Universal Design for Learning and Emergent-Literacy Development: Instructional Practices for Young Learners

Article excerpt

Research has consistently linked early-literacy instruction and scores on measures of emergent-literacy skills with later reading achievement. To address the needs of increasingly diverse student populations and to comply with legislation that mandates access to the general-education curriculum for all students, educators may consider Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a key to early-literacy instruction. The authors explain UDL in the context of early-literacy curriculum and instruction and apply UDL constructs to one example of an early-literacy teaching strategy-storybook reading and, in particular, the use of electronic, Web-based storybooks-as an introductory discussion of practical application.

Universal Design for Learning

Legislators and those who run school districts continue to embrace a more inclusive approach to education, and educators are challenged to plan lessons that are suitable for a variety of learning abilities and styles in response to the high numbers of children with disabilities in regular classrooms, children who are reading below grade level, and children who are learning English as a second language. The importance of access and equity for all children regardless of their abilities continues to be a focus both in literature and practice. Professionals have extensive guidance on classroom participation of a child with a specific disability, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; however, educators are not as learned in creating activities that are proactively varied for a multitude of learning needs and abilities while attending to traditional, emergent learners.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) came from the concepts of architecture, not education (Friend & Bursuck, 2009). Applying architectural- design theory to classroom and curriculum development, UDL translates into planning and constructing curricula to remove potential barriers to learning for all individuals - regardless of their abilities (McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006). The intent is to design classrooms and curricula that facilitate participation of individuals with a variety of abilities and strengths rather than to make modifications and adaptations to existing curricula and classrooms. Unlike providing accommodations and modifications to general-education classes and curriculum, as educators often do for children with special needs, UDL is not an approach that is in reaction to a specific child; rather, UDL involves an approach to planning and classroom design that is proactive in addressing the varied needs and abilities of all children in a class. Making modifications and providing adaptations can be time consuming for the team and only benefit individual children, whereas universal design has the potential to promote participation and independence of many students (Lieber, Horn, Palmer, & Fleming, 2008).

UDL is not new to education: The concept has been used in special education environments for a number of years. In contrast, some general- education teachers continue to respond to instructional needs rather than planning for success at the beginning through diversifying instruction in the planning stages. However, general- education teachers now realize that UDL provides for diversity in instruction and opportunities to plan for success for all participants (Chambers, 2008). In UDL classrooms, teachers plan for learner success instead of waiting for learner failure (Stanford & Reeves, 2009).

Qualities of UDL

UDL ensures that a variety of pathways are provided for understanding content and that output expectations include flexible and individualized products that enable students to express learning in a variety of ways. Orkwis and McLane (1998) highlighted three qualities that can be useful in designing learning experiences for inclusive education: representation, expression, and engagement. These three dimensions of UDL provide a map for educators as they strive to rethink and transform traditional curricula into meaningful learning experiences for all learners. …