Adding All 5 Senses to a Secondary ELA Lesson

I've always been a little jealous of math and science teachers, who can make things explode, move, change colors, and come to life. English teachers have to work a little harder to activate the five senses in a typical lesson.

Some of my best English teachers were the ones who turned a text into a sensory experience. When we read The Devil's Arithmetic in 7th grade, my teacher had us sit, cramped, underneath our desks to empathize with the cramped cattle cars carrying victims to concentration camps.

Most of us are hunting for ways to make our lessons pop: memorable class periods in which students move and really experience the content. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we see escape rooms, stations, maker spaces, and kinesthetic learning on the rise; these forms of learning make the mind-body connection stronger and help avoid the dangers of sitting for too long.

What secondary teachers sometimes forget is the brain science of activating all of the OTHER senses in addition to active movement. For example, did you know that..

Even if you’re low on time or budget, check out this list of ways to make your next lesson click on all cylinders.

(Psst - make sure you grab the FREE Sensory Lesson Planner to help you make your next class period rock!)

If you ARE allowed to bring in food to the classroom, small snacks have a double advantage: occupying students’ mouths (so they listen instead of talk!) and adding another dimension to what’s being discussed.

For example, I like to teach essays using the extended metaphor that they are like meals: the introduction is like a free sample, the conclusion is like dessert, and so on. Bringing in candy or snacks on these days to “match” the lesson is a HUGE hit! Get the conclusions lesson for FREE here.

I’ve also recently begun exploring the use of CANDY during annotation: specifically, showing students that active reading is like uncovering buried treasure in a text that’s hidden in plain sight. Read more about candy annotation here.

If you’re NOT allowed to feed students (or don’t have the budget for it), you can still activate this sense. Brain science tells us that powerful imagery can still activate your brain in similar ways that actually eating would. SO, use photographs, figurative language, or storytelling to make the visual of tasty foods come to life!

Anchor charts, PowerPoints with killer graphics, interactives, videos, and visually-appealing handouts are a great first step to keep students’ eyes where you want them (instead of, perhaps, on their phones or on each other).

Another option I really like are flipbooks, which are less visually intimidating than a thick packet of information. It also keeps more information at their fingertips, with less time skimming dense text to find an answer. I’ve begun using them as reference tools (like housing vocabulary) as well as teaching a process (like the brainstorm-draft-revise steps of the writing process).

For more ideas about how to make YOUR slideshows better (or how to get STUDENTS to make better visual aids), check out this awesome article by TED!

The go-to for many teachers is putting on Pandora or other soothing music during reading and writing time... but some lessons aren’t conducive to background noise (and, quite frankly, some students find it distracting).

One option is to sneak in “sound” through the use of song lyrics. Many teachers study songs for figurative language, grammatical patterns, or larger ideas like theme.

My favorite use of song lyrics is to use them to make my diagnostic grammar test less boring. By using song lyrics as the example sentences in questions, students end up “singing” different songs in their heads during the test… and suddenly, the assessment is MUCH less boring!

Another idea is to use sound either as a mnemonic device (like a cheer or rap) or to enhance whatever is being taught. (Can you IMAGINE adding sound effects to "I Hear America Singing" and "I, Too, Sing America"?)

This is arguably the hardest sense to incorporate into a lesson; a lot of scents can trigger students’ allergies (or can become a negative distraction if it’s a smell they don’t like).

Instead of using aerosol sprays and/or diffusers (which can be problematic), consider having smells in a jar (that can be opened and closed if individuals WANT to smell it).

In addition to having an actual smell, I tend to make a lot of corny jokes about smell that correspond to the topic. For example…
  • “This sentence smells like a run-on. Do you agree?”
  • (*Audibly sniffing*) “ fact, I smell about 26 run-on sentences in this room. Y’all better check your drafts again. It stinks in here.”
  • “Hmm, this paragraph smells minty, like theme. Let’s find the theme moment.
My 8th graders and I ended up making an entire LIST of “literary smells” that we “noticed” while reading. Yes, it’s silly, but it adds some cheesy humor to an otherwise dry moment. (Can you tell that I teach middle school?)

Escape rooms are currently popular for many reasons - they’re optimal kinesthetic experiences. Rotating through stations and doing scavenger hunts also allow students to move; my stations for “The Raven” helped break down a difficult poem and made it much more accessible to students who weren’t getting it.

However, even simpler trivia or review can get students on their feet. A popular game we played last year was Grammar Quidditch (read the full instructions for free in this blog post). I used it as a playful review game before final exams, but you can adapt it for any non-grammar topic (and also adapt it to fit in a smaller “field”, like your classroom, if you can’t go outside).

If you don’t have the time to craft an elaborate setup, don’t forget to try…
  • Snowball discussions
  • Four Corners debates/discussions
  • Gallery walks (for peer sharing and feedback)

You might also like these sensory resources:

What else can we do to create multisensory lessons?
Tell us in the comments!

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