What about Tracing and Other Multi-sensory Teaching Approaches?

  • 16 May, 2020
  • 24 Comments

Teacher question:

I have read the work of researchers like Louisa Moats, Stanislas Dehaene, and Linnea Ehri and have an understanding of how reading works in the brain. I understand the critical role of connecting graphemes to phonemes. My question is what is the true role of the kinesthetic activities promoted in many intervention programs? In a webinar that I watched the speaker mentioned several times how critical it was to have students trace the words because this created neural pathways. What does the research say about this?

Shanahan response:

The idea of tracing words to improve literacy has been around for a century. You’d think in that amount of time, we’d have a clear idea on whether or not tracing (and all of the other haptic and kinesthetic responses to letters and words) helps and, if so, how and why.

But you’d be wrong.

This method was first described by Grace Fernald and Hellen Keller in 1921. Fernald, a clinical psychologist, with a practice focused on reading improvement, applied the method with severely disabled readers. By all accounts, she was a remarkable teacher and her article described what she did and how well it worked (the boys and girls that she worked with learned to read). She didn’t devote much space to why she thought tracing was such a boon.

Needless to say, her idea caught on and ended up in a number of remedial reading programs, most notably in the one created by Gillingham & Stillman (these days referred to as the Orton-Gillingham method or the O-G method). And, via that route, there are today several commercial instructional programs aimed at dyslexia that include various kinds of tracing and air writing and that sort of thing.

Over time, these V-A-K-T (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) practices accumulated a plethora of explanations for why they worked (Shams, & Seitz, 2008). Many of these explanations focus on memory – the person you listened to seems to be in that camp – that idea of building either additional neural pathways or reinforcing visual-auditory pathways in the brain through physical movement and touch. But there are also attentional and perceptual explanations and there have been many a rationale based on whatever the current thought on brain architecture and neural processing may have been at the time. Some of these explanations have fallen by the wayside as it has become apparent they are out of sync with the way the brain works, but many are still unresolved.

Personally, given more modern descriptions of neural processing (D’Mello & Gabrieli, 2018), I’m more in the attention camp. I’m not convinced that these practices create alternative neural routes or facilitate the paring of alternative paths typical of learning.

My own guess – and this is no more than that (and mine is not necessarily any better than yours) – is that the various kinesthetic schemes do little more than increase the amount of time that readers look at the letters and words when trying to learn them and tfocus the readers’ attention better on those things that have to be learned.

I say “no more than” as if focusing and extending student attention on a word’s construction were a trivial matter. But that is also true of many successful mathemagenic behaviors (those actions that give rise to learning). Think, for instance, of many study skills; they simply get students to spend more time thinking about the ideas in text by highlighting or taking notes (Rothkopf, 1970).

When youngsters simultaneously look at a word, say its name, and trace its letters, it is certainly possible that they are improving word memory for some subtle neurological reason, but it could simply be that they must keep their eyes trained on the word longer and that may encourage some of the kinds of phonological stretching (drawing out the pronunciation of a word to highlight the phonological parts and make them more phonetically accessible).

Of course, providing a rationale for why tracing works, assumes that it does, which raises a big, “Not so fast.”

Unfortunately, though educators have tilled these fields for a hundred years, it is unclear whether that it works or not.

Part of the problem is that despite numerous investigations concerning the impact of V-A-K-T approaches on learning, the issue has never gained so much sustained attention from the scientific community that deep understanding and insight has resulted. Often when there is a considerable amount of study of an issue, we start to figure out which paradigms are most informative and which study designs may be misleading us. That has not been the case here.

Making it even more difficult to sort out is the fact that many of the studies that have been done tend to be small (frequently with no more than a few children), and they are quite diverse in the outcomes they aimed for or the students whom they were teaching. They are so diverse in these regards I doubt that a meaningful meta-analysis could even be executed.

Certainly, some of the studies support the idea of teaching reading (or aspects of reading such as letter recognition or blending) using multisensory approaches (Campbell, Helf, Cooke, 2008; Connor, 1994; Gentaz, Cole, & Bara, 2003; Ho, Lam, & Au, 2001; Itaguchi, Yamada, & Fukuzawa, 2015; Itaguchi, Yamada, Yoshihara, & Fukuzawa, 2017; Nash, Thorpe, & Lamp, 1980; Thomas, 2015; Xu, Liu, & Joshi, 2019). However, for the most part these studies were conducted with non-alphabetic languages like Japanese or Chinese, or included fewer than 10 students. None of the studies done in Western languages made any attempt to control or measure the time differences between the trainings, which though not necessarily supportive of my earlier supposition that the effect is coming from more time on task, certainly does not refute it.

Yes, there are those studies that support tracing, but there are also many studies that reported no clear or consistent benefits from such approaches (Hulme, 1981; Lee, 2016; Myers, 1978; Schlesinger & Gray, 2017; Wilson, Harris, & Harris, 1976). And, there are still other studies showing that tracing can be distracting or irrelevant, leading to lower relative performance than more traditional visual-auditory approaches to decoding (Berninger, Lester, Sohlberg, & Mateer, 1991; Rau, Zheng, & Wei, 2020); Vandever, & Nevelle, D. 1972).

After 100 years, I still can’t tell you if tracing improves learning when it comes to reading.

Of course, there are a number of instructional programs that incorporate tracing, and studies have shown some of these programs to be effective. That, however, is not a contradiction, since these successful programs do much more than tracing. Maybe the tracing they are doing is beneficial, maybe it is simply inert adding nothing (though perhaps wasting a bit of time), and even if the tracing was disruptive, it obviously is not so damaging as to outweigh the remaining benefits of these programs.

Given all of this, as a teacher I would not specifically seek out multisensory programs (though I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid them either).

If I were using such a program, I’d do what I could to ensure that the tracing was not distracting the students from matching up the sounds and spellings by ear and eye; I much prefer having students looking and sounds along with the tracing (which means I’m not a big fan of air tracing despite its effectiveness in supporting the memorization of Japanese characters).

I used the analogy of study skills earlier, and I think there is something to be learned from that work. Take a study skill like highlighting the key points of a text. Sometimes highlighting supports learning and sometimes it doesn’t. It helps when it leads students to think hard about the ideas in the text, trying to determine which parts should be highlighted, and then, going back and rereading the highlighted portions. But when students simply highlight everything, it does nothing to improve comprehension or recall.

I suspect tracing gains such a mixed bag of results for the same reason. If tracing supports more thorough and careful looking and listening, it could be beneficial. When it doesn’t, it may have no impact whatsoever. And, when learners get all wrapped up in rubbing the letters or dipping their fingers in goop, it could be a distraction that reduces learning.

Tracing, if it is to be used at all, should slow students down, focusing their attention on the letters and helping them to think about the letters and sounds more thoroughly and carefully. The teacher who uses this method has to be vigilant to make sure that it delivers.

References

Berninger, V., Lester, K., Sohlberg, M. M., & Mateer, C. (1991). Interventions based on the multiple connections model of reading for developmental dyslexia and acquired deep dyslexia. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 6(4), 375-391.

Campbell, M. L., Helf, S., Cooke, N. L. (2008). Effects of adding multisensory components to a supplemental reading program on the decoding skills of treatment resisters. Education & Treatment of Children, 31(3), 267-295. 

Connor, M. (1994). Specific learning difficulty (dyslexia) and interventions. Support for Learning, 9(4), 114-119.

Fernald, G. M., & Keller, H. (1921). The effect of kinaesthetic factors in the development of word recognition in the case of non-readers. Journal of Educational Research, 4, 355-379.

Gentaz, E., Cole, P., & Bara, F. (2003). Évaluation d'entraînements multisensoriels de préparation à la lecture pour les enfants en grande section de maternelle: Une étude sur la contribution du système haptique manuel. L’Annee Psychologique, 103(4), 561-584.

Ho, C. S., Lam, E. Y., & Au, A. (2001). The effectiveness of multisensory training in improving reading and writing skills of Chinese dyslexic children. Psychologia: An International Journal of Psychology in the Orient, 44(4), 269-280.

Hulme, C. (1981). The effects of manual tracing on memory in normal and retarded readers: Some implications for multi-sensory teaching. Psychological Research, 43(2), 179-191.

Itaguchi, Y., Yamada, C., & Fukuzawa, K. (2015). Writing in the air: Contributions of finger movement to cognitive processing. PLoS One, 19(6).

Itaguchi, Y., Yamada, C., Yoshihara, M., & Fukuzawa, K. (2017). Writing in the air: A visualization tool for written languages. PLoS ONE, 12(6).

Lee, L. W., (2016). Multisensory modalities for blending and segmenting among early readers. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 29(5), 1017-1032.

Myers, C. A. (1978). Reviewing the literature on Fernald’s technique of remedial reading. Reading Teacher, 31(6), 614-619.

Nash, R. T., Thorpe, H. W., & Lamp, S. (1980). A study of the effectiveness of the kinesthetic-tactile component in multisensory instruction. Corrective & Social Psychiatry & Journal of Behavior Technology Methods & Therapy, 26(2).

Rau, P.P., Zheng, J., & Wei, Y. (2020). Distractive effect of multimodal information in multisensory learning. Computers & Education, 144. DOI:10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103699

Schlesigner, N. W., & Gray, S. (2017). The impact of multisensory instruction on learning letter names and sounds, word reading, and spelling. Annals of Dyslexia, 67(3), 219-258.

Shams, L., & Seitz, A. R. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Science.

https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(08)00218-0?_returnURL=

Thomas, M. (2015). Air writing as a technique for the acquisition of sino-Japanese characters by second language learners. Language Learning, 65(3), 631-659.

Vandever, T. R., & Nevelle, D. D. (1972). The effectiveness of tracing for good and poor decoders. Journal of Reading Behavior, 5(2), 119-125.

Wilson, S. P., Harris, C. W., & Harris, M. L. (1976). Effects of an auditory perceptual remediation program on reading performance. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 9(10), 671-678.

Xu, Z., Liu, D., & Joshi, R. M. (2019). The influence of sensory-motor components of handwriting on Chinese character learning in second- and fourth-grade Chinese children. Journal of Educational Psychology. DOI:10.1037/edu0000443

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Marilyn Zecher
May 16, 2020 06:31 PM

While not discounting all you have explored in terms of reading, I would like to add that tracing while saying a sound does, in my opinion, help to build automaticity for spelling and writing. When we consider orthography, the multisensory approach gains more traction. Thus the link between reading and writing can be part of this conversation. Fluency for the written graphemes and linking them together as sounds become words begins at that tracing letter. Efficiency is gained when a student consistently forms a letter the same way, especially for cursive writing. Devoting a little time for those linkages between sound and symbol and writing that symbol given the sound can be critically important.

Jenny Azzopardi
May 16, 2020 07:08 PM

I must say I agree with Marilyn and was thinking the same thoughts whilst reading your article. Tracing initiates the muscle memory and skills required for handwriting, which in turn is required to produce graphemes which of course then are used to create words. All part of the reading process.

Amy Smith
May 16, 2020 07:40 PM

Tim,

Thank you for addressing this topic and raising a valuable question about the benefits of tracing and VAKT approaches. Error correction is a critical component in a structured literacy lesson and involves having the student '"trace and say" the letter(s) names when an error is made either in a visual drill of letter/sounds, or during word reading. It definitely slows the student down and forces him or her focus attention on the error and correcting it. Students with dyslexia have difficulty with automatic retrieval of sounds or strings of sounds in language and mapping to the printed form, so the repetition towards automaticity is important.

Information-Processing theories and models illustrate the way information moves through different stages, how it is processed, reflected on, learned, saved, and retrieved. The sensory register is the first input. So, you might conclude that the involvement of more than one sensory pathway might enhance memory. The second aspect is that the more attention you give to any piece
of information, the more likely it will move from working memory into long term memory.

Despite the absence of quality and volume of research conducted on multi-sensory approaches in literacy instruction, maybe we just view this the same way we view explicit phonics instruction..it never hurt a child, right?

Jo-Anne Gross
May 17, 2020 12:33 AM

I agree with all three of the commentators.

Jo-Anne Gross
May 17, 2020 12:33 AM

I agree with all three of the commentators.

Tim Shanahan
May 17, 2020 02:36 AM

Obviously this is a matter of strong belief. Any idea why research doesn’t support it?

Thanks

Tim

JoAnne Gross
May 17, 2020 07:40 AM

I’ve been involved in a small gold standard study.
Tier 2-3 children ,
Because so much depends on the teacher consistency, both being there, kids getting same number of lessons..
I think it’s hard to prove scientifically but we did equal RR and LLI results 8 weeks faster.
The anecdotal is very strong, parents crying etc..
Teachers feeling very proud..
It’s a winning strategy for struggling kids.
It helps teachers succeed.

Madison Lewis
May 17, 2020 04:42 PM

I am thinking back to a talk I heard by either Maryanne Wolf or Stanislas Dehaene who mentioned that a benefit of learning cursive could have to do with letters’ directionality and the process of breaking the rule of symmetry generalization in the letterbox of the brain. From that perspective, would tracing while saying the letter name or sound also have the same effect?

Peter Bowers
May 17, 2020 06:49 PM

Hello Tim and fellow commenters on this interesting post.
While I would need to more specifics about exactly what processes are engaged in the process of "tracing" discussed in the post, it seems clear to me that it is related to practices that are essential -- and often not well understood -- about structured word inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010). In that 2010 article, I briefly address this process, but over the years this practice has become more and more central to my practice working with teachers and students. I describe these practices as "writing-out-loud" and "spelling-out-loud" word structure. These very explicit and prescribed practices build directly on the ideas discussed here about leveraging multi-memory roots, and more. I tried and failed to describe these ideas in relation to this post, but both the length and limitations of a comment box make it very hard to be clear about the practices and related theory and research. Diagrams, images and links to related resources/research are so valuable of this, but not really possible in a comment box.

If you are interested in considering practices that I think are driven by similar motivations as "tracing" but which explicitly target morphological AND graphemic structures, I have created a pdf that you can download from this link:

http://files.realspellers.org/PetesFolder/resources/May_17_comment_on_Shanahan.pdf

Not only do I provide an introduction to the practice, but I link to theory and research that drives it. In particular, I address how this practice draws from cognitive load theory (Shnotz & Kurshner, 2007), Perfetti's Lexical Quality Hypothesis (Perfetti, 2007) and the theory that builds directly on these theories which I put forward with John Kirby (Kirby & Bowers, 2017) on morphology as a "binding agent".

I hope readers find it useful.

Cheers,
Pete

Harriett
May 17, 2020 09:22 PM

I keep circling back to these statements:

"Personally, given more modern descriptions of neural processing (D’Mello & Gabrieli, 2018), I’m more in the attention camp. I’m not convinced that these practices create alternative neural routes or facilitate the paring of alternative paths typical of learning. My own guess – and this is no more than that (and mine is not necessarily any better than yours) – is that the various kinesthetic schemes do little more than increase the amount of time that readers look at the letters and words when trying to learn them and to focus the readers’ attention better on those things that have to be learned. I say “no more than” as if focusing and extending student attention on a word’s construction were a trivial matter. But that is also true of many successful mathemagenic behaviors (those actions that give rise to learning). Think, for instance, of many study skills; they simply get students to spend more time thinking about the ideas in text by highlighting or taking notes (Rothkopf, 1970)."

So many of us have our strategies that we swear by: tracing, spelling-out-loud, or in my case, saying the sound as you write the sound (regardless of how many letters are in that sound: w-eigh-t). And maybe the successes that we seem to have are a result of focusing "the readers’ attention better on those things that have to be learned."

Tim Shanahan
May 18, 2020 01:27 AM

Jo Ann —

That comparison can’t possibly evaluate the effectiveness of tracing.

Tim

Tim Shanahan
May 18, 2020 01:29 AM

Peter

That isn’t comparable to the claims that kinesthetic and haptic movements of the fingers facilitates learning to read as operationalized in several reading programs. Unless you are claiming that finger movement is crucial in learning morphology.

Tim

Jo Anne Gross
May 18, 2020 09:03 AM

Explicitly teach the phoneme -grapheme in a systematic curriculum.
Have students listen, say it (articulation of sound connected to shape )and trace it. I use rice trays.
We do it 3 times so it sticks while asking questions.
The kids we teach, not Tier 1 but those that struggle to learn are helped by the linkages.

Because of the population we are addressing, it should not even enter your mind to be condescending.
We both know that since IDA was
Founded it has recommended linking modalities simultaneously.

Tory
May 18, 2020 02:41 PM

Interesting question! I'm stuck on the assumption mentioned in original question: "tracing words creates neural pathways."

I thought of Dehaene's "letterbox" and what the brain does with phonemes/graphemes/words as further refutation of whole-word as the powerhouse for linguistic processing.

If we do our work, the brain can then chunk, arrange, retrieve sub-lexical units to form the combinations for infinite words. It's not a unique neural pathway for every whole word per se. It's getting the brain on board with the alphabetic principle? Have I misunderstood or misapplied this?

Seidenberg, I then thought, affirms Dehaene with, for example, his discussion (Language at speed of sight, p 143: No Sight Words) about the high utility of the components of words.

If I'm on track, is this an example of how cognitive neuroscience can help our teaching? If it indicates that tracing words to create neural pathways isn't how the brain seems to work, maybe we can consider other possibilities better aligned with cognitive neuroscience? Kinesthetic doesn't have to mean tracing as used for the last 100+ years.

Or maybe I'm wrong....





Jackie
May 18, 2020 04:41 PM

I was trained in the Orton-Gillingham method twenty years ago. At the time I was a reading specialist for kindergarten students. With various types of testing we were able to reduce the amount of students who qualified for reading programs in first and second grades and beyond. I definitely give some credit to the program however, teaching reading disabilities requires a whole host of strategies that I wasn't taught in my undergraduate work but learned later when obtaining a Master's in Reading. Often students don't learn sounds correctly because they are use to hearing a slang with a sound from their home life. Reteaching the sound is often necessary for them to put sounds together when they begin reading. There is so much more to reading than a certain reading approach. Being a quality reading teacher is someone who has knowledge beyond the basal, and likely, beyond hundreds of reading programs. It takes a person who can put the reader who is three grade levels beyond in an appropriate book and carefully guide each student to make at least one years progress. I'm a fan of Orton-Gillingham, but I am a greater fan of helping teachers to get more education on the reading process. Those are the teachers who can make the best judgements about the material for their students.

Terri Hessler
May 18, 2020 10:24 PM

I'm currently doing research on multisensory tactics. The pandemic cut it off before I could get very far (single-subject alternating treatments design with kindergarteners), but I have done extensive background reading (read well over 100 studies going back to 1963) on this and started a comprehensive literature review. I find that the primary reason that we cannot draw a conclusion about existing research is the lack of treatment integrity: Very few researchers describe the multisensory movements with any kind of detail. My first study will look at finger tracing and sky writing (my least favorite), and then I will move on to comparing a multisensory tactic to mental rehearsal. I disagree with the idea that "it never hurt a child"; that is exactly what has been said about whole language approaches. It DOES hurt a child to use a strategy that is not moving a child forward in reading progress. 70%ish of students who score below grade level in 3rd grade do not catch up and are still behind in 9th grade. We not only need EFFECTIVE instructional, we also need EFFICIENT instruction so that "our kids" have a chance to catch up to their peers. If something is not adding to instruction effectiveness AND it takes time, it should be eliminated. You (Tim) gave me an idea about how to finesse my study so that I can capture effectiveness versus efficiency.

Jo Anne Gross
May 18, 2020 11:07 PM

Terri
Dr.Judith Birsh
Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language etc
Brooks Publishing

I don’t believe in air writing either.
Also
If you can pick up a book by Beth Slingerland, it will really fascinate you.
I’m excited about your research.
The field needs it.

Lauren Thompson
May 28, 2020 07:21 PM

JoAnne Gross, if all your work did was to "equal RR and LLI results 8 weeks faster," that isn't saying much. What would happen if you compared your intervention to a structured literacy approach, which does have evidence of effectiveness?

Lauren Thompson
May 28, 2020 07:23 PM

JoAnne Gross, if all your work did was to "equal RR and LLI results 8 weeks faster," that isn't saying much. What would happen if you compared your intervention to a structured literacy approach, which does have evidence of effectiveness?

Lauren Thompson
May 28, 2020 07:23 PM

JoAnne Gross, if all your work did was to "equal RR and LLI results 8 weeks faster," that isn't saying much. What would happen if you compared your intervention to a structured literacy approach, which does have evidence of effectiveness?

Lauren Thompson
May 28, 2020 07:44 PM

Tim, thank you for digging through all the research. The question of whether activities like tracing, drawing in shaving cream, shaping letters out of clay, or sky-writing are evidence-based comes up again and again in numerous literacy and SLP forums I follow. Strongly held beliefs seem to hold sway more than scientific evidence. Then again, it's been hard to know which search terms to look for to capture relevant studies. This post will be a useful response within such discussions. I have never found any basis for the claim that using large-muscles to practice movements transfers to relevant small-muscle memory. If they are different muscles, how does this activity activate both sets of neural pathways at the same time?

I have understood the multi-sensory aspect of O-G methods to mean having students engage as many language-oriented sensory modes as possible, i.e. hearing and speaking for oral language, and seeing and writing for written language. As I remember, it is described as such in Birch and Carrekers's work, and elsewhere. Thus when it comes to tactile and kinesthetic modalities, I think in terms of handwriting. Berninger has written about the effectiveness of practicing letter formation by following a set pattern of marks, supported cognitively by orally rehearsing a letter formation script. The student would be using a writing utensil on a writing surface, not their finger on embroidery netting or on a tray of shaving cream, and not writing into the air. Any further thoughts on this?

Thanks for prompting me to articulate another rabbit hole for me to chase down.

T
Jun 04, 2020 12:18 PM

Lauren raises a critical distinction. Tracing letters as she well describes is a very different thing from tracing words (original question) for many reasons. I discussed with some neuroscientist colleagues. Short answer about word tracing: it overwhelms the system.

Neurobiological studies also indicate that multi sensory integration of information places additional demands on systems that may already be straining.

Laura
Jul 05, 2020 12:49 AM

On another note, I teach Montessori (Dr. Maria Montessori was a scientist/doctor before an educator) where we introduce sounds using sandpaper letters to trace with the index and middle finger. The sandpaper letters serve a couple of purposes: to lay the foundation for penmanship, to introduce a sound to a symbol, and then to teach the letter. Students see how the sounds they hear are written. Children learn the shape of the letter, then associate the sound they are already familiar with, with the visual symbol or the letter. Montessori emphasized that writing comes first, then reading. Later, by blending these sounds together, children begin to read phonetic words without laborious effort. This method, which engages three senses, visual, auditory, and tactile, contrasts sharply with the traditional approach of looking at letters to memorize them. I think tracing individual letters is a better method than tracing words and helps solidify sounds. I do not endorse air writing as the sensory component is missing.

Dr. Steven Hughes is cited in "The Neurology of Montessori", which states that "Reading requires three separate brain functions: capturing visual symbols, decoding each symbol’s sound, and assigning each symbol meaning. While each of these brain functions can be taught separately, Montessori materials such as the Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet encourage simultaneous use of each function, resulting in neurological networks that coordinate reading. Hughes also focuses on the tactile methods of Montessori as they relate to brain development, asserting that the hands are a child’s strongest link to the brain. When motor movements are repeated they become templates in the brain that serve as a starting point for new experiences."

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What about Tracing and Other Multi-sensory Teaching Approaches?

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