Using Hands-On Manipulatives

Jennifer Nash recommends the tactile approach to motivating students to read and write

Reading and writing are two areas in which it is often difficult to get students excited to learn. Whether students are struggling to understand what they are reading or having trouble thinking of something about which to write, reading and writing have become subjects of fear. However, these two foundational skills are crucial to student success in all academic areas. We, as educators, need to find a way to motivate students again.

Belenky and Nokes (2009) provide evidence that the use of manipulative-based teaching in the classroom can motivate students to learn. Using physical objects while teaching in language arts is not common, but it provides a hands-on way for students to interact with new information while creating understandings of the manner in which the concepts work. Students get excited to recreate their understanding of the story during and after reading. In addition, this type of learning is fun and the kind of project-based experience that students will remember (LEGO Education, 2015).
When students work with tangible materials, they can interact with the stories to create understandings. The students have physical models to analyze and discuss, providing a more engaging way to draw meaning from the material they read. According to Marley and Carbonneau (2014), teaching strategies using manipulative materials provide students with a better understanding of the concepts through working with either a direct example of a concrete concept or a representation of an abstract concept.

Patricia Blake, a first-grade National Board–certified teacher, explained that using manipulative materials with language arts is “like exploration time when [students] can make sense of things we have read or talked about.” Students are able to ask questions while exploring to gain understanding. Sometimes students work in the wrong direction, but from failures gain experience and knowledge of how to persevere (LEGO Education, 2015). Blake feels this is time well spent in the classroom, which corresponds to the claims by Bruning and Horn (2000) that reading and writing are problem-solving tasks and, therefore, need time. Students need time to work through all the complexities of the stories prior to writing about or trying to explain their understandings. This gets students excited about reading and writing by giving them a way to be more hands on with the material.

In addition to motivating students, the use of manipulatives supports requirements by national standards to dig deeper into learning. The Common Core standards require a depth of knowledge that prepares students for college and careers by utilizing texts that are more complex and an ability to pull evidence from texts (“Key shifts in English language arts,” 2015). The standards call for more authentic and real-world experiences for students, which the use of hands-on materials supports. Students need opportunities to model learning, enhance speaking and listening skills, and blend understandings from multiple areas.

Improving Reading and Reading Comprehension
As Jensen (2009) explains, “Reading is one of the most important factors affecting the development of a child’s brain. Reading skills are not hardwired into the human brain; every subskill of reading… must be taught” (p. 37). The use of manipulatives allows students to discover the elements of stories through interacting with models, which provide examples to tie understandings to the learning of these new concepts. Students can explore a range of language arts concepts using manipulatives, such as exploring the basic elements of a story, determining the main purpose of stories, retelling stories with details, sequencing events from stories or research, drawing inferences, providing detailed explanations, comparing and contrasting points of view or characters, and arranging information from multiple texts, including informational texts. These difficult concepts become more tangible when students have the ability to create examples of them using their hands.

The tangible act of reconstructing information from their reading into a scene allows students to interact with all parts of the reading, whether it is from fiction or nonfiction, creating a better understanding for the students. While students are working to create their models, teachers have the opportunity to listen in on the discussions to discover how students are using their vocabulary, see what understanding the students have pulled from the reading, and understand what difficulties students still face from that text. As Marilyn Williams, a National Board–certified middle-childhood generalist and third-grade gifted teacher found, “It enabled me to help [students] with their vocabulary. As they tell about their [work], they often struggle to find the right words. Since I can see their stories, I am better able either to help them retrieve the words they want or to teach them the appropriate vocabulary words.” As Marilyn found, the use of manipulatives in language arts allows more differentiated instruction to occur more naturally within a group of students working at different reading levels. As research shows, differentiation of learning is easier when using a project-based approach, because students can better access prior knowledge and teachers can make adjustments to materials or groups as needed during the learning (LEGO Education, 2015).

Writing with a Purpose
Unfortunately, many students see no value in the act of writing and thus are simply unmotivated to work through the steps to produce a good piece of writing (Santangelo, 2014). Students easily become frustrated and want to give up. Research conducted by Lam and Law (2007) found a correlation between level of motivation and increased performance on writing tasks, which means students write better when they are motivated.

In order to get students excited about writing again, we need to find ways to motivate students and engage them in all stages of writing (planning, writing, and revising) to ensure that they can fully develop their thoughts and ideas. The use of manipulatives helps students work through these stages in a fun and visual way that really allows them to see the stories, the whole stories, prior to starting to write. As Marley and Carbonneau (2014) suggest, hands-on materials can bolster enthusiasm and student engagement, and that alone will make a difference in getting students ready to write.

In addition to seeking to motivate students to write, LEGO Education has taken into consideration the reasons why students struggle to write. Santangelo (2014) outlines the importance of the planning stage to becoming a strong writer. It is important for a writer to invest time up front to outline a plan and purpose for the writing prior to putting pen to paper. Research has found that struggling writers plan for only about one minute before starting to write (Santangelo, 2014). This lack of planning means the writer has not considered the flow of the writing, the audience for the writing, nor the overall outline of the writing. When jumping into the writing process, students are less likely to connect thoughts well and have less chance of achieving coherence in the general theme of their writing.

The act of building a model with manipulatives allows students the opportunity to plan the stories prior to writing in a hands-on way. Students interact with their entire stories, the details, and the characters, which allows them to make sure the stories are complete prior to writing. In her classroom, Patricia Blake sees the benefit. She explains: “Students are using the manipulatives to build 3-D models of their stories or parts of stories, which makes the stories come alive for students. This helps to add detail and sequence to beginning writers’ works. They can look at what they have built to figure out what is missing or what else they need.” Marley and Carbonneau (2014) explain the effectiveness of manipulatives in the classroom when there is guidance provided in addition to the use of the materials. The use of manipulatives to support the planning stages of writing would allow students time and support in fully developing their stories prior to the second stage of actually writing the stories.

Students also like to talk about what they are creating while making their models. They are able to work together to create stories which engage them throughout the building process in meaningful conversations about the characters, setting, and plot of the stories. Bruning and Horn (2000) point out creating an environment of writing in isolation is not very motivational for students. With manipulatives, they have the ability to collaborate on their projects and present their ideas to their peers, while the teacher provides needed feedback as the stories take shape.

LEGO Education’s Solution to a Language Arts Manipulative
To answer the need for manipulative materials in language arts, LEGO Education worked to create the StoryStarter set for elementary classrooms, which engages students in a cross-curricular, hands-on learning environment with reading and writing at the core. StoryStarter is designed to teach students the basic mechanics of well-composed stories by helping them to break down the stories into parts. The set is organized into characters, setting, and plot, with an assortment of pieces that can create every detail for the stories. While the students are working to build their stories, they are in groups discussing the details and sharing ideas about what they are reading. This directly engages them with the material.

StoryStarter is designed around the educational theory of constructivism, which is rooted in the belief that children learn best when they experience things first hand and within a meaningful context, supporting the need for hands-on learning options in language arts. By using StoryStarter when reading, students are able to make connections and understand the material taught. The StoryStarter set provides students with the materials to build several scenes. The set is designed so that students can build entire stories with the beginning, middle, and end scenes. Additional motivation comes from the fact that StoryStarter promotes collaborative conversations between students about any topic/subject, in addition to providing a way for students to present their supporting points.

Dedra Cannon, a reading specialist, designed a program around StoryStarter for her English language learners to help them find success in writing by focusing on their talking. As she explains, “Students planned their stories using a glow map and then used LEGO bricks to build scenes that showed characters, setting, and plot. They orally rehearsed their stories, presented them to the class, and then wrote their stories in their journals.” The ability to talk through the stories in a variety of ways prepares students to write. The collaborative design of StoryStarter allows the process of talking through the story to happen naturally.

StoryStarter also has a digital component, StoryVisualizer, to enable students to publish their work to share with others. Students use the software to create visual masterpieces by typing in the text of their stories and adding pictures from their models, backdrops, and other images. The addition of a technology component supports findings that students are motivated by and develop critical-thinking skills when using technology in the classroom (Pitler et al., 2007). In addition, it makes learning more student centered. The StoryVisualizer helps students hone their skills in using technology components and enhances story organization through the storyboard-like layout.

Marilyn Williams found the software easy to use and was able to teach her students how to take pictures of their models using the computer and then input the pictures into the stories and add text. She found this added a new skill, the students’ ability to summarize key points. She explains, “Students did their builds and then wrote their stories the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencils. After the stories were written, I had students use a storyboard page to do a rough sketch of their stories in six panels. Then I implemented the introduction of the software, uploading their pictures first and then writing key summaries of their stories in no more than six panels.” Students benefitted from the technology skills learned using the software as well as from being able to complete a summary of their own writing.

Using manipulatives and solutions like StoryStarter, students find the excitement and motivation to tell their stories and become strong communicators. This type of engagement will better equip them to become the leaders and creative problem solvers of tomorrow. In turn, schools will become places where young people are encouraged to explore their unique talents and interests, where teachers are facilitators of the creative learning process and can focus on providing the right context and tools for learning. And don’t we owe that to our students?

Belenky, D. M. & Nokes, T. J. (2009). “Examining the role of manipulatives and metacognition on engagement, learning, and transfer.” The Journal of Problem Solving, 2(2), 102-128.
Bruning, R. & Horn, C. (2000). “Developing motivation to write.” Educational Psychologist, 35(1), 25-37.
Jensen, Eric. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind. Virginia: ASCD.
“Key Shifts in English Language Arts.” (2015). Retrieved March 6, 2015, from
Lam, S. F. & Law, Y. K. (2006). “The roles of instructional practices and motivation in writing performance.” The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(2), 145-164.
LEGO Education. (2015). “Why hands-on learning matters: Nine reasons to use manipulatives across the curriculum.” Unpublished.
Marley, S. C. & Carbonneau, K. J. (2014). “Theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence relevant to classroom instruction with manipulatives.” Educational Psychology Review, 26, 1-7. doi 10.1007/s10648-014-9257-3.
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Virginia: ASCD.
Santangelo, T. (2014). “Why is writing so difficult for students with learning disabilities? A narrative review to inform the design of effective instruction.” Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 12(1), 5-20.

Jennifer Nash is an elementary specialist with LEGO Education, North America.