Activating Sensory Learning

The other day as I was lying in bed trying to enjoy my last half hour, a car alarm went off. After twenty minutes of loud wailing my anger threatened to explode like a bomb. I got up in a bad mood. It occurred to me that anger is how some children with learning difficulties demonstrate their frustration when their sensory pathways are disrupted and/or ignored by adults attempting to teach them. Our senses are central to all learning and we need to nurture them at every stage of schooling. 

I feel frustrated by a letter in the Times stating that almost half of children starting Reception do not have the skills they need to learn – being unable to dress themselves, use the toilet, feed themselves, as well as using language and social skills to learn. We have been aware of these problems for too many years. Why are they not resolved? Education cannot blame Covid for everything. 

You may wonder where I am going with this. I believe that we humans are ruled by our senses. What we see, feel, hear, as well as taste and smell, can affect how we deal with the stimuli that is all around us. When we sleep, our senses are closed down. My sleep did not want that car alarm – the noise made me angry. Many learners with autism are affected by certain noises. Learning, in order to be effective, MUST be as sensory as possible. I am talking about engagement – pupils’ use of their senses in school – in order to get the most from their learning. 

In my latest book, ‘The SENCO Survival Guide’ (Routledge, 2022) I talk about VAKS – the visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and social aspects of pupils being engaged and ready to learn. So let’s  explore these in the context of schooling. Visual ways of learning are obvious, for example, when learning phonics, pupils see letter shapes and match them to their sounds. Auditory is to do with ‘good listening’ and speaking. Pupils’ auditory senses may be on full alert when teachers are explaining something in lessons, but pupils soon switch off if what they are listening to becomes boring or over lengthy. In lessons I have observed, these two senses are the most used.

What about the third sense – kinaesthetic? The word ‘aesthetic’ is to do with emotions. Kinaesthetic is about being linked up to our emotions: which is why I feel children need to indulge in this aspect of VAKS far more than they do. I believe if children were invited to use their kinaesthetic senses more in lessons, balanced alongside visual and auditory senses, improved learning for all would result. 

The fourth aspect of VAKS is social – talking, interacting, using social activities in order to communicate aspects of learning. This too is often missing in lessons. Children, especially in secondary schools, need to work in pairs and/or groups far more than they actually do. 

How does VAKS work, and why do these aspects of sensory learning matter? VAKS does far more than facilitate learning as it happens. Using a range of sensory channels also helps to consolidate what has been learned – helping to ‘send and save’ aspects of learning into long term memory: linking different senses together. VAKS helps to ‘cement’ the accumulated skills and knowledge that comprise long term learning: securing each brick as the ‘learning wall’ builds up.

Let’s look at examples: when learning phonics, young children say sounds, see matching letters and match them together. They also need to feel around different letter shapes as they ‘see and say’. Working their fingers around such letters as ‘h’ and ‘n’, or ‘g’ and ‘a’ (handwritten), using wooden or plastic shapes, helps young learners to compare and be better able to recognise minor differences made by the ascenders and descenders of various letters. 

 VAKS also highlights the crucial importance of talk. Children who arrive at school without the skills of listening and speaking are highly likely to struggle with reading and writing, be delayed all the way through secondary schooling, and fail to achieve good GCSEs. 

Finally, VAKS is also an important consideration in SEND intervention. Children with Dyslexia, a specific learning difficulty, need to combine all senses to consolidate and progress with phonic learning. Those with Dyspraxia, need to practise kinaesthetic skills as part of their specific intervention. Pupils with autism may need to focus more on (or even avoid) working with others to develop much-needed social skills. Social aspects of learning always need to be handled with sensitivity. Pupils with long term memory and retention difficulties may need visual images to help them record and file knowledge. Those with ADHD may need to switch more frequently between sensory channels, to help combat attention deficit and support engagement. Learners with cognitive learning difficulties need the full range of VAKS activities to maximise their achievements.  Indeed, those with the most severe cognitive difficulties also benefit from using other senses, taste and smell, to stimulate their levels of engagement. 

So VAKS is important, and in my view, schools need to focus more on using the complete range of sensory channels to support school learning. 

My five books for Parents (Parents Help Your Child Succeed) and my educational book, The SENCO Survival Guide – are intended to help all children succeed. 

Sylvia Edwards

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