Revisiting Teaching to the Edges: The Main Ideas

Educators teach to the edges when they plan for differences among students. Even when learning follows a predictable sequence—as is the case with learning to read—different students benefit from different lesson elements and supports. Students differ in the challenges they encounter. As a consequence, some students may need more practice with a certain skill than other students need. Or they may require a different type of explanation.

In Unit 1, we discussed the concept of teaching to the edges and why it matters for the classroom. As you start to think about designing and implementing reading instruction, it’s a good time to revisit those concepts.

Remember that there is no such thing as an “average” student. The idea of the “average” is actually an abstraction. Because no individual student embodies that abstraction, designing instruction for an average student would be like designing instruction for a nonexistent student. It is much better, therefore, to design instruction for real students, and real students have different learning needs. That’s where Universal Design for Learning comes in.

Using UDL, you can design flexible and adaptable instruction that accommodates all of your students and allows them to respond and learn in a way that takes their actual skills, abilities, and preferences into account. The idea behind this approach, which we also discussed in Unit 1, is called “Assets-Based Pedagogy” (ABP). ABP invites you to think of your students’ skills, abilities, and preferences as assets rather than as limitations.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Let’s revisit a text box from Unit 1 to refresh your memory about 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.