Bridgeton School Uses Multi-Sensory Teaching to Help Children Learn to Read

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BRIDGETON, N.J. -

There’s excitement in Bridgeton classrooms as the district implements a multi-sensory approach to teaching beginner readers.

There can be songs heard from Jessica Lucas’ kindergarten class at a time the students are learning how to read. At other times, students can, be seen drawing letters in sand trays. Actually, the methods are part of a multi-sensory program incorporated by the Bridgeton Public School District that is getting young students to read toward their grade level at a remarkable rate.

This approach, called the Orton-Gillingham methodology by the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, is used at Buckshutem Road Elementary School, and the percent of students reading at grade level has soared.

“Entering the second grade, 89 percent of students were reading on level (at Buckshutem), which was phenomenal to what we were before,” said Barbara Wilchensky, director of curriculum language, arts, and literacy for the Bridgeton Public School District.

Bridgeton introduced the multi-sensory education method to the district in 2015 when it sent its Response to Intervention team to the Institute for a training session. Multi-sensory education attempts to use all of the child’s senses—taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing, and movement—in their learning experience.

For example, if a student is learning the word orange, they might get a chance to taste and smell the fruit along with reading the word in an effort to help them remember it. Another strategy is to use “sound-tapping,” where a student taps out each sound of a word with their fingers and thumbs to help them break the words down.

“It’s not just about the kids doing a worksheet to learn this,” Wilchensky said. “They are really involved in this. There is a lot of pounding and tapping. There is chanting going on. They use sand trays to make letters.

“It goes along with the whole philosophy of engaging the brain physically with those kinds of motions that will trigger permanency. I’m going to remember it more if I am physically in the learning,” she continued.

Lucas told the IMSE Journal last month that she created a way to incorporate American Sign Language with students using the Orton-Gillingham methodology.

“We do a cute little alphabet song, and the kids learn the sign for each letter and the sound, too, so it really has helped them and they remember the sound with the sign a lot easier,” Lucas said. “So naturally with OG, it was really easy to incorporate signing into OG. They finger spell red words, when we do the blending board they finger spell all the letters as we’re doing it—I found that it really helps them make that connection solid between the letter and the sound, it’s like a mental image almost.”

The results have been impressive. This year, more than 75 percent of Buckshutem Road students entering third grade are reading at or above the national ready standard. Bridgeton, which serves a high poverty area, also has many students where English is not the primary language in their home.

Now the Orton-Gillingham methodology is being used in all of Bridgeton’s elementary schools and is being spread to the third, fourth and fifth grades.

“We have seen growth in our reading scores and our students are improving their reading scores in the grade level band,” Wilchensky said. “More importantly, we have seen where this program has drawn our teachers together and created a collaborative environment that focuses on literacy.

“Everyone in the school knows about the program. They talk to the kids about what they’re learning, through IMSE through even the gym teacher. He’s involved in the instruction. Our students continue to show dramatic improvement,” she said.

Amy DeFeo, a second-grade teacher at Buckshutem said she is sold on the multi-sensory method based on the excitement she sees in her students as they break down—and more importantly—learn and remember words in their readings.

“The comprehensive training changed the way we look at struggling readers and overall phonics instruction,” DeFeo said. “We now have a better understanding (and resource) for spelling rules.

“I myself have taught grade levels kindergarten through second grade utilizing the strategies from Orton Gillingham and have seen a huge progression in students reading.

“It provides routine and consistency for our students, especially the ones who struggle. We have changed our guided reading centers so they all function around the OG skill. We also have allowed students to act as leaders during parts of the three-part review drill and when learning new red words,” DeFeo continued.

Orton-Gillingham is named after 1930s neurologist Dr. Samuel T. Orton and educator/psychologist Anna Gillingham, who developed the multi-sensory approach to reading instruction for students with what was called at the time “word-blindness,” known today as dyslexia.

The method combined multi-sensory teaching strategies paired with systematic, sequential lessons focused on phonics. Now it is used in a wide variety of reading programs as an effective way to teach literacy.

The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, based in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, is a global literacy organization launched more than 25 years ago. It has partnered with some of the largest districts in the country, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta.

“There’s so many different components to it, so even if one thing we’re doing is resonating with only some students, there’s something else we’ll do later in the lesson with that same letter and sound that those students who missed it the first time will get it a different way,” Lucas said. “Whether it’s the sand trays, or it’s the workbooks, they kind of get every different angle of that sound and it’s getting through to them.”

Wilchensky said that there is a real excitement about the multi-sensory method among student and teachers as instructors continue its use throughout the school district.

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