Research Supports Hands-on Learning with
Manipulatives to Enhance Literacy Instruction

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Introduction

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 learning success.

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, Carbonneau, 2014).

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 academics.

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 appropriate way.

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. 2

...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 foster learning. 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 Language Magazine, 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.

Priority Skill Success Predictor
Phonemic Awareness Blending and Segmenting
Phonics Word-by-Word Reading
Fluency Words Correct per Minute
Vocabulary Word Knowledge
Comprehension Retelling

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 their learning.

Best practices for a successful close reading process include three separate readings of the text:

  1. First reading—read text for basic understanding
  2. Second reading—examine specific elements of the texts for purpose and understanding
  3. 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

VersaTiles®

Self-checking skills practice activities allow students to move at their own pace while they master phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

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 practice.

Reading Rods®

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.

Conclusion

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.


1 Neuman, Susan B. ILA Literacy Brief: What Effective Pre-K Literacy Instruction Looks Like. 2018.

2 Ibid.

3 Marley, Scott C., Carbonneau, Kira. Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Evidence Relevant to Classroom Instruction with Manipulatives. Educational Psychology Review 26 (1), 2014.

4 Nash, Jennifer. Using Hands-On Manipulatives, Language Magazine, 2015.

5 Burke, Beth. A close look at close reading: scaffolding students with complex texts.

References

  • 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 from Link here
  • Blaustein, M. (2005). See, hear, touch! the basics of learning readiness. Beyond the Journal. Retrieved from Link here
  • Burke, Beth. A close look at close reading: scaffolding students with complex texts. Retrieved from Link here
  • Future directions for theory and research with instructional manipulatives: commentary on special issue papers. (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 26(1), 91-100. Retrieved from Link here
  • Glenberg, Arthur M., Goldberg, Andrew B., Zhu, Xiaojin. (2009). Improving early reading comprehension using embodied CCAI. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. Retrieved from Link here
  • Marley, Scott C., Szabo, Zsuzsanna. (2010). Improving children’s listening comprehension with a manipulation strategy. Journal of Educational Research, 103(4), 227-238. Retrieved from Link here
  • Marley, Scott C., Levin, Joel., Szabo, Zsuzssana., Glenberg, Arthur. M. (2011). Investigation of activity-based text processing strategy in mixed-age child dyads. Retrieved from Link here
  • Marley, Scott C., Carbonneau, Kira. (2014). Theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence relevant to classroom instruction with manipulatives. Educational Psychology Review, 26(1). Retrieved from Link here
  • Nash, Jennifer. (2015). Using hands-on manipulatives. Language Magazine. Retrieved from Link here
  • Neuman, Susan B. (2018). What effective Pre-K literacy instruction looks like (ILA Literacy Leadership Brief). Retrieved from Link here
  • Sanderson, Donna R. (2014). Create hands-on learning manipulatives to enhance basic skills. Texas Child Care Quarterly, 37(4). Retrieved from Link here