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

Page 6: Instructional Methods

Teacher asking the students a questionThe Sycamore Middle School team now has an understanding of how to apply UDL principles to instructional goals and materials. They also need to evaluate the instructional methods they use to teach content. They discover that, just as they need to present materials in multiple formats, they need to use a variety of instructional methods to deliver the content to all learners.

Girl writing

The traditional instructional methods are not especially flexible, nor do they provide students with many options for accessing content. For the most part, they promote passive learning—students are required to memorize information from the text, lecture, or video. Though they are given some opportunities to practice (e.g., complete worksheet), students often do not receive corrective feedback. Though effective with some learners, these instructional methods do not address the needs of all students nor do they effectively engage all learners.

Again, the Sycamore teachers evaluate the sixth-grade lesson on ancient Egypt, this time focusing on the instructional methods used to teach the content. They discover that traditional instruction is primarily teacher-directed rather than student-directed and emphasizes the learning of facts rather than the learning of concepts and skills. They notice a number of other barriers, too, which are listed in the table below.
Sycamore Middle School
Traditional Instructional Methods
Traditional Methods Barriers
Students learn content by independently reading their textbook chapter on Ancient Egypt.

Requires students to:

  • Understand and learn the content, regardless of background knowledge or cultural experiences
  • Extract the relevant information in the text
During classroom lecture, the teacher summarizes information in the textbook.

Requires students to:

  • Learn by the limited examples in the textbook
  • Be physically or cognitively able to take notes
During whole-group instruction, the teacher shows a twenty-minute video on archeological finds and follows it with class discussion.
  • Requires students to engage or participate in whole-class discussion, regardless of disposition (e.g., shy students)
  • Whole-group instruction usually targets the middle 50 percent of the class (not all ability levels)
Students complete worksheets about pyramids and mummies as independent class work.
  • Geared toward memorization rather than the transfer of knowledge
  • Ignores students’ learning preferences

Students drawing famous paintingsWhen they design lessons using the UDL principles, teachers need to consider how to effectively teach content or skills to a classroom of learners with different abilities and learning preferences. This requires teachers to be flexible in the way they present and teach information and to offer their students options in the learning environment. The table below highlights some instructional methods that teachers may use to address the principles of UDL—representation, action and expression, and engagement—when teaching a diverse group of learners.



  • When teachers present many examples and non-examples of a concept, students begin to understand that concept more thoroughly. Teachers often rely on the limited number of examples in the textbook, but digital media allows them to gather examples to display as text, images, audio, and video. Teachers should also not limit the kinds of examples they choose; by seeing, hearing, touching, or smelling, students gain a greater understanding of the concept or object being taught.

    For instance, Mr. Salvatore, a six-grade teacher at Sycamore Middle School, started a file that contains examples of pyramids. He will continue to add examples and non-examples to this file.





  • As they teach concepts, teachers can highlight the important pieces of information that they wish their students to learn. Explicitly directing the students’ attention to a critical element in the lesson is one way for teachers to scaffold learning. Teachers can also identify key points in a text by making it stand out (e.g., by bolding, italicizing, or highlighting it) or by physically pointing out features in the text or in an image such as a photo or diagram. Digital media provides teachers with additional tools, such as animation and zoom features, with which to highlight key points. Additionally, teachers can emphasize information when they speak by using different tonal inflections, facial expressions, or gestures.

    Mr. Salvatore highlights key vocabulary words in the handouts he gives to his students. Below is a portion of one handout with the important unit terms in bold and additional vocabulary words in italics and defined in the margins.

    Tombs of the gods
    In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh, or ruler, was believed to be a descendent of the gods. He or she was both the civic and religious leader of the entire kingdom, and great importance was placed not only on pharaoh’s words and deeds but also on his or her body. descendant: someone related to a person from the past
    udl_page06_LINK02Long before a pharaoh got old, preparations were made to build his or her tomb. Many of these took the form of pyramids, the largest of which is the Great Pyramid of Giza, which stands 455 feet tall and took twenty years to build!

    civic: related to government

    tomb: a burial place

  • When presenting content, teachers should provide learners with a variety of media and formats that allows them to choose what works best for them. Multiple media and formats also allow students to develop a deeper understanding of concepts by providing opportunities to interact with those concepts in a variety of ways. By using digital media, teachers often can more effectively and efficiently present content in ways that meet their students’ learning needs and preferences.

    The table below outlines some of the different format options and media options that Mr. Salvatore will use throughout the year to address the learning preferences and needs of his students.

    Format Options


    man at a podium

    • Lecture
    • Class discussion
    • Question-and-answer session
    • Oral reading
    • Verbal description
    teacher at the board
    • Picture/ graphic
    • Overhead transparency
    • Whiteboard with markers
    • Video
    • Movie captioning
    mobile of the planets
    • Think aloud
    • Model or act out
    • Build/ construct
    • Use manipulatives

    Media Options

    student at a computer
    • Video or film
    • Audio
    • Computer
    • Television
    • Tactile materials
    Students watching a TV

    Adapted from Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000.

  • To help students better understand new information, teachers may sometimes find it necessary to teach requisite information that their students do not have. Whether or not this is necessary, teachers should tie content to the students’ existing knowledge (commonly referred to as prior knowledge or background knowledge). They typically do this by:

    • Pre-teaching vocabulary
    • Asking students to reflect on their own related experiences
    • Directing students to supplemental information

    Digital media often include links to related materials that allow students to access additional information when they need it.

    udl_page06_LINK04As Mr. Salvatore begins the section about the burial customs of the ancient Egyptians, he preteaches the vocabulary words “canopic jar,” “sarcophagus,” and “mummification.” As part of whole-group discussion, he asks whether any students have attended a funeral and, if so, to discuss the experience. Additionally, Mr. Salvatore has brought in a number of books and maps and has bookmarked several good sites about ancient Egypt on the computer for his students to explore during their free time.

Teacher showing students a turtle

Action and Expression


  • When teaching a skill, teachers should model various effective ways to perform that skill. They should also teach the skill in a variety of settings (e.g., small group, one-on-one, online). Teachers might also wish to use digital media to extend the range of available examples.

    ClassroomMr. Salvatore wants his students to learn about ancient Egypt, but he also wants to teach them how to effectively research a topic, a skill they will need in order to complete their final project. He introduces ways to research topics (e.g., library, Internet) in a whole-group setting and later works on this skill with small groups.

  • By breaking a complex skill into subcomponents and allowing students to practice each of them, the teacher is scaffolding instruction. Teachers may use digital media as a way to scaffold instruction. For example, a student who has difficulty decoding text can practice comprehension skills with digital media that allows her to click on difficult words to hear them read aloud.

    Student in the libraryAfter teaching his students how to research a topic, Mr. Salvatore provides opportunities for the students to go to the library to check out books and to research a relevant topic using the computer.

  • If students are to master a skill, they must be given immediate corrective feedback—constructive comments to help them improve their performance—during practice. Teachers can provide this feedback or they can teach students how to monitor their own performance. Digital technology affords students the opportunity to receive immediate corrective feedback in a variety of ways (e.g., online games prompt students to “Try Again” or give them the correct answer).

    Teacher assisting a studentAs the students practice their research skills in the school library, Mr. Salvatore monitors their progress and provides corrective feedback when necessary. This is also a great time for students to ask questions and to obtain clarification on something that they do not understand.

  • Teachers should allow students to demonstrate mastery of a skill or knowledge using a medium that best matches their learning needs and preferences. The student will need to consolidate what he or she has learned (e.g., each step of the process, knowledge about a topic) in order to effectively demonstrate his or her level of skill or knowledge. Digital media allow students a wide variety of opportunities to express or demonstrate their learning.

    Mr. Salvatore assigns a final project for the unit on ancient Egypt. He asks his students to research and present information on one aspect of ancient Egyptian culture. Mr. Salvatore allows his students to choose a medium that works best for them. In response, the students chose to create oral reports, short films, hand-written papers, and presentations constructed on the computer.

    four photos of kids studying, using a video camera

Teacher helping a student at the board



  • Teachers who seek to more fully engage their students may find it beneficial to offer them choices when teaching new content or skills. By offering choices, the teacher allows students to learn in a manner consistent with their learning needs, learning preferences, or interests (e.g., learning fractions within the context of following a recipe). Teachers can use digital media and materials to offer an ever-expanding range of choices.

    Just as Mr. Salvatore will allow his students to conduct research for the final project on ancient Egypt in a variety of ways (e.g., Internet searches, library books), so too will he allow each of them to choose a relevant topic (e.g., culture, burial customs) that piques his or her interest.

    Sample content:
    pyramids, sphinx, tomb art

    Egyptian collage

    Sample tools:
    books, art supplies, computer

    colored pencils, highlighter, laptop computer

  • In order to obtain and maintain their engagement, teachers need to adjust the level of the challenges they present to their students. Ideally, teachers ought to challenge their students to stretch just beyond their current ability level, without creating challenges that are unobtainable. Most digital or electronic learning activities allow for adjustable levels of challenge.

    Because Mr. Salvatore has reviewed his students’ academic records and frequently monitors their progress in his own class, he knows that his students vary greatly in skill level. For example, some are reading at a second-grade level, while a few are reading at the upper high-school level. Though some struggle with basic skills, others are capable of delving deeper into content or extending their use of a skill. For this reason, Mr. Salvatore differentiates the assignments and requirements to match his students’ needs.

    Collage of students

  • To maintain their engagement, teachers should remember that students find different things reinforcing (e.g., praise, extra computer time). Rewards can be as simple as the feeling of accomplishment some students get when performing well. Most computer games or online activities offer students this type of immediate feedback and give them a feeling of success.

    udl_page07_girlWritingMr. Salvatore wants to ensure that his students stay engaged. To this end, he provides reinforcers when his students have worked hard to complete an assignment or project or when they have performed exceptionally well on a test. When he first began teaching, Mr. Salvatore took it upon himself to select the reinforcers, only to discover that many students did not find them reinforcing at all. After a few years, he began to survey his students at the beginning of the year to determine what was reinforcing for them. By doing so, Mr. Salvatore can offer a variety of reinforcers that he knows will appeal to his students.

  • Teachers need to be aware of the influence that the learning environment (e.g., classroom noise, structure of task, student grouping) has on student learning. Because students prefer certain contexts, it’s important for teachers to utilize a variety of learning environments. Digital media are often designed to help control many of these factors (e.g., options for turning off background music, help balloons).

    After many years of teaching, Mr. Salvatore understands that not all students perform equally well in the same learning environment. He has noticed that some students prefer to work in a quiet environment, while others seems to thrive in a more stimulating one. To accommodate these different learning preferences, Mr. Salvatore lets his students choose the type of environment they work in during independent activities.

    Student studying

    Teresa prefers to work by herself in a quiet corner.

    Students studying together

    Katelyn and Jaleesa prefer working together so that they can discuss key ideas.

  • To best meet the learning needs or preferences of all students, teachers should use a variety of grouping methods. They may want to use whole-group instruction, small-group instruction, or peer pairs, or they may decide to allow students to work independently. There are a number of ways for teachers to group students into smaller groups or pairs: homogeneously (e.g., by ability, interest, or learning preference) or heterogeneously. Keeping in mind that students often find one type of grouping format more engaging than others, for certain instructional activities, teachers may allow the students to choose whether they wish to work in groups, pairs, or independently.

    Over the years, Mr. Salvatore has learned the many benefits of flexible grouping. He often begins a lesson by introducing the concepts during whole-group instruction. Later, he has his students work in small groups to master the content. Sometimes, he groups his students by ability levels so that he can work with each group separately to focus on their specific needs. Other times, he uses heterogeneous grouping so that each student in the group brings certain strengths and knowledge. Often, at the end of class, Mr. Salvatore allows his students to choose whether to work in pairs or independently to practice the concepts.

    Teacher discussing a map

    Whole-group instruction

    Students studying

    Small-group instruction

    Two students using a computer

    Peer pairing or
    partner instruction

Two boys studying

Now that the Sycamore team has learned a number of ways to address the three UDL principles, they are ready to apply what they know to the lesson on ancient Egypt. Following is their proposed plan for instruction.

Sycamore Middle School:
UDL Instructional Methods for Ancient Egypt Unit
Instructional Methods Potential Barriers UDL Solution
Students learn content by independently reading their textbook. Requires students to:

  • Understand and learn the content, regardless of background knowledge or cultural experiences
  • Extract the relevant information in the text
  • Build or activate background knowledge by 1) asking questions about related experiences during whole-group instruction (e.g., funeral and burial traditions) and 2) preteaching vocabulary prior to assigning the text.
  • In addition to the text, present content utilizing multiple media and formats, such as audio (lecture), images (video), and manipulatives (models).
During classroom lecture, the teacher summarizes information in the textbook. Requires students to:

  • Learn by the limited examples provided in the textbook
  • Identify key ideas
  • Be physically or cognitively able to take notes
  • Provide multiple examples of important concepts or objects (e.g., burial tombs and the afterlife).
  • Highlight important information by using intonation and by writing important words or concepts on the board.
  • Provide scaffolds and support by supplying an outline with key ideas highlighted to accompany the lecture.
During whole-group instruction, the teacher shows a twenty-minute video on archeological finds and follows it with class discussion.
  • Requires students to engage or participate in whole-class discussion
  • Whole-group instruction usually targets the middle 50 percent of the class (not all ability levels)
  • Utilize flexible grouping. Following the video, meet with small groups to discuss and demonstrate the process involved in an archeological dig using an excavation kit.
  • Provide adjustable levels of challenge and corrective feedback during small-group instruction (students are grouped by ability level).
  • Allow alternatives for students to express or demonstrate their learning by having students create a picture, story, or model to demonstrate what they think they would find if they excavated the school playground.
Additional Instructional Methods
The teacher designates a time for students to work in centers or with a partner to learn more about pyramids.
  • Present content utilizing multiple media and formats and utilizing flexible grouping. In addition to viewing pyramids in the textbook and in the video, students work in small groups to explore three-dimensional models of pyramids or in pairs to view virtual models of pyramids on the computer.
The teacher assigns a project related to pyramid construction.
  • Allow alternatives for students to express or demonstrate their learning. Have students demonstrate their knowledge of the construction of pyramids using their choice of material (e.g., model, drawing, report).
  • Use a rubric to grade the projects and provide corrective feedback.


Teacher holding a bookMrs. Hunter, a seventh-grade science teacher at Sycamore Middle, is teaching a chapter on cell division. She has started to implement UDL in her classroom and creates her weekly lesson plan.

Click here to examine and evaluate her lesson plan.

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