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[Learning to Read with UDL] Building a Meaningful Approach to Literacy

[Learning to Read with UDL] Building a Meaningful Approach to Literacy

When looking at how small minds learn language and reading skills, you can’t help but be amazed at all the things happening at the same time. It is understandable that the natural progression might not be in one straight process but in skips and starts. As an educator, it is critical to understand where a student’s instructional level stands, where gaps in understanding exist, and where the heavy lifting of teaching happens. 

But how is this done? How do we address 30 bright and shiny faces in the classroom in a way that identifies what they know, what they are ready to learn, and how best to instruct them? The answer is that we must look to our lesson plans and change the focus from what students need to learn to how we can teach them, using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.

Universal Design for Learning

The UDL framework was developed in the 1990s using over 40 years of cognitive research, based on the study of cognitive neuroscience. UDL involves the design of the educational environment to meet the needs of all learners so that provisions for unique learners' needs are naturally embedded in the setting, supplies, and lesson planning.

The goal of the framework is to increase access to education by reducing any physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers. UDL addresses the design for learning experiences by considering a wide spectrum of learners, putting in place a path that allows for all students to learn, however they learn best. It integrates the needs of marginalized students (such as ELLs, students with disabilities, and gifted and talented students) and moves away from the “average student” mentality. 

Curricula created using UDL is intended to meet the needs of all learners, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes unnecessary. Through encouraging flexible strategies with customizable options, the UDL framework allows for all learners to progress from their instructional level rather than their grade level.

The outline of the UDL framework specifies that all students can learn, and it is built around flexible choices, paths, and instruction with three guiding principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. Together, these three principles inform the instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that make up curriculum.

Let’s take a deeper into these three principles and break down how they work together to build an effective and meaningful approach to children's literacy learning through the UDL framework.

1. Multiple means of representationthe “what” of learning

To address multiple means of representation is to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.

Learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because they allow students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. How learners gather and organize the mechanics of learning, including identifying letters and words and the plot of a story fits here in the “what.”

In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential. In the same spirit, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for demonstrating the connections and learning is essential. 

The practice of Universal Design for Learning makes effective use of scaffolds to achieve multiple means of representation. As the student becomes more and more successful with the generalization and transferring of content knowledge, scaffolds to new content are constructed.  And, those scaffolds are again gradually reduced as the novice develops independence or fluency (the ability to understand and express information quickly, accurately, and with ease). Students come to literacy with a myriad of experiences and early literacy skills. Strong teachers and UDL capitalize on this by creating opportunities for students to build on their own background knowledge and interests with meaningful scaffolding configured for those unique needs.

2. Multiple means of action and expressionthe “how” of learning

To address multiple means of action and expression is to provide learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know.

While all the principles can be considered when approaching student assessments, allowing for multiple means of action and expression emphasizes the importance of offering different methods for students to show what they have learned. Using the framework of UDL, options are provided for both formative and summative assessments to ensure that all learners can act on new information as well as demonstrate what they know and are learning. Learners differ in the ways they navigate a learning environment, so it’s important to provide the opportunity for students to express what they know in a manner that includes their strength or comfort level.

If we assess students using multiple means, like writing, multimedia, and demonstrations, we again allow for a better picture of what students know. Teachers of reading and language arts can conveniently and effectively integrate sensory-rich learning opportunities into their daily literacy teaching that enable young learners to make text connections and thereby increase their vocabulary and comprehension. While enlisting UDL in their reading, children elaborate on the author's message and make text connections in creative and engaging ways that are personally relevant.

3. Multiple means of engagementthe “why” of learning

When educators provide multiple means of engagement, they tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

Students who are engaged are students who have more opportunity to learn. As a reading teacher plans for meaning-rich reading opportunities for learners of various levels and with widely differing schemata, he or she selects books from a broad variety of levels, topics, and features (including pop-ups, flaps, sound books, and ”big books") to motivate each child.

Let’s take the child who is fascinated with dinosaurs as an example. Teaching letters, sounds, or even plot becomes a more enjoyable process to the child when we use books on dinosaurs to do this.  If you create in a child the need to know and facilitate the process using content he or she can get excited about, there is no stopping the curiosity. The child will read about dinosaurs, do math with dinosaurs, and play the K-T boundary asteroid destruction at the end of the Cretaceous period on the playground. And, when that fascination rolls away and the child becomes interested in oceans, we need to be ready to support this new curiosity.

Applying UDL to Teaching Literacy

What does the UDL approach mean for early literacy? It means that some students are going to have it easy—a lightbulb goes off, and the student is a reader. But, it also means there might be a need to reset. Understanding the fractured skills that a student has is the best way to know how to support him or her. Knowing where the gaps are allows teachers to do their magic. 

When the UDL principles are implemented, learning barriers are removed from the classroom, and students become engaged, motivated, and excited about learning. Consequently, students’ needs are being addressed earlier and with more content unique to their interests, providing them with more ways to be successful. More successful students mean fewer referrals to special education.   

As teachers provide students with learning experiences involving multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and engagement, and multiple means of expression, they prepare them to derive enjoyment, meaning, and enduring learning from their reading.

Interested in learning more about early literacy? Check out our blog post on The Power of Early Literacy and ESSA.