Have you ever caught a whiff of something that brought a memory back in vivid detail?
Or have you ever heard a song and been instantly transported to the time when you first heard it? We all have experiences like this, and there is a logical explanation. When we engage our senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) we make strong connections in the brain. Another way of saying this is we remember better what we experience with our senses. And I’ll bet you can guess why teachers would want to know this. We want to help our students learn, make connections in their minds, REMEMBER. And engaging the senses during learning is one way we can strengthen the process. So how do we take advantage of this in the ESL classroom? Here are some ideas you can use in class to give your students a sensorial learning experience.
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Manipulatives is a big, fancy word to describe simple objects – things we move with our hands. Manipulatives are often found in math classes, especially when kids are learning to add and subtract. But manipulatives can be so much more and are great for teaching language, too. Some manipulatives are simple – flash cards, for instance. Just moving these pictures around and playing games with them will help cement the words in your students’ minds. But that’s not all you can use in the ESL classroom. Giving a preposition of location lesson using a box and a small stuffed animal is also using manipulatives. Students move the items in relation to each other as you explain the different prepositions in English. Manipulatives can also include small world play. If you teach young children and you haven’t heard of this, I strongly recommend giving it a try. A small world is basically a container filled with items that represent a real world scene. So for a small world setup for an animals unit, you could put a base of colored rice (green to represent grassy area) along with several small plastic animals that might live in that environment. Students can move the items in the bin and talk about them all while they handle the play items all the while using and learning more of the English language.
Cook in Class
I am such a fan of cooking in class! I do it whenever it ties in to what I am teaching or whenever a holiday is coming up (allergies permitting). Cooking is great because it engages not only the sense of touch (actually doing the cooking) and sight (watching the recipe come together) but also smell and, eventually, taste. Cooking is great for teaching the imperative form in English since most recipes are written that way. It’s also a great listening comprehension activity when students must follow your directions. Even something as simple as decorating prebaked cookies is fun and valuable for teaching colors and shapes all the while smelling the sweet beauty of royal icing. And if you have your students present their own recipes, it’s a great way to assess speaking skills and share culture among your students. (Not to mention the best lunch you’ll have all year.)
Sports and games are another way to get students’ senses involved in class. If you play a lesser known sport (can anyone say pickle ball? Seriously, I had to play that one in high school.) your students will engage in a listening comprehension exercise while they learn new vocabulary and move their bodies while using their sense of touch. Board games are great, too, since they engage the senses with the sound of rolling dice and the feel of moving your piece along the board. You also get the benefit with card games, listening to the shuffling cards and feeling them as you deal and play your hand.
Not everyone enjoys messy play and learning, but I’ll admit I am a fan. I think it’s fun to get your hands in the learning process whether it’s through finger painting while teaching colors or manipulating play dough in a Pictionary-style review of vocabulary. Another fun sensory and potentially messy activity is setting up mystery bags for students to experience. This is particularly great around Halloween when gross and slimy things are fun and in style. Set up a few brown paper bags at the front of the classroom and put some mystery items in the bags. Then have students reach a hand in and feel the object before describing in either to another student or in writing. You can put items in like wet grapes (eyeballs), cold oatmeal (brain goo), and cooked spaghetti (wiggling worms) in your bags. If you want a more toned down mystery bag experience, try putting several items in a larger paper bag. Have one student at a time reach in and describe one of the items he or she feels in the bag. Let them describe it to the class and see if anyone can guess it right. You can do a similar activity with different smells dabbed on cotton balls and put in separate containers with lids, or try doing a taste test in class.
Act Out in Class
Getting the body moving is great for engaging the sense of touch, and it can also engage other senses depending on when and how your students are moving. Try having students run to different areas of the classroom that represent different answers in an activity. For example, designate one wall the simple past and another the past progressive. Read a fill in the blank sentence to your students and have them run to the wall they think represents the correct answer. Play charades for vocabulary review. Do relay races in which students answer questions or work to complete a task.
Most likely, you engage the senses of sight and hearing every day you teach. Engaging the other senses isn’t as easy, but it really isn’t hard either. Just a little thinking ahead on your part coupled with a bit of creativity and your students can get their whole bodies involved in whatever you are teaching. And don’t forget, when they do they will remember what you teach even better.