The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has been an important resource for me when working with students on language and literacy. CAST has designed an approach called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which provides a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning based on scientific insight into how humans learn, including multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression.

The use of manipulatives as teaching tools for literacy reflects the UDL guidelines, including the importance of providing “multiple means of representation.” CAST’s research shows that students benefit neurologically from the opportunity to hear, see, touch, taste, smell, and engage while learning.

Achieving Engagement

Once I have determined a student’s present level for receptive and expressive language skills, engagement becomes my next focus. If a student is engaged and motivated to learn, the educator can reduce the barriers to learning and raise the level of success.

Intervention planning for students involving the UDL guidelines encompasses a wealth of resources that engage, maintaining a student’s level of motivation by increasing their opportunities for action and expression.

Putting It into Practice

Incorporating these guidelines has led me to extensive use of fine motor manipulative supports when teaching language and literacy.

Below are seven successful manipulative supports for engagement and learning to use across a wide age range of learners and a variety of settings.

1. DUPLO bricks

The fine motor expectations of working with these larger snapping blocks accommodate early development. The blocks come in a wealth of colors, sizes, and shapes for building, creating, and designing structures. Step-by-step directives may be used to teach basic concepts (in, on, beside, under). The educator may use a narrative analysis to target story elements and story cohesion. I recommend the use of DUPLO bricks for children in preschool through lower elementary.

2. Reusable stickers

The implementation of reusable stickers has been a strong supportive tool for narrative language/storytelling. When students are able to use their verbal expression along with fine motor skills to design through the placement of stickers, the ideas can be endless. The reusable component helps the student expressively tell about their creation and make changes to the story and or events. This allows the storyteller to be flexible and fluid in their narrative creation.

3. Wikki Stix

These sticks come in many colors, are sticky to the touch, and can be bent, twisted, or combined with one another. Students either react favorably or unfavorably to these, depending on their tactile input preferences. I find Wikki Stix inexpensive and reusable, so a set of sticks can be given to each student. The sticks can be used to support narrative language by having the student create stick characters, develop settings for the story, and create objects that assist with story elements. These are a great manipulative for students in upper elementary and middle school.

4. Silly Putty

This sensory and tactile rubbery manipulative has been a favorite of students for a long time! Silly Putty can be used for sensory input, as it has a soft tactile feel, and can be manipulated with a fair amount of intense fine motor touch. The putty can be shaped and designed into various objects. When Silly Putty is placed on petroleum-based ink it will allow one to transfer newspaper images to other surfaces, which is great for copying vocabulary words.

5. K’NEX

K’NEX is a rod and connector building system that lets students build big and make their creation move—a favorite of serious fine motor builders. Instructions are methodical and easy to follow. Students create their own designs, or build from sets based on worldwide architectural designs. The new K’NEX sets come with historical information about various landmarks, so students can identify the characters from that time period. K’NEX supports development in the STEM areas, and is highly recommended for upper middle school and high school.

6. LEGO bricks

An all-ages and all-time favorite! There is a never-ending stream of new sets, videos, characters, and games available for all learners. It is not unusual to have students share about previous LEGO sets they have owned, and what they have built. These versatile blocks offer a great opportunity for expression and sharing through a preferred toy.

7. Outdoor games

Any time I have the opportunity to take students outdoors I find greater engagement and an increase in expression and action. Outdoor games give students the opportunity to have space, work within groups, and take in sunshine and fresh air! I have identified a few outdoor games that are preferred from preschool to young adults that require student collaboration: outdoor bowling; coordination games with Frisbee discs, balls, or bean bags; and scavenger hunts with a range in complexity of clues.

Why Manipulative Supports?

By engaging students using manipulatives, we provide learners with more opportunities to practice language and literacy skills as an embedded part of each activity, while also demonstrating their creativity though fine motor tools. Even better, we can disguise this practice as play! Students are able to share and engage with peers, making it a collaborative experience, in return learning from one another—a lifelong skill!

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About the Author
MariBeth Plankers is a Speech-Language Pathologist, Assistive Technology Professional. She is the Director of the Regional Assistive Technology Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM), a lending library for Assistive Technology. At MSUM Speech Language and Hearing Clinic MariBeth is also a Clinical Supervisor of graduate student clinicians in the areas of augmentative alternative communication, autism spectrum disorder, reading and written language needs and assistive technology.