How to Support English Language Arts Students with the Universal Design for Learning Principles

Every student deserves a powerful English language arts curriculum that helps them build knowledge.

Read more about how Wit & Wisdom® makes knowledge building accessible to all students by utilizing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles


every child is capable of greatness.

How do UDL Principles Apply to Architecture and an English Language Arts (ELA) Lesson

Imagine three people entering a shopping center: One uses a wheelchair, another pushes a stroller, and a third walks into the space. Each of these people has the same goal, but they have different requirements for achieving itFor architects, universal design is a principle that guides their thinking about building inclusive spaces for all people. An architect carefully crafts the entry, including ramps and stairways, to ensure that all three of these people can enter the shopping center. By considering diverse needs in the population, the architect creates a product that everyone can use—no retrofitting needed.  

Image result for cast udl pictures brains

(Image Source: CAST)

For educators, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guides the development of learning designs that keep the same learning goals and grade-level expectations for all students while providing access points that allow the diverse student population to succeed. Strong core instructional materials provide opportunities for every student to build knowledge and skills while reducing the barriers to success along the way. 

Read more about how the UDL principles can be applied to all subjects, including math, science, and English language arts.


Why is UDL important?

CAST’s Universal Design for Learning framework encourages educators to consider how they can provide students with multiple means of Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression in each lesson. The goal of the framework is for all learners not only to succeed in school but to become more independent in driving their own learning, a goal Great Minds® shares. To learn more about each area of the framework, review the guidelines on CAST’s website.

The CAST UDL Guidelines can be broken down both vertically and horizontally. Each column focuses the reader on one network of the brain. Then each row breaks down how students can access the learning goal, build their skills toward it, and then internalize the skills and behaviors that will help them reach an expert learning goal for each neural network. Each section of the graphic organizer provides some suggestions on how to support students and meet their needs as they grow into expert learners.  

The teacher–writers of Wit & Wisdom carefully considered the wide variety of learning styles that exist in every classroom; however, no curriculum can fully account for the learner variability that may exist in any classroom. Wit & Wisdom is designed to support every learner; it gives teachers a range of options for delivering the content and suggests many ways that students can express their learning. Because Wit & Wisdom lessons are written as narrative guides, not scripts, teachers can use what they know about their students to best address their needs in the English language arts classroom and still use high-quality instructional materials with integrity.  

Below are examples of how the Wit & Wisdom Teacher Edition uses all three UDL Principles—Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression—to help teachers provide more ways for students to access and engage with lesson content. To be clear, the annotations provided below do not appear in the TE, but instead are examples of how the principles of UDL can be identified in the curriculum. Ultimately, teachers will need to apply their own knowledge of their learners, instructional expertise, and deep understanding of the learning goals of a module, arc, or lesson to fully realize the power of the UDL principles in their classrooms. 

How do You Provide Multiple Means of Engagement in ELA?

Providing students with multiple means of engagement helps them set a purpose for learning and increases their motivation to learn. The UDL framework encourages educators to provide options around three guidelines related to engagement: Recruiting Interest, Sustaining Effort and Persistence, and Self-Regulation. The goal of providing multiple means of engagement is to develop independent learners who are purposeful and motivated—a desired outcome for every student.  Educators can learn more about each of the UDL guidelines for Engagement here. 

Provide Options for Recruiting Interest

To provide options for recruiting interest, educators need to consider how they can engage students’ cognition in the learning tasks before them. The ways in which students are engaged in learning may vary over time, even for the same student. The three key checkpoints for recruiting interest include optimizing individual choice and autonomy over learning; optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity; and minimizing threats and distractions. 

Every Wit & Wisdom lesson has a predictable and routine lesson structure that allows teachers to create a safe and supportive learning space for students. Because students can anticipate the flow of the lesson each day, the predictable learning sequence supports students as they transition between tasks, allowing them to keep their focus on learning content. The consistent agenda allows students to anticipate relevant activities and reduces distractions. 

A box highlights the Lesson 21: At a Glance Agenda with the callout, "Wit & Wisdom provide options for Recruiting interest through the use of a consistent lesson structure. (UDL Checkpoint 7.3)" The Agenda lists Welcome (6 min.) - create conversation, Launch (3 min.), Learn (60 min.) - Recognize Differences in Points of View (30 min.) - Plan an Exploded Moment (20 min.) - Execute teh Focusing Question Task (10 min.), Land (5 min) - Answer the Content Framing Question, Wrap (1 min) - Assign Homework, Style and Conventions Deep Dive (15 min.) - Experiment with Sentance Variety

Teachers will find many opportunities to recruit students’ interest in Wit & Wisdom lessons. Topics that are of high interest to students, especially those paired with a compelling Essential Question, will excite students and keep them immersed in the content. The Launch section of each lesson consistently orients students to the important questions they need to answer and helps them set a purpose for engaging with the texts and tasks during that lesson. 


Provide Options for Sustaining Effort and Persistence 

In this example from Grade 7 Module 4, students engage in cooperative learning through a Socratic Seminar. The lesson guidance provides prompts to help students cite evidence, pose questions to one another, and connect their ideas. The teacher, as a facilitator of this conversation, can respond to what students share and aid them in positively building on one another’s contributions. Through supportive facilitation, teachers help students see the value in the knowledge that their peers share.  

A box highlights an example and states, "Wit & Wisdom provides options for Sustaining Effort and Persistence by fostering collaboration and community. (UDL Checkpoint 8.3)".

The Teacher Edition provides frequent guidance to help teachers support students in sustaining effort and persistence. For example, the Criteria for Success that appears with Focusing Question Tasks and End of Module Tasks helps students be aware of how they will be evaluated and keeps them focused on the learning goals of the task. 


Provide Options for Self-Regulation 

At the end of the Socratic Seminar in the above example, students have an opportunity to reflect on their new learning. They reflect on what the class did well and how they might improve, and they set goals for their next Socratic Seminar. This open-ended task encourages students to monitor their interactions with others and strengthens metacognition. For teachers reviewing students’ responses, this is important information for determining potential scaffolds and supports to aid students with Socratic Seminars in the future. 

How do You Provide Multiple Means of Representation in ELA?

Students differ widely in how they take in and comprehend information. Wit & Wisdom lessons provide options for how students consume information and build knowledge. In addition to using the TE to understand the options provided, teachers will also need to consider the unique needs of the learners in their classroom; for example, a student with a sensory disability, such as blindness, will need different perception supports than a student with Dyslexia. Teachers are entrusted to make instructional decisions that help students access instruction, build their skills with consuming new information, and internalize the skills and behaviors needed to become strong consumers of texts, media, and resources as independent learners.  

The following annotations show some examples of how the Wit & Wisdom TE helps educators provide multiple options to students with varying needs related to representation of the content. The three UDL guidelines for Representation are Perception, Language and Symbols, and Comprehension. The goal of this principle is to develop learners who are both resourceful and knowledgeable. Educators can learn more about each of these UDL guidelines here. 


Provide Options for Perception 

In the following Grade 5 Deep Dive lesson, the Teacher Edition asks students to think of words that begin with the prefix dis–. Students can start by orally sharing what they already know while the teacher adds to the student-generated list on the board, or the teacher can provide students with some options to respond orally or in writing. Either way, teachers maximize opportunities for students to both see and hear the words, so they start this lesson by noticing patterns of meaning across all the words they know that include this prefix.  

Teachers might encounter other options for supporting students’ perception of content in their Teacher Edition, including suggestions to use American Sign Language for learning new concepts, creating anchor charts, or annotating with a variety of symbols. The inclusion of film clips, the study of visual art, and opportunities to listen to songs or speeches also provide a variety of ways for students to perceive content in the Wit & Wisdom classroom. 


Provide Options for Language and Symbols 

Across K–8 Wit & Wisdom lessons, students are explicitly taught both content-specific and academic vocabulary words. Explicitly teaching these terms gives students access to language that helps them analyze texts and build content knowledge. 

In this Grade 2 example, students learn the academic vocabulary word dialogue. They then read a passage in their text that includes dialogue to better understand how the language in the dialogue reveals something about each of the characters. By clarifying how authors use quotation marks and naming this frequently used convention, students develop another tool they can use to analyze texts. 


Provide Options for Comprehension 

In the Grade 7 Socratic Seminar lesson, a sentence frame supports the transfer of new information between contexts. Sentence frames are useful scaffolds for students who need language supports, but frames can also help all students transfer and synthesize ideas into new contexts. In middle school, students are expected to cite sources in both writing and speaking as they bring evidence into their arguments—a critical skill for civil discourse. All students are capable of meeting this goal with the additional support for transferring the skills of both communicating the source of their information and their understanding of the text. 

Other ways the curriculum supports students’ transfer of knowledge between contexts include the regular use of graphic organizers, annotations, and writing models that help students structure their thinking. Several instructional routines also support students with the transfer of ideas from texts; for example, creating a tableau from an important scene in a novel helps students understand characters, settings, and conflict. 

How do You Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression in ELA?

Students express their knowledge in a wide variety of ways. Students with disabilities related to verbal or written expression will need different kinds of supports to express what they know. Additionally, students with physical disabilities may need supports to engage in some instructional routines. To accommodate this variety, Wit & Wisdom provides many instructional routines, regularly varies how students interact with texts, and transitions students between a variety of learning tasks in one lesson. Teachers are encouraged to consider the needs of their students and plan for how they will engage effectively in the learning environment and successfully express the knowledge they build in lessons. Educators can learn more about UDL guidelines for Action & Expression here. 


Provide Options for Physical Action 

Frequently in Wit & Wisdom lessons, students work with partners or small groups in a variety of instructional routines. Students may also use a variety of resources to complete their work. In this Grade 5 example, a teacher may choose to use the instructional routine, Mix and Mingle, to help students share their responses to the Content Framing Question with one another. Teachers can also use what they know about the learners in their classrooms to determine the ideal speed, movement around the room, or resources they need to complete the task. Additionally, teachers could choose an equivalent instructional routine, like Jot-Pair-Share, to have students turn directly to the person sitting next to them, rather than engaging in the Mix and Mingle.  

Provide Options for Expression & Communication 

Students may need options for expressing or communicating the knowledge they have built in Wit & Wisdom. A student with Dysgraphia needs support to move past this barrier to write a response. Students may need opportunities to orally process knowledge before sitting down to write, and other students may benefit greatly from writing before trying to communicate in speech. By providing a variety of formats for expressing and communicating ideas, Wit & Wisdom helps teachers provide options to students who need additional support.  

 In this Grade 5 example, teachers receive the option to extend students’ practice with two challenging words from their core text, The Phantom Tollbooth. By giving students an opportunity to think, talk, and share their thoughts about the words dissonance and disconsolate with a partner and with the class, students become more fluent with the words and make them personally meaningful. With additional vocabulary practice, students also better understand the characters and their motivations in the novel.   


Provide Options for Executive Functions 

Students need considerable support with setting goals, and Wit & Wisdom lessons frequently provide this support to learners. In the Grade 7 Socratic Seminar lesson below, students reflect on their performance and consider whether they met their goal for the discussion. They then set a new goal for future discussions. Teachers may want to provide additional support to students’ goal setting by providing them with some suggested goals or by reviewing the expected norms for discussion.  

Additional Resources to Continue Learning About UDL

To learn more about UDL, investigate these resources: 

You can also listen to two Wit & Wisdom curriculum developers discuss how they think about UDL in Melissa & Lori Love Literacy, episode 52: “Universal Design for Learning is INVISIBLE EQUITY in HQIM.”  

CAST. 2018. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org.



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