William and Mary School of Education

 Multisensory Structured Language Education of Basic Language Skills:
Another Way to Teach Word Study

By Lanett Willis Brailey, M.A., and Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.
February/March 2013

Classroom Scenario:  Daniel participates in word study with his class each day, and today his teacher, Ms. Jones, has asked the students to sort words containing spellings of short and long /i/: bit, dime, die, idol, hill, tile, pie, icon, fish, side, tied, idea, gift, ride, fried, item, chip, kite, and spies. Daniel and his classmates begin to work diligently at determining which words go into which column by matching the identified pattern of each column.  Daniel is not sure how to pronounce each word and asks other students for help so that he can identify which spellings contain the short /i/ and which contain the long /i/. 

At the end of the week, the students have a quiz on these words, but Daniel is not able to match the spoken word with the written word.  He does not pass his assessment because he confuses the many spellings of long /i/ and could not discern the pattern for short /i/. 

The next week, Daniel’s class receives a new group of words with some of the same and different spellings of short and long /i/.  Daniel is not clear about where to place each word in the sort, because he is not grounded in the rules governing each word’s structure and pronunciation. Consequently, he achieves the same poor results on this week’s assessment. Mrs. Jones is unsure of a research-based instructional strategy to help Daniel and others who are struggling. 

Is there an instructional approach that can help students who are not able to sort with an understanding of the structure and sounds (phonology) contained in the words that accompany those structures (orthography)?   What approach should Ms. Jones use to help students like Daniel?  Ms. Jones might consider the use of Multisensory Structured Language Education.

What Is Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE)?

Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE) of basic language skills provides instruction that is explicit, systematic, and sequential (Henry, 2009).  The structure of the instruction provides the power, and the multisensory approach promotes active student engagement to enhance learning (Farrell & Sherman, 2011).  The use of structured phonics instruction is also supported by research (Hattie, 2009) to teach the basic language skills thus supporting the structured approach to language instruction.

The MSLE approach contains the five components of reading supported by the National Reading Panel’s report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) as necessary for effective reading instruction (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension).  The approach also follows the rigorous standards for teachers of reading presented within the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (Moats et al., 2010) published by the International Dyslexia Association.  MSLE simultaneously or alternatively deploys multisensory techniques that address the five components of reading. Students’ auditory, visual, and kinesthetic/tactile sensory modalities are engaged to make neural connections that move reading instruction forward to mastery (Birsh & Ghassemi, 2010).

With MSLE instruction, one concept is not practiced with another until each concept has been introduced and practiced individually, and then combined with other concepts that have been explicitly taught for generalization.  Instead, concepts are introduced in a sequential and systematic manner so that one builds upon another.  As an example, the Floss Rule (doubling rule for letters f, l, s, and z after a short vowel) is introduced after closed syllables that follow the CVCC pattern have been introduced and practiced.  The two concepts are taught separately, but one (CVCC) is the basis for teaching the other. Click here for information regarding instructional sequences of language concepts.

What Is the Value of MSLE?

MSLE may be used in a variety of settings where students are learning to read. As such, it may be used with all students or those who are struggling.  Thus, the value of the approach is its versatility within different instructional situations.  The structure of the language instruction is supported by the sequence provided within the Virginia English Standards of Learning.

In practice, one teacher might use MSLE for word study within the general education classroom for all students or as a differentiation mechanism for struggling readers.  Another teacher in a school that has adopted Response to Intervention (RtI) might use this approach as a means of providing intense intervention at the Tier Two level.  Yet another might use it within the resource or self-contained classroom to provide intense, highly structured, engaging instruction for reading.

Overview of MSLE Opportunity

For children who struggle with reading, an intense structured instructional approach exists that addresses their reading needs.  This structured approach provides evidence-based reading instruction that includes the five components of reading presented in a systematic, sequential fashion.

To learn more about MSLE reading instruction, an e-learning series on Multisensory Structured Language Teaching will soon be available.  The series will highlight the structure and content within an MSLE lesson plan (Birsh, 2011). 


The series will provide an overview of MSLE and will describe the nine sections within the beginning lesson plan through the use of online instruction, activities, and videos.

The concluding section of the series will provide a review assessment and reflection.  Upon completion of the series, a certificate for participating in this e-learning experience is issued.  The books mentioned within the modules may be checked out of the T/TAC WM Library (call numbers are included within the Learning Modules).

What Are the Benefits to Students and Teachers of MSLE?

Students will not be compelled to memorize all the words in the English language, because 85% of the English language follows basic phonic patterns, and of the remaining 15%, 10% follow recognizable patterns as presented with MSLE instruction.  Students will be engaged with multisensory strategies that will increase their time on task.  Daniel, from the opening classroom scenario, would understand that the words presented within the list could be sorted into short /i/ and long /i/ spellings with closed syllables, VCE syllables, open syllables, and vowel team syllables.

Teachers, such as Ms. Jones, benefit from this instructional approach because of the sequential and systematic structure it provides within word study.  For more intense use of this strategy, a highly structured lesson plan may be constructed to move instruction forward and address the reading needs of struggling readers (Birsh & Schedler, 2011).


Birsh, J. R., & Ghassemi, C. (2010, March). Are multisensory instruction and science based reading research (SBRR) in tune? Presentation at the New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association Conference in New York, NY.

Birsh, J. R., & Schedler, J. (2011). Planning multisensory structured language lessons and the classroom  environment. In J. R.  Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (3rd ed., pp. 459-485). Baltimore, MD:  Brookes Publishing Co.

Cheatum, M.S. and Lund, R.H. (2004).  Keystone:  Guide for teaching Language structure. Titonium, MD:  York Press.Inc.

Ferrell, M., & Sherman, G. (2011). Multisensory structured language education.  In  J. R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (3rd ed., pp. 25-43). Baltimore, MD:  Brookes Publishing Co.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  New York, NY:  Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Henry, M. K. (2009). Multisensory structured language teaching.  Baltimore, MD:  The International Dyslexia Association.  Available at  http://www.interdys.org/ewebeditpro5/upload/MSLTeaching.pdf

Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. (2011, September 12).  Strategies to promote third grade reading performance in Virginia. Richmond, VA: Author.  Available at http://jlarc.virginia.gov/meetings/September11/Reading.pdf

Moats, L., Carreker, S., Davis, R., Meisel, P., Spear-Swerling, L., & Wilson, B. (2010). Knowledge and practice standards for teachers of reading.  Baltimore, MD:  The International Dyslexia Association.  Available at http://www.interdys.org/ewebeditpro5/upload/KPS3-1-12.pdf

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel.  Teaching children to read:  An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction – Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754).  Washington, DC:  U.S.

Government Printing Office.  Available at  http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org/Publications/publications.htm