Research Supports Hands-on Learning with
Manipulatives to Enhance Literacy Instruction
The Literacy Lab reports that there are currently 6.6 million children in the U.S.
from birth to age 8 who are on track for reading failure. This achievement gap is at
least partly a result of a literacy gap. Children who cannot read, cannot thrive.
The disparities in resources between disadvantaged schools and middle class schools
require our immediate attention. Early literacy is especially important. Hands-on
literacy programs that use manipulatives to help students learn to read, incorporate
research-proven strategies to help differentiate literacy instruction for all students.
This white paper explores research that supports hands-on learning as a proven
instructional strategy for literacy development.
...allowing young learners the chance
to physically interact with their
environments is critical for early
Many of the theories supporting developmentally appropriate learning have their origin
in the work of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner in the early 1960s. According to these child
development experts, allowing young learners the chance to physically interact with their
environments is critical for early learning success. While Piaget was the first to advance
the theory of cognitive development in young children, Bruner’s contribution was that
individuals make sense of their early environment by “enactive representations,” such as
manipulation, and then later they develop full competence through images and words (Marley,
What is the best way to prepare young children for learning? What does “developmentally
appropriate” mean? How do we create an environment in which children can learn and thrive?
Young children learn initially through their senses, so their learning environments should
provide opportunities for them to be hands-on—to see, hear, touch, and connect with their
surroundings. This process is how young children master the basics of learning readiness
(Blaustein, 2005). “They confidently test new knowledge in a relaxed atmosphere, relate it
intuitively to existing knowledge, and store that information for future use,” says Blaustein.
Many preschool and kindergarten teachers strongly believe in a developmentally appropriate
classroom. This means the focus of classroom activity is hands-on discovery play and not
In this type of environment,
children begin to integrate what
they see, hear, and learn
through play and exploration.
They begin to make sense of
their world in a hands-on,
developmentally appropriate way.
“When young children master abilities and skills through play, they not only develop confidence,
a positive disposition toward learning, and a practical foundation for abstract learning, but
they also exhibit a higher language level, more innovation, greater empathy and cooperation,
better problem-solving strategies, and longer and greater attention spans,” (Blaustein, 2005
citing Smilansky 1990). This is a good description of what we mean by learning readiness. In
this type of environment, children begin to integrate what they see, hear, and learn through
play and exploration. They begin to make sense of their world in a hands-on, developmentally
Using Manipulatives in Effective Literacy Instruction
Susan B. Neuman from New York University describes what effective literacy instruction should
look like. “For young children, reading and writing is literally a mixed medium, chock-full of
different symbolic activities like singing, dancing, talking, and playing…Play allows young
children to assume the roles and activities of more accomplished peers and adults.”
1 She goes
on to say that children need a content-rich curriculum, sustained learning through play,
differentiated guidance for young students as well as activities and resources that support
content learning and social-emotional development.
...children need a content-rich
curriculum, sustained learning
through play, differentiated
guidance for young students as
well as activities and resources
that support content learning
and social-emotional development.
Educators note that there are a variety of ways manipulatives can be incorporated into classroom
instruction, particularly in math and reading. “As examples, manipulative-based learning
strategies have been applied to instruction in reading comprehension (Glenberg, et al. 2004; Marley
et al. 2007). This finding was reinforced in Carbonneau and Marley’s work in 2012 when they found
that manipulative-based instruction allows children to learn targeted information by letting
them physically interact with concrete representations. It seems to be true that body movement
and perceptions are essential to cognition, therefore, using instructional manipulatives should
3 Other researchers corroborate this finding stating that more engagement with
physical learning materials would lead to better outcomes (Cordova; Lepper, 1996).
The strategy of using physical objects to teach language arts lets students interact with new
information and create context for what they already know. In
author Jennifer Nash explains that the educational theory of constructivism is rooted in “the
belief that children learn best when they experience things firsthand and within a meaningful
context, supporting the need for hands-on learning options in language arts.” Here are some of
the ways that students can use manipulatives in language arts:
- Explore the basic elements of a story
- Determine the main purpose of stories
- Retell stories with details
- Sequence events from stories or research
- Draw inferences
- Provide detailed explanations
- Compare and contrast points of view or characters
- Arrange information from multiple texts
All of these concepts become more tangible for students when they can be hands-on to create examples.4
The more self-directed the play, the deeper the learning.
Testing Theories and Future Directions for Additional Research
In 2009, researchers wanted to find out if using manipulatives could improve reading comprehension
in the early grades. Children were given a set of farm toys. After a child read a sentence, the
child acted out the sentence using the toys. This allowed the student to connect words to specific
objects. On a follow-up reading comprehension test, children who used the physical manipulatives
often performed one to two standard deviations better than children who read the same text but did
not use the manipulatives (Glenberg et al. 2004, 2007; Marley et al. 2007).
Another study was conducted in 2011 by researchers Marley, Levin, Szabo, and Glenberg. Based on
their previous research findings, the authors predicted that children who participated in an
activity-based strategy would be able to recall more story events than students who just heard the
story repeated. The results confirmed their prediction. They report, “evidence from our study suggests
that first- and third-grade students who were given the opportunity to interact with objects described
by the narrative passage did remember more story content than those who were not afforded the same
opportunity.” The result was clear that students’ narrative recall was enhanced by their hands-on
use of manipulatives.
...children who used the
physical manipulatives often
performed one to two standard
deviations better than children
who read the same text but did
not use the manipulatives.
The research on using manipulatives as an instructional tool is compelling, and it is no surprise
that both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Association for the
Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommend that manipulatives play a prominent role in hands-on
classroom instruction (Marley, Carbonneau, 2014). There is a difference of opinion among researchers as
to how much instructional guidance should be given when students interact with manipulatives. This seems
like a good place to turn from what the researchers say to what the classroom practitioners are actually
doing and the tools they are using in today’s classrooms for hands-on literacy development.
Learning by Doing: How hand2mind Literacy Aligns with the Research
Literacy is not just the ability to read. English Language Arts (ELA) standards feature multiple strands
that comprise the four major areas of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Literacy is
the gateway to learning and opportunity. Without literacy, millions of students are left without the basic
tools they need to build a decent life. Research on the efficacy of hands-on learning strategies centers on
students’ engagement in the learning process. Engaged students are learning. When students have the
opportunity to use manipulatives to support hands-on learning, they learn more effectively.
When students have the
opportunity to use manipulatives
to support hands-on learning,
they learn more effectively.
For more than 50 years, hand2mind has produced hands-on, supplemental learning resources. Their mission is
to help educators unlock each child’s individual learning path to help them grow into the person they are
meant to be through engaging, hands-on discovery learning opportunities. Differentiated Literacy Centers from
hand2mind is designed to incorporate the latest research-proven strategies for hands-on literacy.
Differentiated Literacy Centers
Differentiated Literacy Centers streamline the planning and preparation for literacy centers with a grab-and-go
solution. Each of the K–5 differentiated learning centers contains grade-appropriate content with enough
activities, games, and manipulatives for teachers to have the flexibility they need to differentiate instruction
for each of their students. Activities are open-ended and appropriate for individual or small group use for
hands-on, student-centered learning. The guided learning activities engage students and allow teachers to
meet students wherever they are on their learning path. The goal is to have students experience success and
view themselves as self-directed independent learners. Each center:
- Promotes early literacy
- Is aligned to ELA standards
- Contains strategies for differentiation
- Includes engaging hands-on activities
- Features three levels of differentiation per objective
- Is designed to make differentiating easy and accessible
- Contains all materials required for activities
Not only are the differentiated literacy centers based on hands-on learning research, the content touches
each of the five major areas identified by Reading First in 2000 to help students master priority skills.
||Blending and Segmenting
||Words Correct per Minute
Also, growth mindset is embedded into the structure of the centers. Activities support student growth by
increasing the difficulty of activities as students move through them. Students have the opportunity to
work together and collaborate for differentiated, student-focused learning.
Reading Strategies Toolkit
Close Reading Small Group Kits
Close reading strategies are designed to fill the gap between reading fluency and comprehension by focusing
the reader’s attention on the text itself. The hand2mind close reading process is teacher-led, interactive,
and designed to develop critical, analytical readers. Close reading includes:
Hands-on literacy also supports
social and emotional learning
by strengthening students’
collaboration and communication
skills as well as building
relationships and self awareness.
- Using short passages and text excerpts
- Diving into the text with limited pre-reading activities
- Focusing on the text itself
- Rereading deliberately
- Reading with a pencil
- Noticing things that are confusing
- Discussing the text with others
- Responding to text-dependent questions 5
The comprehensive Close Reading Small Group Kits for grades 3–5 include the tools teachers need to model close
reading to their students along with engaging texts and hands-on resources that help students internalize
Best practices for a successful close reading process include three separate readings of the text:
- First reading—read text for basic understanding
- Second reading—examine specific elements of the texts for purpose and understanding
- Third reading—examine the text for deep understanding of context, style, defense of an argument, or synthesis of new ideas.
With the assistance of the focus prompt wheel, students read each text three times to develop a specific skill
as they dig deeper into the meaning of the text. By the third reading of the text, teachers have scaffolded
students well enough that they can be successful in understanding the text at a deep level. Teachers use the
demonstration easel and color-coded markers to model how to make annotations and take notes when working with
small groups. The kits also include grade-appropriate texts specifically chosen for meaningful close reading
experiences in literature, poetry, and informational texts. Everything teachers need is included so students
can reap the benefits of hands-on learning. Rich modal texts keep students engaged during multiple reads of
the same texts, while enrichment and remediation options support differentiated instruction for all students.
Literacy Skills Practice
Self-checking skills practice
activities allow students to
move at their own pace while
they master phonemic awareness,
phonics, fluency, vocabulary,
Reading skills get better with practice. With the hands-on VersaTiles, teachers can have students working on
skill development independently while they are working with small groups. These K–6 hands-on, self-checking
skills practice activities allow students to move at their own pace while they master phonemic awareness,
phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The text for use with these manipulatives is grade-appropriate
and is aligned to standards. VersaTiles provide an engaging, screen-free alternative to traditional skills
Using Reading Rods for phonics and word building helps students practice, reinforce, and master key literacy
skills they need to become successful readers. The color-coded rods provide visual cues for students as they
focus on reading and writing words of increasing complexity.
Research into the benefits of hands-on learning—using manipulatives as well as incorporating physical movement
into learning activities—demonstrates a higher level of student engagement and has been proven a successful
strategy for literacy acquisition. While it is true that preschool and kindergarten students, in particular,
benefit from the ability to incorporate sensory and hands-on discovery into their learning, there are benefits
for older primary students as well. Comprehensive and well-structured programs like these from hand2mind have
been designed to engage students in hands-on learning in an age-appropriate way. While it may sometimes look
like play, there is very serious learning taking place as students develop the critical literacy skills they
need to become successful readers and writers.
Belenky, Daniel M., Nokes, Timothy J. (2009). Examining the role of manipulatives and metacognition
on engagement, learning, and transfer. The Journal of Problem Solving, 2(2). Retrieved
Blaustein, M. (2005). See, hear, touch! the basics of learning readiness. Beyond the Journal. Retrieved
Burke, Beth. A close look at close reading: scaffolding students with complex texts. Retrieved
Future directions for theory and research with instructional manipulatives: commentary on special issue
papers. (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 26(1), 91-100. Retrieved
Glenberg, Arthur M., Goldberg, Andrew B., Zhu, Xiaojin. (2009). Improving early reading comprehension
using embodied CCAI. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. Retrieved
Marley, Scott C., Szabo, Zsuzsanna. (2010). Improving children’s listening comprehension with
a manipulation strategy. Journal of Educational Research, 103(4), 227-238. Retrieved
Marley, Scott C., Levin, Joel., Szabo, Zsuzssana., Glenberg, Arthur. M. (2011). Investigation
of activity-based text processing strategy in mixed-age child dyads. Retrieved
Marley, Scott C., Carbonneau, Kira. (2014). Theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence relevant
to classroom instruction with manipulatives. Educational Psychology Review, 26(1). Retrieved
Nash, Jennifer. (2015). Using hands-on manipulatives. Language Magazine. Retrieved
Neuman, Susan B. (2018). What effective Pre-K literacy instruction looks like (ILA Literacy Leadership
Sanderson, Donna R. (2014). Create hands-on learning manipulatives to enhance basic skills.
Texas Child Care Quarterly, 37(4). Retrieved