To meet the needs of the widest range of students, what should teachers consider when planning their instruction?

Page 5: Instructional Materials

hands on a bookNow that the team at Sycamore Middle School knows how to develop UDL goals, they are ready to learn how instructional materials can incorporate UDL principles. Like most teachers across the nation, the Sycamore teachers use printed text as their primary medium for teaching. In addition, when teaching the unit on ancient Egypt, the sixth-grade teachers at Sycamore typically lecture, show videos, and distribute informational handouts and worksheets.

As the Sycamore team evaluates the use of these materials, they learn that these traditional media types—text, audio, and images or graphics—are fixed. In other words, the media cannot be altered to meet the needs of all students. Consequently, many students do not find the materials engaging, whereas others may not find them challenging. The table below outlines potential barriers for each media type.

Sycamore Middle School
Traditional Materials
Text-based materials
(textbook/ handouts)
Audio-based materials
(lectures/ video)
Image/graphic-based materials
(video/ handouts)
Requires students to:

  • See
  • Decode and comprehend written text
  • Process visual information
Requires students to:

  • Hear
  • Identify key points
  • Process aural information
  • Be physically or cognitively able to take notes
Requires students to:

  • See
  • Process visual information

UDL Materials

Teacher with student

As was mentioned above, traditional materials or media are fixed—that is, the content is fused to the material and cannot be separated from it. For example, the text in a book cannot be manipulated; it is static. The UDL approach encourages teachers to use materials that are more flexible and that therefore enable them to present concepts in a variety of ways to better meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. The most common type of flexible media is digital text, a format in which the content is separate from the manner in which it is presented. For example, the digital text on a computer screen can be manipulated in many different ways (e.g., by increasing the font size, switching on the text to speech feature, highlighting text as it is read) to make it more accessible to more students.

  • udl_page05_collageLINKStudents can access the content in a medium that best meets their needs:
    • Multiple options for displaying font (e.g., size and color to enhance visibility)
    • Ability to present the content as text or speech
  • Students have multiple options for accessing the digital text in accordance with their learning needs or preferences.
  • Students can access embedded information that can enhance learning:
    • Hyperlinks to dictionaries, thesauri, etc.
    • Graphics
    • Animation
    • Relevant background information

For Your Information

National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS)

What it is – NIMAS was mandated by IDEA 2004 to address the barriers presented by printed text. This standard defines the type of file that publishers must create so that others may develop specialized formats (such as braille or audio books) for students with print disabilities.

Why it is important – A single standard enables the creation and distribution of textbooks and other instructional materials in a flexible format (e.g., digital text) that allows students with disabilities to access the core curriculum through a variety of media (e.g., text-to-speech, large font).

Alex Catalogue of Electronic Text
“[A] collection of public domain and open access documents with a focus on American and English literature as well as Western philosophy. Its purpose is to help facilitate a person’s liberal arts education.”

American Library Association’s “Great Websites for Kids”
A site overflowing with links to rated and age-assessed Websites for young people in a wide variety of categories, including “Animals,” “The Arts,” and “History and Biography.”

“Bibliomania has thousands of e-books, poems, articles, short stories and plays all of which are absolutely free. You can read the world’s greatest fiction by authors such as Dickens and Joyce, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all Shakespeare’s plays, or just dip into some short stories by writers such as Mark Twain, Anton Chekov and Edgar Allan Poe.”

“Bookshare’s goal is to make the world of print accessible to people with disabilities. With a dynamic leadership team, dedicated Members and capable partners, Bookshare™ is making this goal a reality.”

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
“Through a national network of cooperating libraries, NLS administers a free library program of braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers in the United States by postage-free mail.”

The Online Books Page
An online platform offered through the University of Pennsylvania. Search for some 35,000 books on the Internet by author, title, or theme (e.g., “Banned Books”). Links load to other sites around the Web.

Project Gutenberg
“[T]he Internet’s oldest producer of FREE electronic books (eBooks or eTexts).”

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
“Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic® (RFB&D), a national nonprofit, volunteer organization, has been the leading accessible audiobook library for students with disabilities such as visual impairment or dyslexia that make reading standard print difficult or impossible for the last 60 years.”

In addition to encouraging them to use flexible materials, UDL encourages teachers to use alternate materials or media (e.g., scaled models, tactile materials). Teachers can also maximize students’ access by using appropriate scaffolds and supports (e.g., graphic organizers, spellcheckers). By using a combination of flexible materials and media and allowing students to choose the materials they work with, teachers can incorporate the UDL principles—representation, action and expression, and engagement.

David Rose
CAST founder; Chief Scientist,
Cognition & Learning

David Rose emphasizes the need for flexible materials. He uses the analogy of exercise equipment to describe how UDL lessons are designed to maximize students’ learning (time: 1:49).

View Transcript

UDL materials may be created by publishers, educational technology producers, state departments of education, school districts, or teachers, among others. Wherever it comes from, by presenting the content in a variety of ways, teachers can maximize the probability that all students, regardless of their learning needs and preferences, will be able to access it.

Keep in Mind

  • Though students might use different media to explore and learn the same concepts and skills, the learning goal should be the same for all students even as it challenges them individually.
  • When identifying materials to use during the presentation of a lesson, the teacher should consider the content or skill to be taught. For example, students who are learning about chemical reactions might benefit more from a hands-on experience than from reading text.

After learning how UDL principles apply to materials, the team at Sycamore Middle School generates more options for students to access the content on ancient Egypt. They will continue to use some of their traditional materials but will apply the three UDL principles to make the materials more accessible and engaging to a greater number of students. They also decide to include additional materials to address their students’ diverse needs and learning preferences. Their ideas are summarized in the table below.

Sycamore Middle School: UDL Materials for Ancient Egypt Unit
Traditional Materials Potential Barriers UDL Solutions
Textbook chapter Requires students to:

    • See
    • Decode and comprehend written text
    • Process visual information
    • In addition to printed text, provide students with the option of accessing the information through digital text. Digital text can be manipulated for easier visual access or can be converted to speech.
Lectures Requires students to:

    • Hear
    • Identify key points
    • Process aural information
    • Be physically or cognitively able to take notes
    • Accompany lectures with slides to provide students with the option of accessing the information visually; slides can serve as a scaffold for students who have difficulty identifying key points, taking notes, and processing aural information.
    • Provide students with the option of using graphic organizers for note taking.
20-minute video on archeological finds Requires students to:

    • See and hear
    • Process visual or aural information
    • Show a video with open captioning.
    • Provide an oral description of the images.
Additional Materials
    • Offer students the option of accessing the information through digital text. Because digital text is flexible (rather than fixed like printed text), it can be either manipulated for easier visual access or converted to speech.
    • Allow students of different ability levels to work on content that is challenging for them.
    • Embedded information allows students to access additional or background information.
Three-dimensional models of pyramids and mummies
    • Provide students with the option of accessing information in a hands-on format to aid tactile and kinesthetic learners as well as students with visual impairments.


Mr. Cottrell, an eighth-grade math teacher, is beginning a chapter on basic geometry.

Teacher holding books

Mr. Cottrell, an eighth-grade math teacher, is beginning a chapter on basic geometry.

  1. Evaluate the materials that Mr. Cottrell plans to use, listing at least one potential barrier for each.

    Traditional Materials Potential Barriers
    Lecture and chalkboard  
    Overhead projector  
  2. List at least three possible universally designed materials or media that Mr. Cottrell can use and explain why each will more flexibly meet the students’ needs.

    UDL Materials Rationale for Use
  3. Do these universally designed materials or media address the needs of Pierre, a student who is primarily a tactile learner? If not, adjust the materials accordingly.

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