Four steps for applying Universal Design for Learning to a curriculum

iStock_000016934184XSmallWhen you cross the street with a bike, or enter a building with a baby stroller or wheeled baggage, you are benefiting from universal design features such as curb cuts and ramps that were intended for people in wheelchairs, but that make the environment more accessible to everyone.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) works in the same way to make a curriculum accessible to all learners, writes Grace Meo in a recent article in Preventing School Failure. “It emphasizes the need for a curriculum that can adapt to student needs rather than requiring learners to adapt to an inflexible curriculum,” writes Meo, the director of professional development and outreach services at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST).

Many laws require that diverse students have equal access to learning, but she says they fail to address the biggest impediment: the curriculum. To ensure that a curriculum is flexible enough to meet the needs of diverse learners, UDL should be done at the curriculum planning stage, Meo says. As many architects and builders know, it’s a lot easier to install curb cuts and ramps before rather than after construction.

Meo’s article illustrates the use of a four-step process to make a high school social studies curriculum more effective for all learners, but these same four steps can be used for any curriculum, she says.

“Whereas learner differences have been traditionally defined as inherent strengths and weaknesses (without regard for weaknesses in the curriculum itself, which has been regarded as static and infallible), the interaction between the learner and the educational curriculum must be considered,” Meo writes.

“In other words, 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.”

The four-step process (PAL, planning for all learners), was developed by CAST to help educators bring UDL principles to any curriculum to make it more accessible to all learners.

A UDL curriculum is characterized by:

  • multiple or flexible representations of information and concepts;
  • multiple or flexible options in expression and performance;and
  • multiple or flexible ways to engage learners in the curriculum.

Educators should work in teams to make the curriculum more accessible. The teams should include both regular and special education teachers and other specialists who draw on their own educational expertise and experience to improve access to the curriculum for more students.

Here are the four steps of the process:

Step 1: Set goals — It’s important for educators to have a clear understanding of what they want all students to learn. In the 9th-grade social studies class, which is the focus of this article, the regular teacher and special education teacher decided that the goal was that all students would understand the causes and impact of the Industrial Revolution and be able to demonstrate this understanding. In the class of 27 students, there were five students with disabilities who had individualized education plans (IEPs) and 11 students for whom English was not the primary language at home. The teacher had become increasingly aware that nine students are struggling readers. Learning goals should be held constant for all students, Meo says.

Step 2: Analyze current curriculum — The team should focus less on individual student profiles than on the profile of the classroom, Meo says. Baseline information should be collected on instructional methods and materials and on assessments.

Identifying curricular barriers is a critical step in the process. In the social studies class in this study, the regular teacher and special education teacher identified the textbook as a barrier not only for students with decoding problems, but also for English language learners. Even typically achieving students who contributed to class discussions were not successful on multiple-choice tests, suggesting that the textbook was a barrier for them as well.

The special education teacher was already working with students on IEPs to make the class content more accessible by helping students with organizational and study skills and by simplifying concepts being presented in class.

Step 3: Apply UDL to lesson development — With a clear curriculum goal and an understanding of curriculum barriers, the teachers in the social studies classroom realized that no matter how engaging the lectures might be for some students, they just would not work for many others, and that what was needed was to have multiple representations and multiple formats for learning new ideas.

To activate students’ prior knowledge, the teachers decided to begin the Industrial Revolution unit with a brainstorm activity using Inspiration software. Activating prior knowledge and use of concept maps have been shown to improve student learning, Meo writes. The teachers also decided to use robust vocabulary instruction and reciprocal teaching strategies, an instructional activity that takes the form of a dialogue between teachers and students engaging in summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Strategy stickies in books helped students pause and think about what they were reading and so did Microsoft Word’s insert text or audio comment features.

As part of the UDL approach, students were given other choices for demonstrating understanding in addition to multiple-choice and essay tests such as performing an enactment, developing a multimedia presentation, and writing a poem or book for another grade level. The teachers found that when they provided choices, more students were interested in demonstrating their understanding, Meo writes.

Step 4: Teach the UDL lesson or unit — If all students demonstrate learning of the concepts, the PAL process can be used again for the next lesson. If students have difficulties, teachers may need to revisit the lesson and revise it as needed. At the beginning of the project, the main social studies teacher said he typically tended to blame students’ lack of preparation, background, or personal limitations for their failing in his classes. By the end of the project, he was more likely to view difficulties as the result of barriers in the curriculum. The special education and general education teachers both discovered the benefit of joint curriculum planning.

CAST recently released a working draft of UDL guidelines. Access this document at: The web site also has a curriculum self-check tool to help educators implement UDL.

“Curriculum Planning for All Learners: Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to a High School Reading Comprehension Program,” by Grace Meo, Preventing School Failure, Volume 52, Number 2, pp. 21-30.

Published in ERN April 2008 Volume 21 Number 4

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