Take a moment and think about the word “multisensory”. Really think about it. I was given cause to recently when I read this lovely passage in an otherwise wrenching memoir by Mira Bartok: “One arrives at the color white through milk, to air from the color white, to dampness from air and on to Autumn.” Bartok credits the quote to Thomas Aquinas, a famously thoughtful man. But now all that I can think about is milk.
There is, of course, an enormous question hidden in the beauty of what Aquinas said: How do humans come to know? Anything, really. And once we do know, how can we be certain that we do? The answer that Aquinas seems to offer is that we arrive at knowledge through our senses, and then build associations through memory. We know love through a hug from our mother, for example. We know cold from plunging a hand into snow. We know speed from running. We know heat from a sidewalk in late July, burning our tender toes. All of which seems to prove that we come to knowledge primarily through our tissue, and that our brain merely learns what our flesh already knows. It is strange to think that the organ reserved for process and thought really lags behind our fingers and hands, our spinning legs, our burning little toes.
The trouble with Aquinas’s lovely notion of association seems to be that no two bodies feel the same hug. So when we talk about the color white, are we all seeing the same milk? How would we know? In his astonishing poem, This Room and Everything in It, Li-Young Lee says to his wife that her body “is milk”. Elsewhere in the poem he tells her that her “sunken belly” is “the daily cup of milk” that he drank as a boy. To the poet, then, milk is not white, but love. So now the idea of arriving at the color white through milk seems off, somehow. We don’t know what we thought we knew anymore. Or maybe we do, but also something more.
So much of what we call learning is really memory, long held and deeply understood. We are lucky to have complex brains that can process, hold, and retrieve so much. Our brains are capable of both packing and unpacking memories, layering them, of taking from milk both white and love. That is unless something blocks our brain from having such capacity, or at least prevents it from allowing us to read our experience in someone else’s words. Random symbols tell us nothing. It is impossible to associate when there is nothing to equate.
By scrambling symbols and upsetting words, dyslexia is a thief of association. You can think about the word “milk” and come to white, or love, or both. But what if you read the word as “mikl”? Or “wilk”? Or what if you missed the word altogether and were left with “Your body is…”? What does that mean? Where do you find its match in your memory? You don’t. Sadly, there just isn’t a way.
To teach an individual with dyslexia about milk, we have to back up from meaning. We cannot even approach from the level of letters. We have to start with sounds. The word “milk”, although it is a single unit of meaning, is not a single unit of sound; it is four sounds: /m//ĭ//l//k/. In order to teach an individual with dyslexia to read this word, we might have to teach one sound at a time. It might be slow and laborious, but real learning demands patience. Once sounds are mastered, we move on to letters. And again, we take them one at a time: m-i-l-k. We might ask a student to trace each letter in sand, using two fingers, or to paint them in white paint, or to write them on white notecards that we’ve cut to look like glasses of milk or on white strips that we then have them pour into a bowl. We do these things because individuals with dyslexia do not simply “arrive at the color white through milk.” They have to first get from /m//ĭ//l//k/, to m-i-l-k, to milk. Once they’ve arrived at milk, we can then start the journey to white: /hw//ī//t/, w-h-i-t-e, white.
Dyslexia in not a failure of comprehension. I do not mean to imply that individuals with dyslexia do not know what milk, the substance, is. They do. But the written word “milk” is locked for many of them. Multisensory education allows these individuals to utilize all of their senses, memories, and associations, to unlock it. When we ask students to write letters or words in sand, for example, nerves in their fingertips are being stimulated, sending messages back to their brains. White paint, in a way, allows them to arrive at milk through the color white, reversing the path the Aquinas took. Glass shapes ask them to recall what Li-Young Lee called his “daily glass of milk”. Pouring milk into a bowl may be what they, or a parent, did just an hour before they walked through our door. So we ask our student to remember milk, the substance. We tell them to close their eyes and see it, taste it, hear the sound of it filling a bowl or glass: milk. The next step is to attach to those memories the shapes and the sounds that the letters make: m-i-l-k.
Memory is powerful. It is the only means that we currently have of traveling backward in time. Sensory memory is magical, as it allows us to recall, and often relive, the way that something looked, felt, smelled, sounded, or tasted back in that previous time. Multisensory education works by building a bridge between those memories and new information, often by adding movement and texture that aids images, like letters and written words, in finding their rightful place in the mind. That is how many individuals learn, particularly those with dyslexia. Aquinas would say that is how they “arrive.” Li-Young Lee calls it “the art of memory.” It is how one travels to love through white.
Li-Young Lee’s This Room and Everything in It can be found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43328
Mira Bartoks’ memoir can be found here: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Memory-Palace/Mira-Bartok/9781439183328