The goal for every student is to learn, but not every child learns in the same way. Kids with disabilities may have an especially difficult time with traditional classroom materials. Today, your child’s teachers compensate for variation among their students by adapting how they present information, structure assignments, and test for understanding. In the future, the adaptations may be built into the curriculum materials, thanks to Universal Design for Learning* (UDL). UDL uses computer technology to create an educational environment that allows all students, including those with learning disabilities, to succeed in general education classrooms with minimal use of assistive technology (AT).
Universal Design has its roots in architecture and urban planning. Ramps, automatic doors, and curb cuts were created to provide access to people with physical disabilities but actually ease access for everyone. Think of the last time you pushed a stroller or luggage cart and the broader value of ramps is instantly apparent.
UDL embraces the concept of improved access for everyone and applies it to curriculum materials and teaching methods. Rather than rely on AT to bridge the gap between the material and the student’s learning needs, materials designed using UDL concepts have built-in accommodations. Add-on technology is less often needed to translate the material into a mode that enables learning.
Principles of UDL
UDL stretches beyond accessibility for the disabled, however. A teacher’s goal is for students to learn skills and understand the subject. Traditional curriculum materials tend to offer only limited flexibility for meeting that goal — often requiring students to adapt to the curriculum. Universally designed curriculum overcomes limitations by incorporating three principles of flexibility into the design:
- Multiple methods of presentation
- Multiple options for participation
- Multiple means of expression
This built-in flexibility provides into a wider range of options for students to choose from — meaning the curriculum adapts to the student, rather than the other way around.
Let’s consider each of these principles and the impact they could have in your child’s classroom.
Multiple methods of presentation
Flexibility in presentation allows the same concepts to be taught using a variety of methods, media, or materials. How would this look in a classroom?
- Content could be presented using multiple media, such as oral lectures, textbooks, charts or diagrams, audio tapes, and videos.
- The same content could be changed from one medium to another, such as oral output for students with reading difficulties or pictures and illustrations for students who need a visual image.
- Materials would have adjustable presentation characteristics — changeable font style and size, highlighting of main concepts, or variable volume and speed controls.
- Material could be adjusted to match students’ cognitive styles. For example, students who prefer sequential, factual information might learn a history lesson from a timeline-style presentation. Students who learn better with a base of broader concepts might choose to have the same lesson presented from a big picture, or cause-and-effect perspective, with dates and facts filled in later.
Multiple options for participation
Since one task or teaching method may engage and motivate some kids but bore or frustrate others, UDL allows flexibility in how students interact with the material. It also lets teachers tailor the level of difficulty of assignments, ensuring that each student is sufficiently challenged while meeting the overall goals of the lesson. How would this look in a classroom?
- Students would choose their preferred method of learning new material. One child might learn vocabulary by playing a game in a race against the clock; another might create stories or even artwork to incorporate the new words.
- Content would be tailored to match kids’ interests. For example, math principles could be taught using topics ranging from hockey to horses.
- Materials would provide extra support where students need it. For reading practice, independent readers could read silently from a book. Students needing more support might read computer-based stories where they could click on a troublesome word to hear it pronounced or have the entire text read aloud.
- Materials might have adjustable challenge levels, such as educational computer games with several levels of difficulty.
- Materials might allow students to add their own words, images, or ideas, such as reading software that encourages learners to customize the stories or illustrations.
- Assignments could be varied according to each child’s skills. If the goal of a project is to learn research skills, more advanced students might be required to produce a longer report or cite more references. Students with less developed research skills might gain as much from creating a report using fewer references to cover a limited number of key points.
Multiple means of expression
With UDL, students are not limited to one way of completing assignments. Instructors can match the curriculum to each child’s strengths. How would this look in a classroom?
- Assignments would be accepted in various formats. A student who finds written expression difficult might show his knowledge orally; another might turn in a report, write a play, or develop a project to demonstrate learning.
- “Paper and pencil” exercises could become “computer and printer” exercises for students who are slowed down by the physical effort of writing, or for any student who prefers using a keyboard.
UDL in the classroom
To create a UDL environment in general or special education classrooms, teachers need materials and methods that incorporate these three principles. Curriculum materials in an electronic format are the cornerstone of UDL and offer a great deal of flexibility. Electronic materials can be used on and manipulated by computers, making it easy to alter content to meet the needs of different students.
Variations in presentation can make the same text more accessible to all students, especially those with learning disabilities. For example, a social studies text in electronic format:
- Can be read aloud using screen reading software (useful for students with reading problems)
- Can include dialogue, music, sound effects, and video clips (helpful to students who learn through more sensory involvement)
- Can be changed to different print sizes, colors, spacing, or highlighting (helpful for students to see and remember)
- Can be printed as a personalized copy (helpful for most students)
- Can be copied and pasted into outlining or graphic organizers (particularly useful for students who find organizing information difficult)
Strategies that follow UDL principles
But with or without computer-based curriculum materials, you can work with your child’s teachers to apply UDL principles to his schoolwork. These accommodations are just a few that keep the focus on material to be learned, rather than on the method of presentation or format of response, and offer choices to students:
- If traditional textbooks bog your child down, discuss using a video documentary, audio tapes, or computer programs that cover the same material.
- If your child is struggling to complete an assignment, talk to his teacher about alternate ways for him to show what he’s learned — such as creating a website, preparing a slide show, presenting an oral report, building a model, etc.
- If a particular subject fails to spark your child’s interest, try relating it to something he’s interested in and passionate about.
Because UDL assumes each learner brings individual strengths, needs, interests, and limitations to the classroom, flexibility in curriculum and teaching methods increases access to learning — just like curb cuts and ramps increase physical access.
*Universal Design for Learning is a concept developed by CAST, a leading authority on Universal Design for Learning and whose mission is to expand educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities through the development and innovative uses of technology. Their innovative concepts and research on UDL have been used as a reference in writing this article. For more information about CAST and UDL visit http://www.cast.org/index.html
- ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education: Curriculum Access and Universal Design for Learning (pdf)
- ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education: What is “Universal Design” for Curriculum Access?
- Center for Universal Design: Universal Design Principles
- University of Washington: Universal Design of Instruction
- Ohio State University: Universal Design for Learning: Elements of Instruction
Reviewed February 2010