When Newsela invited me to chat with their team about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I was all in. Newsela has been a champion of student accessibility and it was amazing to have the opportunity to discuss how inclusive design can enhance classroom learning.
One of the analogies I used to explain UDL is this: Imagine you’re at a party where the host has a clear goal - everyone who comes to the party has a drink they enjoy. After all, we don’t want any guests to be thirsty. The problem is - the only drink the host is serving is an egg cream. If you’ve never heard of an egg cream, the recipe is simple: milk, carbonated water, and flavored syrup. No water or lemonade, or even a chocolate shake – just a frosty egg cream. Clearly, this isn’t going to work for everyone. Guests who are lactose intolerant, sensitive to carbonated drinks, or who can’t stomach the thought of carbonated milk are excluded from meeting the goal. The same phenomenon happens in classrooms when educators use one-size-fits-all solutions.
UDL is a framework focused on firm goals and flexible means, recognizing that diverse students need multiple options and choices to work toward grade-level standards. Without that flexibility, many students will not have pathways that will allow them to access learning with their peers. UDL is based on decades of neuroscience research and is considered best practice for teaching ALL students in an inclusive learning environment.
So, how can educators leverage UDL? Here are some tips I shared with the Newsela team.
Focus on firm goals and flexible means
To engage all learners, we need to provide them with options and choices, but just because a classroom has options and choices, doesn’t mean that it is universally designed. The real power of UDL is recognizing the barriers that prevent learning and eliminating those barriers through design. As a first step, identify the firm goals of a lesson. Ask, “What is it that all learners have to know and do?” and “What barriers may prevent them from getting there?”
For example, one of the anchor standards for comprehending text is “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” If we only provide a printed copy of two texts in English, and require students to read independently, we are excluding students with visual impairments or students who do not read in English yet.
A teacher could eliminate these barriers by providing text sets that comprise multimedia resources like translations and audio (a la Newsela!) and allowing students to select texts that are most interesting to them. Students could then opt to read the text in hard copy, listen to the text while reading, translate the text, or engage in collaborative reading, among other options.
Since the aforementioned standard doesn't mandate writing, the teacher could also provide options for students to share their text comparisons through various means, such as composing a written piece, producing a podcast, creating an interactive poster with a Venn diagram, or developing a video. The choice board below (Tucker & Novak, 2022) outlines four options for students to share their comparisons of the approaches the authors took. There is nothing in the choice board specifically about comparing authors’ craft, so this choice board could be used with multiple standards.
Balance differentiation and the need to provide grade-level texts
In the example above, students have options and choices to build background knowledge with a more accessible version of the text, read or listen to the text, read with a partner, or access a translation. All these options are construct relevant because students are working toward a reading comprehension standard, where access to grade-level text is critical for exposure to complex language structure and vocabulary. It’s important to make a distinction between reading comprehension standards and foundational reading standards.
While this approach may not be suitable for students developing their foundational reading skills in grades K-4, after fourth grade, there are no longer any specific standards for this area. However, many students in fifth grade and beyond struggle with reading, and it is our responsibility as educators to provide targeted intervention to support their reading development. We must also ensure that this support does not prevent them from accessing high-quality texts at their grade level and engaging with their peers in the classroom, which is why flexibility is critical.
Guide students decision-making so they are challenging themselves and growing
When we offer students choices and options to meet learning standards, it is crucial that we also provide opportunities for self-assessment, self-reflection, and responsible decision-making. To support this, we can carve out time for students to set personal goals, devise learning strategies, and track their progress. As students work, it's important to move around the classroom and inquire about the choices they have made. We can ask them, "What did you choose and why?" This helps them see the connections between their choices and learning outcomes and allows us to provide feedback that will help them make more effective choices.
For example, if students choose to work collaboratively but cannot produce evidence of learning while collaborating, as teachers, we need to be responsive. It's an opportunity to provide targeted support and just-in-time scaffolding while building relationships with students. I've often said to my students, "It seems like this choice isn't working for you today. Why don't we check in and pick something different that will help you succeed, because I know you're capable of success." This is what expert learning is all about!
By focusing on firm goals and flexible means, UDL provides options and choices for learners and helps eliminate barriers to learning. It empowers both teachers and students by putting students in charge of their own learning. Educators can leverage UDL by balancing differentiation with the need to provide grade-level texts, guiding students' decision-making, and providing opportunities for self-assessment and reflection. UDL helps us avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and ensures that all students have access to high-quality education, just like how a party host offers multiple drinks to cater to everyone's tastes and preferences, rather than just serving an egg cream!