Designing (and Teaching) to the Edges

Because reading uses so many different skills, learning to do it can be hard for students who can’t hear or see clearly or who are learning English as their second or third language. Reading draws on the shared language that writers and readers understand. And it also depends on seeing symbols and hearing sounds. Nevertheless, English learners (ELs) can learn to read English, and students with sensory disabilities can also learn to read.

Thinking about these diverse learners leads to a wider consideration of individual differences. And that consideration provides two important insights.

  • First, learners bring different assets and challenges to school with them. That’s why one approach doesn’t fit all students.
  • Second, learners benefit when the classroom offers alternatives that are available to everyone. No one is singled out as being different—the environment simply accommodates all students’ differences.

Parapros often work with students whose needs are unusual or especially complex. Reflection on what these students need should drive instructional planning and practice. That’s what educators mean when they talk about designing to the edges. They work to create a set of teaching and learning environments and tools that will enable every single student to learn.

Designing to the edges isn’t just good for students with complex or unusual needs—it’s the best approach for all students! By contrast, designing for the “average” student results in practices that don’t work well for any student. That’s because an “average student” doesn’t exist in real life. In real life, students are diverse. As a result, our teaching methods need to be flexible and responsive.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL is a way of teaching that takes all students’ needs into account. It focuses on being flexible and accessible, so students’ learning strengths help them overcome their learning challenges.

The model for UDL comes from studies of the brain. It separates what happens when we learn into three types of brain networks: recognition (noticing patterns and deciding what they mean), strategic (predicting and planning how to understand something), and affective (feeling motivated to grasp why something is important).

We can apply this model to reading too. It points to the fact that reading requires people to recognize words, understand their meanings, and figure out how those meanings relate to their lives.

A big advantage of using UDL for reading instruction is that it is inclusive as well as effective. Instead of forcing instructional practices into “general education” or “special education” categories, it designs to the edges, so all students can benefit according to their actual preferences and needs.