychology: Exploration and Application. 4th ed. St. Paul: West, 1986.

Hubicki, Margaret. “A Multisensory Approach to the Teaching of Musical Notation.” Music and Dyslexia: Opening New Doors. Eds. T.R. Miles and John Westcombe. London: Whurr, 2001. 85 – 100.

Silverman, Linda K. Gifted Development. 5 Jan. 2006 <http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/Visual_Spatial_Learner/vsl.htm >.

© 2006 Geoffrey Keith