Meeting the Challenge of Individual Differences

Thank you for taking the time to learn about UDL and how it will benefit students in your classroom.  In this presentation, I will discuss how the UDL framework will specifically be successful in a high school English classroom and will further give you examples of lessons that are UDL appropriate and follow our national standards.



Here are some of my top goals for teaching English and how they are in line with the standards:

1)      To develop in students the ability to think critically about the English language, poetry, and novels from many different time periods, genres, and cultures

*Massachusetts State Standard 9- Reading and Literature Strand: “Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.”

2)      To engage students in many different kinds of writing and expression

*Massachusetts State Standard 19- Composition Strand: “Students will write with a clear focus, coherent organization, and sufficient detail”

*Massachusetts State Standard 18- Reading and Literature Strand: “Students will plan and present dramatic readings, recitations, and performances that demonstrate appropriate consideration of audience and purpose”

3)      To further students’ vocabulary through the reading and assessment of works of English

*Massachusetts State Standard 4- Language Strand: “Students will understand and acquire new vocabulary and use it correctly in reading and writing”

4)      To foster understanding, compassion, teamwork and empathy in students by choosing works and activities that promote these virtues.

*Massachusetts State Standard 2- Language strand: “Students will pose questions, listen to the ideas of others, and contribute their own information or ideas in group discussions or interviews in order to acquire new knowledge.”


Students all differ in the ways they are motivated to learn.  Engagement is the first of the three components of UDL that I will discuss. There are several guidelines for means of Engagement which will guide the implementation of UDL in our classrooms.


            Every learner is different in terms of what recruits their interest.  If information is not relevant to a student, they are highly unlikely to process and remember it.  Not only is every student different, but students themselves even change over time and respond to different stimuli.  It is important for teachers to provide a lot of ways for students to be engaged in the classroom while recognizing that it will be different for each child.  I think that one of the most important aspects of recruiting interest lies in Checkpoint 7.2 which calls us to “Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity.”  Students will be much more likely to be engaged when the information seems relevant to their lives.  It is important to make sure the activities are personalized to the learner’s life as often as possible.  Another good way to create relevance in their learning is to use material that is culturally pertinent.  Make sure that the classroom is age appropriate and is geared towards all cultures, sexes, races, etc.  Digital media opens up a new means for exploring different ways to recruit interest and offer choice because it is not fixed in the way that the printed book is.  As Rose and Meyer write in The Future Is In The Margins, “New media….are noted for their malleability.  While, like print, they can provide a permanent representation, they do not have print’s fixed qualities—they are more like raw clay than fired pottery.” (Rose, 2005, p. 7)  Rose reminds us that using digital media is more than just relevant in their lives; it allows teachers to adjust and modify the same project in seemingly countless ways to recruit interest from all students.




            More often than not, students have a hard time sustaining their effort through a long school year, or even sometimes a long school day.  Keeping perspective on goals is highly important in life and can be a help in the classroom as well.  Students that have clearly stated their goals and often revisit them will be more likely to maintain success throughout the year.  Checkpoint 8.1 asks us to “Heighten the salience of goals and objectives”.  This is a particularly important checkpoint because it is one that almost never is addressed in classrooms I have seen.  The students are doing what they have to because their teacher said so.  If we can make a shift to students setting their own goals (maybe with the help of peers or teachers) they will hold themselves more accountable for working.  A clearly stated goal will foster more intrinsic motivation which will lead to more lasting success and independence.  I have attached a worksheet that outlines how to set successful goals for students to use.




            Students need help learning how to self-regulate their emotions and actions.  Classrooms are often run in a reactive way (i.e. the student acts out and is punished).  If we can foster self-reflection and self-regulation, students will be more intrinsically motivated to learn and be successful.  Checkpoint 9.3 states, “Develop self-assessment and reflection”.  This is a highly important checkpoint because students who are constantly self- assessing their emotions and actions are more likely to act in a more positive way.  As an example, asking students to fill out a chart of how they are feeling before and after a lesson, or even filling out a quick journal entry when they get to class, helps them to be more aware of how they are feeling and how that will affect their learning.  Research states that students have more learning capacities than originally thought and the brain works in infinite ways.  “It is becoming clear that individual brains differ from each other not in a general ability (like IQ) but in many different kinds of specific abilities.  One consequence of this fact is that students that we think of as disabled because of the deficits that we see in one area may in fact have exquisite strengths in other areas.” (Rose 13)  UDL will help students self-regulate by providing many different options which will cater to each student’s different cognitive differences and strengths.

Furthermore, learners often lose motivation if they are not seeing progress.  Constant self-assessment will help the learner to see the small successes instead of only recognizing the large ones.  Most of the important learning we do can be seen in these small steps forward and is very hard to trace.  “Aha!” moments are hard to come by, so we need to keep our students engaged through celebrating smaller achievements.


Muiltiple means of representation is the second component of UDL that I will discuss.  Students all perceive and process information differently.  We need to make sure that there are multiple means of representing the material we are teaching so that all students will be able to understand and learn from it.  The more ways we can offer the same information, the more students we will be able process it.  We should not focus on “weaknesses” of our students, but rather the weaknesses of our curriculum.  We need to find many different ways to represent information so that all types of students can be engaged in learning.  In her 2008 study, Grace Meo writes, “In looking for ways to include all learners in high-quality, standards-based educational settings, educators and researchers should examine ways in which the curriculum presents barriers and supports to academic achievement by diverse learners and how the curriculum can be developed to include all learners from the outset.” (Meo, 2008, p.2)  We need to develop a diverse curriculum of representation, so our diverse students can learn from it.

On the next page are examples of how each UDL guideline for representation will provide more opportunities for comprehension by our students.


            As teachers we need to make sure that the information we are trying to get across is represented in many different ways so that all students are able to perceive it.  Guideline 1 states that we need to reduce the barriers to learning by offering alternatives for students by displaying the information in many ways both visually and auditory.  Specifically Checkpoint1.3 reminds us to offer alternatives for displaying visual information.  For example, text is a standard form of representing learning material that is used in many classrooms.  UDL advises us to represent this text in different ways so that different students can perceive it in the way that is the most beneficial for them.  For example, transforming the text into audio gives options to learners who are visually impaired, or even learn better through auditory means.



            We need to remember that all students do not perceive words, expressions and symbols in the same way.  A definition that may help to clarify something for one student will cloud the meaning for another student.   A math symbol that will help an equation to make sense for someone may actually make it more confusing for a different student.  The more options we can give our students for defining our material, the more likely individuals are to comprehend.  Take, for example, Checkpoint 2.4: Promote understanding across languages.  The language used in the classroom is often English, but in many cases English is not the first language of our students.  Vocabulary can become difficult, and reading for comprehension can be challenging when students do not understand some of the verbiage.  A great UDL example for combating this struggle is Book Builder.  Teachers can link definitions to key vocabulary words in books.  Students have immediate access to the definition in their own language, and they can continue reading.  Pictures and videos to go along with text will also help limited English proficiency and ASL learners.  One study looked at Latino English language learners who used a digital book like book-builder which has strategic coaches and vocabulary definitions.  They found that “[The Universally Designed Digital Narrative] appears well suited for both Spanish-speaking ELLs and struggling readers. Correlational analyses indicated that the use of comprehension-based embedded supports (e.g., the strategy coaches) was associated with pre–post comprehension gain” (Proctor, et al., 2007, p. 16)  Students in the study were likely to click on the coaches and the vocabulary words and therefore fared better in terms of their overall comprehension than those who did not use the online version.



            The UDL framework reminds us, “The purpose of education is not to make information accessible, but rather to teach learners how to transform accessible information into useable knowledge”.  Teachers need to construct their lessons in such a way where students can turn that information into knowledge that they can use, and subsequently transfer to solve other problems.  The more information we can provide our students surrounding the topic or problem we are teaching makes it more likely that they will transform that information into useable knowledge.  For example, Checkpoint 3.1 states that we should supply for students background knowledge.  Making cross-curricular connections helps to activate prior knowledge which will enable students to better comprehend the new material.  Even giving more background information about a book that students are reading in an English class may help them to connect it to a time in history, etc.  Using concept maps to show students where what they are learning fits into the curriculum, or time in history, may also help.

Action and Expression

Providing multiple means of action and expression is the third prong to UDL.  Students differ in the ways they are able to express themselves and their learning.  Students with language impairments, executive function disorders, and even motor impairments like cerebral palsy, not only learn differently, but can act on what they have learned very differently as well.  Some might be more apt to express themselves with the written word, while a verbal response would be more appropriate for another student.  We need to provide as many options as we can for action and expression because expressing what one has learned is not one size fits all.


            Ordinary means of expression, like books and the written word, are not easily malleable and provide only limited means of interaction.  Due to many different physical and learning disabilities in our classrooms, we need to provide many different options for interaction with the learning.  Checkpoint 4.1 reminds us, “To reduce barriers to learning that would be introduced by the motor demands of a task, provide alternative means for response, selection, and composition.” (Cast.org)  Classroom teachers need to make sure there are multiple means of navigation and accessibility for all students.



            There is not one particular medium that is the most appropriate for all students to express themselves through.  Some might be better at writing a paper, while another is better at telling a story or drawing it.  We need to provide options for students to communicate their understanding in the way that will be the most successful for them.  This will both level the playing field for students in the classroom and also offer a unique opportunity to play to students’ strengths.  I think that one of the most interesting checkpoints that UDL makes us aware of is the need for different levels of scaffolding for different learners.  Checkpoint 5.3 states, “Curricula should offer alternatives in the degrees of freedom available, with highly scaffolded and supported opportunities provided for some and wide degrees of freedom for others who are ready for independence.” (Cast.org)  This requires work, assessment, and a good understand of your students to know how much to scaffold and support them.  This will ultimately be very important to a student’s ability to work and problem-solve on their own.



            Another important guideline in UDL that is imperative for students’ futures is to provide options for executive functions.  Executive function capabilities allow students set long term goals and plan and modify strategies to reach those goals.  The UDL framework hopes to improve executive capacity in two ways, “1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed.”  I think this is an important step because teachers need to help their students grow to the point where they can work at a higher level.  One very important skill for students to learn is addressed in checkpoint 6.1: Guide Appropriate Goal Setting.  Studies have shown that people who set goals and write them out are more likely to achieve what they want.  Goal setting is a skill that needs to be taught, and we can help our students learn to make challenging and realistic goals.

Example Lesson #1

Lord of the Flies Facebook activity

            An example of the outline of this activity is in the attached power point slides.  Students will be asked to construct a simulated facebook page for one of the characters of Lord of the Flies.  They will take the Facebook page outline and fill it in according to their character.  (They will not do this in actual facebook due to privacy issues and age restrictions).  They will fill in the character’s interests which they can pull from reading the novel.  Some of the information the students will have to use their imagination to construct, and some they can take straight from the novel.  The best part of this activity in my opinion is it gets the students to take some information from the novel and extrapolate it to fill in some of the pieces of the character’s Facebook page.  For example, they will have to use educated guesses to fill in the character’s birthday (take information from the novel and figure out what year in history they may be talking about).  This will be a good opportunity for Checkpoint 3.1, because it offers us a place to activate background knowledge and work across curriculums (i.e. history).  They will put “status updates” for each of the chapters throughout the novel.  This activity is a good fulfillment of checkpoint 7.2 because facebook is so culturally relevant and probably a big part of many of their lives.  The students will likely be engaged and will still be conveying the same information as they would if they were writing an essay.  The teacher can easily assess the students’ understanding of the novel.

Example Lesson #2

In this activity, we will use a program called VoiceThread.  The teacher will upload 7-10 pictures of scenes from the novel, Lord of the Flies, and ask students to respond to 3.  Voicethread is great program which offers multiple means of representation, as well as multiple means of action and expression.  I think it is great how students can respond in so many different fashions.  Another UDL piece to this activity is the fact that students can choose which pictures they want to respond to.  Click my picture below to hear more about how VoiceThread, and this activity, work.

Thank you for taking the time to explore UDL to see how we can use it in our classrooms to engage all of our students in more productive and meaningful learning!  For further resources, please check out: