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Virginia Journal of Education

Teaching By Design

Universal design for learning (UDL) offers a way to differentiate your teaching and reach different kinds of learners.

by Heather Segraves Jenkins

We all learn when we are about two years old that you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. No matter how many times or ways you try to get the peg to fit, it just will not. It’s funny how we can learn something so simple at such a young age, but can sometimes forget this concept later in life. Spinning and stressed in the age of accountability, from No Child Left Behind to the Standards of Learning tests, we, as teachers on the front lines of education, can become perplexed as to how to educate our students as individuals while adhering to local, state and national standards.

Sometimes it seems like those outside of our classrooms are putting requirements and regulations into place that are forcing us to fit every student into the same mold for instruction and assessment; however, this is both unsuccessful for the teacher and frustrating for the students.

Over the past two decades, the need for teaching and assessing students according to their needs and learning preferences has become increasingly important as theories and practices such as differentiation, response to intervention (RTI), and inclusion have become a part of our classrooms. For any teacher, it can be a daunting task to try and meet every student’s individual needs while keeping common instructional goals in mind. Planning, managing and implementing can take precious time that many teachers simply don’t have.

The solution for you could, however, come down to three simple letters: UDL.

The theory of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s as a way for educators to understand how best to instruct students with diverse needs and abilities. In general, UDL states that students are most successful when they are provided with multiple means of representation (how information is presented to the student); expression (how the student expresses his/her knowledge); and engagement (how students develop interest in a topic, proceed through the learning process, and self-regulate).

What Differentiating with UDL Looks Like
Representation. “Turn to page 45 in your textbook and read the chapter on the Great Depression.” Although this was once a commonplace way to teach, in today’s fast-paced digital world, students are eager for instruction to catch up to their world outside school walls.  Flipping through a history textbook or listening to a lecture may be beneficial to some students, but for others it may not work. There are some great digital options. Students who have difficulty reading or who are auditory learners may enjoy hearing a textbook chapter, study guide or class notes read aloud using a free downloadable text-to-speech program such as ReadPlease, Natural Reader, WordTalk or VoiceOver (for Mac computers). Many of these programs allow for students to manipulate the speed of reading and voice, among other features. Instead of asking students to put away digital music players, such as MP3 players and iPods, educators could be using a site like, which allows the user to turn any text into a sound file that could then be loaded onto a digital music player or inserted into a presentation for students to listen to. Imagine your students listening to their biology study guide while riding the bus to and from school. Additionally, some students may be overwhelmed by a whole chapter or article. With Microsoft Word, teachers could use the Autosummarize tool to create summaries of different lengths for various groups of students in the class or create instant graphic organizers using SmartArt.

For students and teachers who may not choose to use digital means, providing multiple means of representation could include using images, symbols or objects to clarify the meaning of words. Textures could also be applied to books to help tactile learners understand exactly what the author means by a “fluffy” cat or a “scaly” lizard. In addition, instead of creating a normal paper-and-pencil graphic organizer, students could be provided with foldables (3-D graphic organizers) to manipulate while learning.

Expression. Filling in the bubbles on a multiple-choice test may help with a student’s fine motor skills, but perhaps that time would be better spent letting the student showcase knowledge in a more meaningful way. For example, teachers could have students create a digital story about a book they read or a famous person they are studying. Or they could create a virtual class discussion about a specific topic by using a free Internet-based program such as VoiceThread, which allows students to upload pictures and use audio or text to narrate or comment on them. Students could also create talking avatars—virtual characters—to describe how they solved a math problem or have Abraham Lincoln actually read the Gettysburg Address by using a Web-based resource such as Blabberize or Voki. Additionally, students could verbally record their answer directly into a Microsoft Word document by using the “record sound” feature to make their test, quiz, worksheet or map “talk” for them.

Even materials found at a local discount store or yard sale could be useful in helping students express their knowledge. For example, a shower curtain or table cloth with some duct tape or paint could be turned into a giant calculator or keyboard for students to jump on to complete math problems or spell words. Yarn and a few digital images, word cards or picture symbols could be turned into a story or process rope, which provides visual prompts for students to see and touch as they walk through a process such as retelling a story or completing a long division problem. Also, music, cartoons, poetry, art and drama could be given as options for students to use to express themselves and their knowledge.

Engagement. Perhaps one of the most challenging parts about being a teacher is trying to get students excited about learning and to take an active role in their own learning process. By providing authentic learning experiences and tools for self-regulation, teachers can help students stay engaged and develop independent learning strategies. Providing multiple means of engagement could be as simple as taking students on a virtual field trip through the solar system on NASA’s website, or allowing students to use their cell phones to text their opinion about a topic for inclusion in a classroom virtual graph using a resource such as Students could also use social networking tools such as Skype or Second Life to communicate and collaborate with people all over the globe. Multimedia such as video and audio tracks could be inserted into a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to bring any topic to life.

To assist students with self-regulation strategies, virtual or printable checklists that incorporate text, digital images and/or picture symbols can help students stay on track when editing work or completing a task. Highlighters, highlighting tape and post-it notes can also be used to help students stay engaged while reading or completing an activity, as students mark unknown words or important ideas. Additionally, visual schedules and choice boards could be used to help students understand what is expected of them during a specific period of time.

It has been said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step.” While it may seem like a daunting task to not only plan a “traditional” lesson, but also incorporate multiple opportunities and choices for students, using UDL to differentiate for diverse learners can be implemented in any classroom.  Here are some tips to help you get started using UDL:

1. Know your students and resources.  Since UDL is based on the idea that students learn best when give the flexibility to make choices in their learning, using UDL to differentiate for an entire classroom can be accomplished by knowing your students’ needs and preferences and providing options for them at appropriate times. By identifying how students learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and what is expected them for their educational goals, teachers can then begin to understand what types of activities and supports may help students achieve success in the classroom. Knowing your student can be as simple as having a discussion with him or her, completing interest inventories or surveys, or simply observing him or her while engaged in the learning process. Once you have identified how each student learns best, then you can seek to identify resources that may assist you in helping to meet your students’ needs. For example, CAST’s UDL Curriculum Self-Check is an online resource ( that helps teachers incorporate flexibility and options into their goals, methods, materials and assessments. Additionally, CAST’s UDL Lesson Builder (, is another online resource that assists teachers in creating and adapting lessons for standards-based curriculum that can be edited and saved online.  Resources can also be in your classroom, in the room next door, maybe even in your neighboring school. Find out what is available to you and your students by talking with your colleagues, lead teacher, department chair or administration. In addition, many school districts or schools may have a staff member or team that specializes in differentiation or assistive technology that may be able to help you identify resources or make recommendations.

2. Know your limits.  Instead of trying to tackle every area of your curriculum right away, you and your students would probably be better served if you picked one area or lesson to start. For example, you could provide multiple means of representation for tomorrow’s reading assignment by giving students the option to use a free text-to-speech program, adding picture symbols to unknown words, or creating summaries of information or narrating the chapter using Microsoft Word. Using tic-tac-toe boards or menus containing the available choices for students could help structure the decision-making process at first for students when trying to decide what option to choose. Once you and your students start to feel comfortable with the flexibility and choices, continue to gradually incorporate UDL principles into other areas of your instruction.

3. Think outside the box.  Even though it may feel as though education is largely prescribed for today’s students, using a little creativity will often help liven up a lesson and reach struggling learners. To help you get started with creatively using UDL to differentiate for learners, talk with other teachers about what they are doing in their classrooms in or investigate educational blogs, such as A.T.T.I.P.S Cast (, which focuses on using everyday classroom tools to help differentiate instruction for students.

4. Never lose sight of your instructional goals. You may find it easy to come up with lots of fun and engaging activities for your students, but it is also important to keep in mind that the options you are providing must help students meet their instructional goals. For example, if students have a choice to play a game or draw a cartoon, the game or cartoon should somehow support the instructional objectives of the classroom. To ensure this occurs, it may help to first look at your instructional goals and then choose options that would lend themselves to helping students reach those objectives, which is the basis of such resources as Universal Design for the Standards of Learning (UDSOL, an online resource maintained by Loudoun County Public Schools’ assistive technology staff at that categorizes UDL based Web resources according to which Standard(s) of Learning they support.

Using UDL to differentiate for diverse learners is not about changing the curriculum; it is about adapting, modifying and approaching instruction in a way that helps students utilize their strengths to experience success and truly master the material they’re being taught. Instead of trying to push each square peg its corresponding round hole, let’s find a way to change the hole to fit the each uniquely shaped peg.

Jenkins, a former member of the Loudoun Education Association, was an assistive technology trainer with Loudoun County Public Schools until earlier this school year. She is also the creator of the MODEL Teacher training program offered by the VEA. She is now the Specialist for Student Leadership and Involvement for Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Schools.

What is UDL?
Universal design for learning (UDL) is a set of principles for designing curriculum that provides all individuals with equal opportunities to learn. Grounded in research of learner differences and effective instructional settings, UDL principles call for varied and flexible ways to
• Present or access information, concepts, and ideas (the "what" of learning),  
• Plan and execute learning tasks (the "how" of learning), and
• Get engaged--and stay engaged--in learning (the "why" of learning)

Why is UDL necessary? Students come to classrooms with a variety of skills, abilities, needs, interests, backgrounds, and learning styles. This diversity is confirmed by neuroscience: brain imaging technologies allow us to "see" the different ways learners respond to educational tasks and environments. Those differences can be as varied and unique as DNA or fingerprints.

Often curriculum--which includes the goals, methods, assessments, and materials we use to teach and learn--is "fixed" and inflexible. This turns individual differences into potential learning barriers as learners try to bend their individual styles, skills, and abilities to the curriculum's needs at the expense of genuine learning.

UDL turns this around: the curriculum is made flexible and customizable so that individuals can learn in ways that work best for them. A common aim of learning effectively and efficiently to high standards is achieved through many different means in the UDL curriculum.



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