Last fall, I took an introductory course on Universal Design for Learning. Universal Design for learning is a set of principles for teaching in order to provide support to all learners, regardless of learning differences, so they can access the curriculum (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2013). If you are not familiar with it, this short video gives a brief overview. During the online course, I participated in some insightful and valuable conversations through the discussion board. Lots of the discussion centered around the fact that there is great diversity in how students learn and why the term “learner variability” should replace “learner disability.” Students differ in many ways, including the way they comprehend information, the way they express themselves, and in the ways they are best motivated and engaged. A teacher’s role is to provide flexibility in instruction and assessment in order to address these differences and enable all students to progress toward curriculum goals.
While taking the course I spent a lot of time reflecting on the students I teach. As a literacy specialist, I work with struggling readers. Some of my students have great difficulty decoding the text, while others can decode, but aren’t showing an understanding of what they have read. I thought a lot about one student in particular, a second grader. Even with reading intervention he was struggling with decoding and encoding. But, when discussing a text he was often very insightful and could explain a theme or a character’s traits better than the other students in the group. When we were reading nonfiction texts he always had information of his own to extend our discussion of the topic. This was a student with lots of background knowledge he had collected from various sources: television, the internet, field trips, visits to a museum. This was a student who was learning a lot through visual and hands-on experiences. This student also demonstrated his learning better through speaking than writing. Reading and writing were a chore for him since it was such a challenge, but in contexts where these tasks were removed he had the ability to excel.
Reading and writing are at the core of learning in the elementary grades. When readers struggle we provide them with intervention and supports so they can become proficient readers and writers. Some students continue to need these intervention and supports as they move through the grade levels. Many of these students are aware of their challenges and difficulties with reading. Teachers can help make students aware that there is variability in how they learn and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. There are two books that I will share with students to help send this message. One is a chapter book and the other is a picture book. Both feature main characters who realize that they are different from their classmates and are trying to navigate the school setting even though they don’t excel in the typical academic areas. They both gain a sense of empowerment when they realize their strengths. These books can help students accept their own learning differences and discover their strengths.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Ally finds school very challenging because of her difficulties with reading and writing. Her attempts to hide her difficulties often get her in trouble and she’s gained a reputation as a student with a behavior problem. With the help of her teacher, she learns she has dyslexia and begins to learn to read. She realizes that her difficulties with reading don’t make her “dumb.” This book would be a great read-aloud and could spark conversations not just about differences, but also kindness, acceptance, and friendship.
I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard by Jennifer Mann
Rose thinks she will never get a star on her teacher’s blackboard because she answers math questions incorrectly, she doesn’t read loud enough, and her desk is a mess. After the class has a visit from an artist, Rose creates a thank-you card that Mrs. Benson admires. In the end, Rose’s artistic strength earns her a star on the blackboard. Although a simple text, many students will be able to relate to Rose.
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2013). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: Cast Professional Publishing.