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AT in the General Classroom

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

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Case Study:

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Case Study: Marty

Without Hearing
Case Study: Susan

Universal Design

Case Study: Karen

Group Work:
IEP/IST Exercise

Empowering ESL Students with Universal Design

Experience Reflection and Course Evaluation

Empowering ESL Students
Universal Design

The changing demographics within the United States point to the need for preparing teachers who have the knowledge and competencies for developing and designing education programs for the rapidly increasing population of English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show a dramatic increase in the population of (ESL) students. During the 1999-2000 school year, 4.4 million students were identified as English language learners (ELLs) in pre-K through 12 public schools (Kindler, 2002). Most teachers realize a need for education that recognizes ESL students’ learning differences and allows ESL students to have access to the same information and experiences as their native speaking peers. However, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education (1999), only 20% of teachers who taught ELLs felt well prepared to meet the needs of their students.

Many ESL students are mainstreamed before they achieve proficiency, particularly in academic English. This is mainly because as soon as an ESL student can converse fluently with classmates and adults, he/she is considered ready to be mainstreamed. However, Cummins (1980) makes a distinction between language used for basic social interaction (BICS) and language used for academic purposes (CALP) and shows how BICS is not sufficient to ensure a student's success in content courses. In order to perform more cognitively demanding tasks, e.g., comprehending and participating in classroom discussion, reading textbooks and other curriculum materials, writing competently at the appropriate grade level, students also need to have CALP. Research shows that students may acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in a second language within six to two years after arrival in a new country. However, it may take ESL students five years or more to acquire academic competence in the new language at a level equal to that of their native-speaking peers (Cummins, 1979; Thomas & Collier, 1995).

However, there is a time limit on the total number of years a student may remain in the ESL classes, thus requiring students to meet institutional standards for English language reading and writing proficiency even more rapidly than ever before. Moreover, there are recent efforts at the national, state, and local levels to increase the participation of limited English students in large-scale assessments. (National Center for Education Statistics website) No Child Left Behind Act mandates that the students who have attended school in the United States for at least three consecutive years must be tested in reading and language arts in the English language. For these reasons, it is becoming ever more incumbent upon mainstream teachers to develop awareness about the learning differences and accommodate ESL students in the mainstream classrooms.

It is very important to train mainstream teachers in the principles and procedures of Universal Design in Learning and provide them with strategies in development and implementation of the UDL principles into their instruction. This paper intends to help mainstream teachers turn the challenges posed by high standards and increasing learner diversity into opportunities to maximize learning for every student.

What is Universal Design in Learning?

Universal Design in Learning can be defined as planning and developing curricula in ways that improve instruction and promote student learning. This enhanced instruction is not only for students with disabilities, but for “all” students including ESL students, and other diverse populations of students. In this paper, I will try to provide some guidelines that mainstream teachers can use to assist ESL students have access to the same information and experiences as their native speaking peers and help students function with greater independence. Universal Design can empower ESL students by (a) providing multiple representations of content, (b) helping students have access to the course materials, and by (c) providing multiple options for expression.

(a) Providing Multiple Representations of Content

For ESL students, high vocabulary density in academic content materials can become an obstacle to comprehension and enjoyment. Moreover, ESL students may have limited background knowledge than U.S.-educated students have--knowledge that helps them transfer concepts to a new setting. For example, ESL students may have little or no knowledge about the U.S. history. Even if they have had social studies instruction, the content will have been very different. Therefore, mainstream teachers who have ESL students in their classrooms need to provide multiple representations of the content to help their students develop background knowledge and have access to the content. This can be achieved by providing hands-on and performance-based activities, using graphic organizers, and incorporating cooperative learning activities where ESL students can practice the language of the content area.

Some of the strategies to provide multiple representations of content are listed below:

1. Field trips: Field trips help expand the students’ knowledge through hands-on learning. They provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned in the real world. For example, a field trip to historical sites such as Gaithersburg in Maryland or Mouth Vermont in Virginia would help the ESL students develop background knowledge about the U.S. history or a visit to a park when studying types of trees would give them opportunities to observe and analyze types of trees.

2. Virtual field trips: Students can also take virtual field trips on the Web that can serve as educational expeditions for students.

3. Drama: Drama is a very powerful tool for students to develop background knowledge. Simulations can be created where students role-play an event/process such as discovery of the American continent, slavery or the stages in a life cycle of a frog.

4. Pictures, diagrams, and graphic organizers: In order to help students develop vocabulary, mainstream teachers can illustrate meanings with pictures, diagrams or graphic organizers as much as possible. ESL students can refer to these pictures, diagrams or graphic organizers during the rest of the lesson/unit.

(b) Helping Students Have Access to the Course Materials

1. Class notes: Mainstream teaches can make his or her class notes available to the ESL students or ask 1-2 students to volunteer to take notes that will assist in providing accommodations to ESL students in the class.

2. Mainstream teachers can read class handouts, assignments to be distributed out loud to make sure that all the learners understand the handout or the assignment. This is also helpful for those who have a preference for the auditory modality.

3. Resources: Having resources such as a library, dictionaries, thesauruses, online dictionaries, thesauruses readily available in the classroom will allow all students to be more independent during in-class assignments and activities.

4. Tapes from class: Making audiotapes of classes for students would allow ESL students to review the course material when they go home. Tapes can also be provided to students with disabilities and students who have missed class for legitimate reasons.

5. Books on tape: Books on tape or on CD are available for people with visual impairments, people who are physically disabled or learning disabled. ESL students can make use of these resources to facilitate their comprehension of the course material.

(c) Providing Multiple Options For Expression

Providing multiple options for expression is a key way to increase student success. Most of the mathematics, science and social studies classes assume a high degree of literacy and assess the students accordingly. However, ESL students often have not have developed enough academic language proficiency to be able to complete reading and writing assignments given to them. Even if ESL students know the content, because of limited English skills, they are not able to express what they know. They may not respond to a question unless they are encouraged and given time to answer. When students do not speak up, many teachers think that they do not understand what is being taught. Research suggests that a native English-speaking university freshman acquires vocabulary at the rate of at least 1,000 words per year throughout childhood and knows 20,000 to 25,000 words upon college entrance. (Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nation, 1990) This puts ESL students who begin acquiring English after childhood at a great disadvantage since they have a great deal to learn, even if they are able to learn at the rate they learned their first language once they begin. For all these reasons, ESL students must be given every opportunity to express their full abilities and achieve their full potential. For example, if the class is involved in a biology experiment such as observing the stages that a butterfly goes through to complete its life cycle, ESL students can be allowed to record their observation by drawing in addition to writing. Students can also choose to express new ideas through drama and dance rather than through another literary form.

ESL students also need to be assessed both formally and informally. In addition to formal assessment, teachers can use informal, authentic assessment to evaluate ESL students. Ongoing classroom assessment provides opportunities for teachers to observe ESL students accomplish tasks in a variety of contexts and situations. In the content area courses, quality of the students’ questions, their understanding of the content knowledge, their critical-mindedness and their initiative in exploring questions, not their language skills, must be taken into account when assessing ESL students.


Many of the suggestions listed in this paper are widely used by some teachers without knowing that they are implementing Universal Design techniques. These teachers are aware of the importance of implementing teaching techniques that allow more access to the information being taught. However, more teachers need to become familiar with Universal Design techniques in order to embrace and use it so that they can instruct and support ESL students in an inclusionary setting.


Cummins, J. (1979) Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism, 19, 121-129.

Cummins, J. 1980. The cross-lingual dimensions of language proficiency:Implications for bilingual education and the optimal age issue. TESOL Quarterly, 14, 175–87.

Kindler, A. (2002). Survey of the States’ Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services: 1999-2000 Summary Report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs

Nagy, W. & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304-330.

Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Harper and Row.

Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V.P. (1995). Language minority student achievement and program effectiveness. California Association for Bilingual Education Newsletter, 17, 5, 19-24.

The Inclusion of Students With Disabilities and Limited English Proficient Students in Large-Scale Assessments: A Summary of Recent Progress from the National Center for Education Statistics retrieved on Oct 12, 2003.

Copyright © 2003 Yesim Yilmazel-Sahin. All rights reserved.
Please contact Yesim Yilmazel-Sahin at for questions and comments.

Last Modified October, 2003.