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[Learning to Read] Using Digital Tools Within the UDL Framework

[Learning to Read] Using Digital Tools Within the UDL Framework

Most teachers of little ones understand that teaching elementary children often involves walking a narrow line between exploration and total chaos. Walking that line often means navigating and eliminating as many obstacles to learning as possible, taking care to identify gaps quickly so that no one gets left behind. This is best supported by a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) curriculum with embedded provisions, including technology.

In the two earlier posts of this series, we discussed the power of early literacy and ESSA and building a meaningful approach to literacy through the UDL framework. This week, we turn our focus to the value of technology when it comes to teaching reading. The thing about digital resources is that they can target many different modalities and interests, chunk content, and provide creative ways for assessment, all with very little effort. The strength comes from the design.

The highly respected RAND Reading Study Group, under direction from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement, examined reading for understanding and published this 2002 study that is still referenced today. In it, reading comprehension is defined as a “process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language.”

This definition tells us that meaning is constructed as a transaction between reader, text, and activity, situated within a larger context. Having digital tools to support this transaction provides unique opportunities for the heavy lifting. The nature of these tools provides the resources and accessibility ingrained in their features; the content becomes interactive. In digital text, the words on the page can come to life, providing the student with the ability to follow a topic thread, link to content to build connections, and tie it to previous knowledge. Learning with technology bridges the gap of what is known to the new, providing a foundation to extract and construct.

The RAND report acknowledges the important role of visual information and the changing nature of the text in digital multimedia environments. The need to model reading is still critical, but reading and learning are physically different in this age of digital learning. Aspects key to advancing our understanding of comprehension and effective instructional practice are changing by the nature of the tools we have available to us and are expected to use. 

An article from the National Center on UDL states: “In a digital context, the relationship between reader, text, and activity can be changed in ways that extend the capacity of the reader and transform the text to take on teaching and learning roles.” A concrete example of the changing format of our learning can be diagramed in the previous sentence. If you were unsure of the word “capacity,” it can be linked out to a definition, or a read aloud; the study can be hyperlinked to take you to the source for more research and exploration. Isn’t technology amazing? Think about a 4th grade student reading on a 1st grade level due to decoding difficulties. That student may productively engage with texts at his grade level if he is in a digital format that includes a read-aloud tool to compensate for weak word-recognition skills.

Digital texts may also be transformed to offer teaching supports, such as pedagogical agents that model reading processes. Students can have mentors within the content that models reading, questioning, and notetaking. With certain digital tools, the program can learn about the reader as it collects and analyzes performance data and adjusts in the learning environment accordingly. For example, if students are taking an online quiz, programs of this nature can use their answers to identify what their next question should be as they take the quiz, therefore, more appropriately, tailoring the experience to students’ instructional levels. 

In effect, the reader-text-activity relationship is dynamic in a digital context. Whereas a printed book reveals nothing more than the words on the page, the various tools of digital reading selections, such as dictionaries or hyperlinks, provide supports that students can engage and interact with to draw greater meaning from the text.

The most effective learning environments (texts, curriculum, assessments, instructional methods, and others) are also those which consider the needs and interests of the broadest spectrum of learners from the outset. This newer philosophy of learning is at odds with more traditional learning approaches that advocate adapting curriculum or developing supplemental materials for students who have special needs. Instead, digital learning programs approach teaching reading, specifically the five pillars—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—with supports built in to help manage the learning process.

Barriers to children's learning may be developmental disabilities or include language differences, physical disabilities, processing challenges, intellectual limitations, and emotional challenges. Barriers can even be something as basic as a lack of breakfast. Classroom barriers may include everything we struggle with historically—limited space, a shortage of personnel, limited funds for technology, a shortage of materials, and a prescribed or inflexible curriculum. 

In the literacy curriculum, comprehension strategies of text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections can help overcome learning barriers, as all learners embrace texts that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. These textual connections permeate the walls of traditional oral reporting and the inherent restrictions of pencil-and-paper reports, and they extend into the innovative domains of digital texts, peer tutors, differentiated approaches, and connections across different languages. Integrating multiple means of representation (addressing the knowledge network), multiple means for engagement (addressing the affective network), multiple means for action and expression (addressing the strategic network) and multiple means of assessment (addressing all networks) into the literacy curriculum helps reading teachers enable the promise of universal design to unfold for each child.

The dynamic nature of the UDL framework teaches us how to use what we have available to address these constraints through flexible applications. The dynamic nature of digital resources offers a variety of flexible implementations. Think about the applications of UDL in enhancing children's learning and comprehension connections. These connections are demonstrated through the use of grand conversations, literacy circles, oral-language experiences, creative dramatics, and playtime in teaching reading and language arts—all tools enhanced with the flexibility of digital resources. Each of these resources may be chosen for its unique abilities to support any individual within the classroom. Informed teachers may enlist a plethora of multiple intelligence- and cognitive-theory-based literacy strategies that promote automaticity and a lifelong love of reading for young children.

In creating a classroom that leverages personalized learning and UDL, we are asking that teachers look to provide a huge variety of resources and instructional strategies to all of their students. Purposeful centers—where targeted and unique assignments are available, students are engaged, and the content resources are varied—provide methods to more effective learning. However, leveraging the digital resources that technology provides allows for those scaffolds and supports to be more readily built in. Students can create their own learning path (or have it created for them) and find what is interesting and consumable to help them develop skills and competencies at their own pace.

Reading has changed in the 21st century, but in many ways, learning to read has not. It is still, and always will be, an individual and unique journey for each learner, and as modern educators, it’s our job to help guide students using the best methods, tools, and strategies we can. The UDL framework gives us the structure to help tailor the learning-to-read experience for students, and digital tools and technology give us the means to make learning more engaging, effective, and meaningful than ever before. When implemented together, UDL and digital tools create a learning experience that is capable of not only meeting the needs of each budding reader but also helping break down barriers to learning, identify gaps in understanding early, and find solutions quickly so that no student gets lost on his or her path to becoming a proficient, passionate, and lifelong reader.

This is an exciting time to be a reader. Think about it—learners can enlarge a page with a pinch and the right tool, look up a word with a click on a link, follow a thread to explore an idea, and review resources without leaving their seats. Teachers now have the ability to launch readers by engaging these tools and following the path of student interest, which makes it an exciting time to be a teacher too. 

Interested in finding the right tools to elevate your students’ literacy journeys? Edmentum programs like Exact Path and Reading Eggs are specially designed to support both students and teachers to help students build literacy skills and inspire learning.