Reading with all 5 Senses by Joanna Grace

We are excited to welcome Joanna “Jo” Grace to the Family Bookshelf to write a guest post. I *met* Jo last spring, and we have been talking about ways to engage readers beyond “just” the words on a page, particularly those with learning disabilities. Joanna is a special needs educational practitioner and author. As she describes it,

I have the privilege of writing Sensory Stories for charities looking to connect with young people with special educational needs. This is a great thing as it is so beneficial to both parties. Sometimes students with special needs can get used to being the recipients of charity, or can feel that they have little impact on the world. Getting involved with charities boosts their self esteem and shows them that they can make a
difference to others. Charities benefit from all that these young people have to give.

In fact it took several months for us to get this guest post coordinated because Jo has been writing for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Amnesty International, Oxfam. Her newest sensory stories have been incorporated into the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s 2013 resources. She is working on traditional stories and poems for Booktrust and multicultural stories for World Stories.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, sensory stories are a method to allow children with sensory modulation issues – sensory integration disorder, sensory integration dysfunction – to cope with everyday experiences.. They can also offset learning disabilities created by the conditions. Sensory stories  draw on our 5 senses – smell, touch, sound, sight, and taste – to engage learners.

Jo describes sensory stories as her “go to” resource when she works with children, and we thought it would be great to talk about them here. So without further ado … Jo Grace.

So what is a sensory story?

Typically a sensory story is a regular story distilled to its essence, normally about ten sentences. They can be a challenge to write, and I have to make every word count! One of the biggest compliments I received was from someone I wrote a story for who said it read like poetry. This is always my aim, but it is easier to achieve with some stories than others.

yahoo imagesEach sentence is paired with a specific sensory stimulus. I try to select rich stimuli that will be easy for practitioners to provide. Knowing what makes a good stimulus takes experience. For example in a story about a bear someone might think that touching a cuddly toy bear would be a suitable stimulus, but as a touch experience this is little different from day-to-day experiences students encounter.

When a character in a story is upset I get to use one of my favourite touch stimulus: a pipette. I drip a drop of water onto my student’s cheek and they get to feel that tickly sensation of a tear running down their face. It’s a great experience because it is a very distinct feeling and it is completely relevant to the part of the story it illustrates.

Learning from Sensory Stories

Our 5 senses are with us on a “use it or lose it” basis. Everyone benefits from rich sensory experiences. We know this instinctively when we give babies toys that flash and make noises, and we know it when our heart sinks at the sight of people in old people’s homes sitting around with nothing to do. Everyone can learn from Sensory Stories.

When I work with teenagers who are struggling with their literacy I introduce sensory stories to them and ask them to write one for a class of children with special needs. The teenagers are really motivated as they see the importance of what they are doing. Even though it appears to be  an easily achievable task for them – it is “only” ten sentences – reading the whole story, distilling it to its essence, and choosing precisely the right words to use and “illustrate” those 5 senses is a great learning experience for them.

In mainstream schools, using sensory stories improves students’ creative writing. They begin to introduce words to describe smells and tastes and sounds into their stories, as well as what things look like. Sensory stimuli also aids recall. When I studied for my exams I did so by writing out all my notes in colourful felt tip pen. I did this on the advice of my psychology lecturer who told me that more areas of the brain would be activated if I did this. I wanted as much of my brain remembering these facts as I could get!

Recently I’ve had success with a Michael Rosen poem I’ve adapted on behalf of Booktrust. Using sensory stimuli my students were able to remember and recite the whole poem in one session.

As a special needs practitioner sensory stories were vital to my teaching. My nonverbal students were able to retell stories to me by using the stimuli in order. Autistic students who normally struggled with sensory stimulation (e.g. finding noise overwhelming or finding food too challenging), found experiencing different things within the predictable structure of a story minimised their anxieties.

All the students I worked with, from tots to teenagers, have been much more interested in listening to a story that had accompanying sensory stimuli than to sharing an ordinary story together. Reading becomes more engaging / experiential.

Yet as great as all these reasons are, none of them is my reason for loving Sensory Stories. The reason I love Sensory Stories so much is that they have allowed me to connect with some of the most disabled students I have worked with. These are young people with special needs. They are the kids with multiple sensory, physical and mental impairments who ride around in the funkiest of wheelchairs.

These young people have the most amazing characters, but they get overlooked, parked in corners and dismissed. They are not ignored per se, but they aren’t communicated with either. I have had people ask me with genuine shock “But you don’t think they can learn do you?” Connecting and sharing with these young people is one of the most fantastic things you can do.

Sensory Stories are a way of enabling learning in those whom other people might think can’t learn. Learning at this level starts with simply being there and having the experiences, whether you react to them or not. It progresses to reacting to experiences; this could be by flinching or starting with surprise or by laughing. Beyond this I look for students anticipating experiences, as they begin to demonstrate they know what is going to happen next.

If you think about it, what happens next? is a question we might ask anyone retelling a story that we are reading aloud. Sensory Stories allow severely disabled young people to answer this question. Achieving this can take a while, and relies on practitioners delivering the stories repeatedly with great consistency, but it is totally worth it.

I hope you’ll consider reading sensory stories with the children in your lives. As the teens I’ve worked with will attest, writing sensory stories is totally worth it, too. I wish you every success with your children and students.

You can find details on how to facilitate learning with sensory stories on my website. As Terry noted, I have created sensory stories for a number of charitable organizations and you can reach them through my website. These resource focus on issues relevant to those charities. Here is a quick way to get to them:

Speak Up! Speak Out! Educational Resources for Teachers in the UK (Holocaust Memorial Day 2012 Resources)

Amnesty International: Resources for Special Schools

Oxfam Water Week (must sign in to see the resources)

The story- and poetry-based resources for Booktrust and World Stories, as well as other resources, will be on my website soon.

If you are interested in reading further about integrating our 5 senses into learning, whether at home or in the classroom, we are adding these articles about working with special needs kids with sensory issues.