Each individual has the right to an equal opportunity to learn. The power of this statement and the call to action to serve each learner regardless of ability, disability, age, gender, cultural or linguistic background or sexual orientation is the heart beat of Universal Design (UDL).
Universal design is about creating materials and environments for learning that are flexible, varied and empowering. UDL accelerates concept understanding from the expected to the unexpected by setting the stage with a varied cast of methods and means that captures each individual learner and makes their journey accessible.
I first became fascinated with the impact of integrating universal design concepts, in partnership with literacy-based therapy, early on as a solo practitioner in private practice in a rural, low-income town in Southern Colorado. Many of my patients had limited exposure to books let alone thematic language and literacy learning to help them visualize the concepts, people and places beyond their every day struggle of getting to school, having enough to eat and returning home to a safe and secure environment. Tailoring therapy to meet each child’s unique communication needs as well as maximize their journey to becoming literate was a serious concern for me knowing that without literacy their chances of a better life as strong, educated community members was dim. Additionally, without literate children growing to be competent literate adults, the already struggling community was even more vulnerable to a further plunge into crime, unemployment and despair.
UDL was and is part of the magic catalyzing the journey to literacy. Why is UDL so important? UDL places the therapist in a multi-dimensional driver’s seat of tools to constantly assess individual student understanding, scaffold a sliding scale, if you will, of support, enrich and support multi-sensory learning opportunities and build deeper vocabulary and concept understanding by providing multiple opportunities of text, symbol, digital and experiential learning. It allows the student to begin at any place and grow their understanding of the many layers of a concept through varied modalities. It opens the door for the profound to happen...the 1st grade, second generation, developmentally-delayed child, to move from her only school-based goal of stating a simple sentence, such as, “I like monkeys.” to expressing in two weeks, “ I like monkeys. They are cute and silly like my Uncle Kevin who lives in a monkey house.” One fabulous book, “Caps for Sale” by Esphyr Slobodkina, background exploration of knowledge about monkeys, probing of adjectives describing monkeys, introduction of similes and idioms about monkeys with focused app practice on Animals Learn Similes and Idioms from Kok Leong Tan and role play with Photo Booth Props to tell and retell the story. A three word sentence expanding to an eighteen word sentence with two adjectives, an idiom and a personal conceptual understanding in two weeks. Whoa.
The results of UDL integrated, literacy-based learning are life changing. It is focused and valuable work. Creating a thematic unit that is layered with multiple means of representation to build knowledge, multiple means of expression to strengthen the brain’s affective network, multiple means of engagement through neural strategies (hands-on sensory-rich learning, activities, games, digital literacy and target exploration) and multiple means of ongoing knowledge assessment provides a depth of learning as well as professional versatility that is unmatched. The impact of personal empowerment through rich, individualized learning opportunities moves literacy within reach for many children changing lives as well as communities.