Overview of Universal Design
Howard (2004) explains universal design as having a flexible curriculum that gives students many options and opportunities to learn the material as well as multiple ways to show what they learned. She gives us some advice on how to implement universal design in the classroom and shows us what a classroom using Universal Design ideas might look like. The author suggests teachers initiate their planning time by asking “what is it I want my students to learn and how can they show they learned it?” (Howard, 2004). Howard stated many teachers often give simpler texts to those who have trouble reading but these simple texts don’t contain the amount or the depth of information as the more difficult books and as a result, the students miss out on a lot of learning. To solve this problem, she chose 4 books for the students to read and had them look at each of the books to judge them according to their perceived difficulty. The students next ranked the books in the order they wanted to read them and each student was assigned either their first or second choice. This was beneficial because not only did students choose the book they were most interested in, but they grouped themselves into their perceived ability level and were allowed the opportunity to choose difficult text if they sought after a challenge.
Once the students had their book it was time to read! Reading is difficult for many students, especially at the first grade level so Howard worked hard to support student learning using Universal Design. She solved the problem stated by Pischa and Coyne in 2001 when they discussed how textbooks are inaccessible to many students due to their lack of reading skills. Some of Howard’s students choose to work independently, but to provide more support other students were placed in pairs so each student could read and learn together. If students required further support, audio books were available for them to listen and follow along in the text. For the children requiring the most support, an online book was created. Students could have it read aloud to them or read independently and highlight words on the computer to be read aloud when they needed assistance.
Hitchock, Meyer, Rose, and Jackson draw attention to the fact that there is no homogeneous group of learners (2002). Presenting lessons with Universal Design in mind not only helps students with special needs- it helps students without them as well. Beachman and Alty (2006) found using computer-based media improved learning outcomes of students with dyslexia as well as those without dyslexia. In Howard’s lesson, all students were able to complete the lesson successfully by being offered a variety of options and supports. This reduced the amount of attention drawn to those who learned differently and challenged those students in need of more difficult material (Howard, 2004). Hitchock and others describe in their 2002 article how engineers “designed the curb cut to better enable those in wheelchairs to negotiate curbs, but they also eased travel for people pushing strollers or riding skateboards, pedestrians with canes, and even the average walker. (p. 9)” This example gives us some idea of what would happen if we applied Universal Design to our classroom- everyone would benefit.
Pischa and Coyne stated in 2001 how textbooks are inaccessible to many students due to their lack of reading skills. Some individuals may fear that universal design will solve this problem by reducing the amount of reading students do. Ms. Howard showed it was possible to support those who need help with reading through technology and universally designed lesson while still use literature in the classroom (2004). Her creation of e-books for students who needed extra support in place was very time consuming however, she offered many suggestions on how to overcome this such as asking for volunteers. The benefits of universal design are well worth the extra thought and prep time it takes to create lessons.
The most important thing for teachers to remember is to offer lots of different ways for students to learn the information as well as choices on ways to show they learned the material. As Beachman and Alty noted in 2006, “Using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning materials is more problematic than experts lead us to believe.” Hitchock and others stress the importance of being flexible and having flexible materials, methods, and ways to assess that meet the needs of all students (2002). The also reiterate how important it is to take advantage of the technology available by creating materials able to go back and forth between media and other ways to present content. Flexibility is key if you are to teach lessons that are universally designed.
This research has strengthened my support for use of Universal Design by bringing questions to mind and allowing me to work through them using the research. The most fascinating thing I learned was students with dyslexia tend to do better when presented with a text without pictures rather than one with lots of pictures (Beacham & Alty, 2006). I personally enjoy the visuals in textbooks so it seems we have an incompatible situation on our hands with those students who need pictures and those who do better without. A creative teacher focused on universal design could think of countless ideas to solve this problem. Knowing about this research, my solution would be to hand out copies of a reading assignments or other text in a form without pictures and display a meaningful picture on a screen off to the side for those who needed the visual. Teaching is all about balancing the needs of all students and offering everyone an opportunity to learn the way they like as frequently as possible. Universal Design can work in any classroom with any teacher as long as the teacher fully understand the concept of Universal Design and are committed to centering their lessons on its concepts. Only then can we educate all children!
Beacham, N.A. & Alty, J.L. (2006). An investigation into the effects that digital media can have on the learning outcomes of individuals who have dyslexia. Computers and Education, 47, 74-93
Hitchock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Providing new access to the general curriculum. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35, 8-17.
Howard, K.L. (2004). Universal design for learning: Meeting the needs of all students. Learning and Leading with Technology, 31, 26-29
Pisha, B. & Coyne, P. (2001). Smart from the start. Remedial and Special Education, vol. 22,
P.L 94-142 (1975). Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Education.
Smith, D.D. (2007). Introduction to special education. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.