Differentiate Instruction with Strategies Aligned to Universal Design for Learning

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Teaching is amazingly challenging. Day after day and year after year, you are tasked with meeting the needs of vastly different students. This almost-impossible task can be both overwhelming and rewarding.

When I was teaching, differentiation was my biggest struggle. I dreamt about having time to design personalized activities for each of my students. But what teacher has time? I know that my experience was not unique: as an instructional coach each teacher I worked with named differentiation as their biggest area of growth.

I didn’t know about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) when I was teaching, but I sure wish I had. UDL helps teachers identify their students’ learning barriers and then use evidence-based strategies to improve access for all students. UDL is based on three principles that show how students participate in a learning activity:

  • Representation: How information is presented to students in a lesson. For example, through a written text or verbal presentation.
  • Expression: How students will participate in the lesson and express their understanding. For example, through writing an essay or giving a presentation.
  • Engagement: How students will be motivated and interested in participating in the lesson. For example, through real world connections or activities based on students’ interests.

When thinking about differentiating your lessons, consider the three principles of UDL. Where do you see students struggling? When planning to meet the needs of different students, think about if they struggle with representation, expression, or engagement (or more than one of these areas). Then brainstorm strategies that you could use to help students overcome those barriers.

For example, let’s say you’re planning a lesson where students read a text and then write a written response. A possible barrier related to representation could be students not understanding vocabulary in the text. To address this barrier, you could have students reference a vocabulary preview prior to reading. Thinking about expression, a possible barrier could be organizing writing. You could provide students with a planning page where they could map out their response before writing. Now thinking about engagement, a possible barrier could be that students don’t relate to the text. To address this barrier, you could engage the class in a discussion to activate background knowledge and encourage connections to the subject matter.

When looking for differentiation strategy, Goalbook’s Strategy Wizard is a great resource. This tool can help you come up with ways to address barriers to representation, expression, and engagement. If you select the subject you’re teaching, a variety of possible strategies will come up. You can even enter specific barriers that your students might be facing.
No matter how overwhelming it can feel, approach differentiation with curiosity. Use UDL to help guide your investigations into what is working and not working for your students. The effort you put into meet the needs of all your students will be well worth it.

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