Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Category Archives: Udl

Text to Speech just got easier

Most of us are probably familiar with products that turn digital text into speech.  Programs like Read&Write Gold and Kurzweil are feature packed applications that will not only read almost any digital text to you, but also provide numerous other supports such as advanced spell check, word prediction and more.  Other programs, like ReadPlease are basic (but free) and allow you to copy and paste any text in and have it read out loud.

The only major downfall to these programs is that a student must be sitting in front of a computer to use them.  Having one computer with text to speech capabilities doesn’t do you much good when 15 kids need it at the same time.

To help remedy this, there are several products out there that allow you to turn text into an audio file (typically an mp3 or wav file).  Once created, students can listen to it on their portable mp3 player, cd player, or even their computer at home.  Granted, this isn’t always as effective as being able to see the text as it’s being read out loud, but it does work for many students.  Surely you’ve seen all of the earbuds hanging out of kids’ ears haven’t you?

Before I list some options, I should mention one concern I consistently get is that not all students have the mp3 players.  This is true, but according to a recent report specializing in tracking the use of digital music and digital music players, over 70% of respondents ages 12-17 already have some type of portable music player.  This is up from 54% last year.  What’s more is that not all portable media players are as expensive as iPods.  A recent search on showed a 2GB video and audio portable media player for under $30!

Now that that’s out of the way, how do we turn text into audio files?  Well, there are really 2 ways: a software application (or one feature of a software application) and a web site.  Let’s look at each…

On the Web:  These websites allow you to paste digital text in and they will automatically create the audio file for you.

Software Applications:

If you know of any additional programs, especially free programs, be sure to post in the comments section or send me an email.

Podcasting and Podcatcher Options

For those that aren’t aware, a podcatcher is a software application used to collect and play podcasts. By far, the most popular podcatcher is iTunes. However, not everyone wants to rely on only one software application. In addition, there are many schools or entire districts that do not allow the use of iTunes. So what exactly is a podcast and are there options for those wanting to subscribe to podcasts other than iTunes? That is what this post hopes to answer.

To start with, a podcast is simply an audio or video file that is syndicated, which means people are able to subscribe to it using a podcatcher. Why would you want to subscribe to a podcast? Let me use an example that I think will help. Imagine there are 5 podcasts that i am really interested in. They are on various topics, maybe Spanish lessons, technology, financial information, music, and math strategies. All of these podcasts contain great information, but it is a time consuming task for me to visit each site every day just to see if a new podcast has been posted. If I find that there is a new post, I then have to download and store it somewhere before I can listen to it on my computer or on a portable media player like an iPod.

Now let’s look at using a podcatcher, such as iTunes, to make this process more efficient. Instead of visiting each site everyday, I only visit it once. While there, I find the feed information for that podcast (usually by clicking on a link that says “subscribe to this podcast”). I take that link and copy and paste it into my podcatcher (if using iTunes go to Advanced – Subscribe to Podcast) and viola, I am now subscribed to that podcast. I do the same with the other four sites and now every time I open my podcatcher it searches to see if any new posts have been made. If so, it automatically downloads and organizes them for me. Is that cool or what! iTunes also offers an extensive list of podcasts you can search and subscribe to without ever leaving the application.

So moving on, are there other podcatcher options than iTunes? The answer to this is yes, but you may need to spend some time exploring the options to find which works for you. Below is a list of a few options you may want to try:

I figure this list will do you for awhile. I personally use iTunes, but if I didn’t I would probably give Juice, MediaFly or ZiePod a try.  If you have tried one of the options above feel free to leave a comment and let us know what you think.

UDL Guidelines Released by CAST

The Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST), the number one resource on Universal Design for Learning, has released version 1.0 of UDL Guidelines. According to cast:

As the UDL field has grown, so has the demand from stakeholders for Guidelines to help make applications of these principles and practices more concrete.

These UDL Guidelines will assist curriculum developers (these may include teachers, publishers, and others) in designing flexible curricula that reduce barriers to learning and provide robust learning supports to meet the needs of all learners. They will also help educators evaluate both new and existing curricula goals, media and materials, methods and assessments.

You can pick up your own copy of the guidelines from CAST’s website at

What exactly is UDL anyway?

Oddly enough, I don’t get asked this question much.  I find that most people believe they already know the answer and see no reason to ask or don’t care and assume if they ignore it long enough it will go away.  Whatever the reason is, I figured I should go ahead and create a post with a basic explanation of what Universal Design for Learning is.

For starters, the term Universal Design for Learning comes from Universal Design, an architectural term.  The idea behind Universal Design was to create things to accommodate the most users from the beginning.  Think of curb cuts as an example.  They help people in wheelchairs, right?  But who else uses curb cuts?  I know I do.  So do people with luggage, baby strollers, and bicycles.  This is an excellent example of designing things in the beginning with the end in mind.  Other examples include Closed Captioning and automatic doors.  Can you think of anything else?  If so, post in the comments section below.

Moving from architecture to education, the term Universal Design for Learning came about.  Its purpose, similar to Universal Design, is to make learning accessible to the largest group of students possible from the start.  The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) describes UDL in the following terms:

UDL provides a blueprint for creating flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that accommodate learner differences. –

One important thing to keep in mind that is often confusing for people is that UDL is not something you can touch.  I remember in Kentucky for example, when UDL was really gaining support, the state took the initiative of getting a special contract with a text reader software company to help make text more accessible in KY schools.  The text reader of choice was Read&Write Gold from Texthelp so for the next 3 or 4 years I think half of the state thought that UDL and Read&Write Gold were the same thing.  This of course was not the case, so during trainings I always started off with an explanation of each.  I’m not sure if this helped or not, but I always referred to UDL as a theory.  I believe CAST described it as an “educational approach,” which I always thought sounded good too.  CAST also laid out three principals to help people understand UDL.  They are as follows:

  1. Multiple Means of Representation – provide students information in multiple ways (lecture, audio, video, learning centers, etc…)
  2. Multiple Means of Expression – allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways (instead of paper and pencil tests for example, allow students to create a powerpoint, make a blog post, etc…)
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement – motivate your students.

One misconception of Universal Design for Learning is that you must have technology for it to happen.  This is not always true.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a technology guy and technology really helps, but don’t think that you have to spend thousands on a smart board to have a universally designed classroom.  There was an article in CEC back in 2005 titled “Using Universal Design to Unlock the Potential for Academic Achievement of At-Risk Learners” by Cynthia Acrey, Christopher Johnstone, and Carolyn Milligan.   It had tons of useful information in it, but the main take away for me was that you don’t always need expensive equipment.  It talked about what paper color to use and how you should use bolded text instead of underlines because it is easier to read… Things that all of us can take note of and start implementing today.

Ideally new technology will make its way into your classroom over time and you can begin getting more creative with how you make class accessible for ALL of your students.  I’ll post ideas and resources as time goes on to help with this, but just wanted to give you a quick overview for now.

CAST, Google Introduce UDL Editions

I was just forwarded a link from a friend of mine to the new UDL Editions by CAST website. According to the press release:

Wakefield, MA, April 23, 2008—In partnership with Google, CAST today celebrated World Book Day by introducing two new online literacy tools that provide robust, embedded learning supports for readers at all levels. UDL Editions by CAST are world literature classics presented in a flexible online interface that supports and engages novice and expert readers alike. CAST Strategy Tutor offers adolescent readers customizable mentoring and support as they conduct Internet research and read websites.

In the limited amount of time I had to experiment with the site, I found it very user friendly providing you are familiar with Texthelp’s Read&Write Gold toolbar. You can choose from 7 books and be provided with 3 levels of support on each book depending on student specific needs. These levels are as follows:

  1. Maximum Support – “Stop and Think” prompts are multiple choice. Highlighting critical features, models, and hints available. Immediate feedback on responses.
  2. Moderate Support – “Stop and Think” prompts elicit constructed responses and text revisions to explore author’s craft. Highlighting critical features, models, and hints available. Immediate feedback on text revisions only.
  3. Minimal Support – “Stop and Think” prompts offer strategy choice and open responses. Students are guided to highlight and collect key elements in the text, thus actively highilghting critical features for themselves.

Give the site a look when you get a chance. The address is Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. Anytime you can get organizations like CAST together with companies like Texthelp and Google, you can expect great things to happen.

Developing a System for Engaging your Students

Today’s post goes along with the third principle of Universal Design for Learning: Multiple Means of Engagement. It is critical to keep students engaged in your lessons if your goal is for them to retain the information you provide. To do this you must engage them. Engagement must be often and relevant. Relevant simply means something related to the content you are teaching. It should build on students background knowledge. Research shows time and time again that relating content to background knowledge increases retention, so why shouldn’t engaging activities do the same?

The picture above is something I picked up from a Bob Pike Group training a couple years ago. You will see me mention things from their trainings quite often as I think almost everything they teach relates to good teaching and Universal Design for Learning. It basically says this: In a 90 minute window of time (think block scheduling for some of us) we should chunk our content into 20 minute sections making sure to engage learners every 8 minutes or so. Simple, right? Let’s take a deeper look:

90 Minute Block – This may not work for some of you teaching 50 minute classes, but the remainder of the rule still holds true. In general, whether we provide training, teach a class, or anything else that involves holding a groups attention we should be sure to provide a break at least every 90 minutes. This has been the case time and time again. How do you think they came up with 90 minutes being the optimal time for block scheduling in the first place? I can assure you it wasn’t by accident

20 Minute Chunks – You must break your content up. No one can hold attention for 90 minutes straight. You must break this up into chunks. 20 minutes has been shown to be the optimal amount of time for any section of content.

Engage every 8 Minutes – This is just a general rule of course, but it does have some research to back it up. Did you know that by the time your students graduate high school they have spent more time in front of a television than in a classroom? What happens about every 8 minutes when you are watching TV? If you guessed a commercial break you would be correct. So imagine how tough it is to hold attention for an entire class period with out some type of break in the action. This is where the engagement piece comes in. It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact it can be as easy as having everyone stand up and sit back down. I would recommend putting a bit more thought into it than that however. For example, one social studies class I work with has a student be the timer. Every 8 minutes they ring a bell that signals time to throw a blow up globe. Whoever catches the globe must find whatever the person who threw it asks them to. The whole thing takes maybe a minute and instantly engages all students with something relevant to the content. Who should you make the timer? Doesn’t really matter, but any student who likes to make disruptions would be an excellent choice.

Hopefully this quick and easy strategy will help you design some of your lessons to be more engaging for your students. If you happen upon this post and try it, I would love to see comments about how you made it work in your classroom.

Blogs in Education

I’m writing this post for a couple of reasons… First, I believe that blogging is a great new way for educators to embrace a universally designed classroom. Secondly, after asking my class to create a post regarding blogging in education I feel obligated to at least make a short post myself.

So, why should classrooms embrace blogging? There are the obvious reasons, which include writing for a larger audience and engaging students. Then of course there are the not so obvious reasons for some that include making assignments more accessible for students with diverse needs and helping to create that universally designed classroom you will hear me mention so often.

Let me expand a little – first with the more obvious reasons. If a student is at the point to where she doesn’t care about school and is frustrated with assignments, I’m not sure that she is really interested in what the teacher thinks about her writing ability. But what if the rest of the class, or the rest of the world, may read her writings and heaven forbid – leave comments on what they think about it! That student may start to re-think what it is she is writing. No one wants his or her friends to think they aren’t smart.

The engagement piece is probably self explanatory as well. If you were a student would you rather sit quietly and write with a pencil and paper or use the internet and computer with all of its wonderful tools and resources? Yeah… me too.

Moving on to what some teachers may not realize, the accessibility features that can be used when blogging are incredible. Are your students more visually oriented than text oriented? No problem, add some pictures to support your ideas. Trouble writing due to fine motor or other disabilities? Again, no problem. Maybe your student would benefit from using one of the hundreds of specially designed keyboards that are available. If a regular keyboard isn’t available, how about using an on screen keyboard with switch access? Or maybe your students have spelling problems. Did you know that spell check is available in most web browsers now? If that doesn’t work, maybe word prediction with phonetic spelling features would do the trick. Hopefully you see where I’m heading with this. Not only is a digital medium more engaging, but it is much more flexible as well. Think about all of your struggling readers. How much help would a text reader be for them when reviewing their peers’ blog posts?

Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas. I would recommend starting your own blog just to see how simple it is. Go to or one of the many other blog utilities out there and give it a try.

Markup your PDF Documents

Most of you probably know what Adobe PDF documents are. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, they’re those aggravating documents you receive from time to time that you can read, but cannot edit. They require you to have special software (Adobe Reader – free and standard on most PCs) to open them. The good thing about these documents are pretty much the same as the bad thing: you cannot edit them. Why is this good? Well, many people, including publishers use a PDF file so that end user (i.e. you) cannot modify the content. Businesses may also use them for policy and procedure manuals, forms, contracts and more. They also come in handy when you want to make sure your document looks the same to everyone. Have you ever opened up a word document that required you to edit parts of it just so you could make sense of it all? If the creator used a PDF document instead, no matter what setting the end user had, the document (including images) would look the same as when it was first created.

The bad part of not being able to edit is also quite obvious. What if there is a mis-spelled word or you don’t like the way something reads. Maybe you just want to bold or highlight certain portions for your records. These simple functions cannot usually be done.

Now however there is a free program that gives you the best of both worlds. PDF-Xchange viewer is just that. It allows you to add your own markup to any pdf document and save it. This includes adding highlights, circles, arrows or even sticky notes. And don’t forget, it’s FREE! There are premium versions that let you do more like create your own pdf documents, but the viewer will serve your basic markup needs. If you need to create a pdf document there are free alternatives to that as well, such as Cute PDF Writer or PDF Creator. These programs allow you to create a pdf document by choosing them as your printer.

Assistive Technology vs. UDL

I’ve asked students in a class I’m teaching to identify what they think the difference between Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning is. After a bit of research they all seem to be right on track, but I notice quite often while in the field that not everyone understands this difference and I believe it is important that all educators take the time to learn it.

So, let’s start with a definition of Assisitive Technology from the Tech Act of 1998. It reads that AT refers to any “product, device, or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” It has recently been updated to say that it does not include surgically implanted devices (read: cochlear implants).

Basically this means that any item can be considered AT if it helps increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. An important part of that definition includes the words “individuals with disabilities.” AT must be considered for all children with an IEP. This is the job of the IEP team. This doesn’t mean that AT isn’t useful for students who do not have a disability, but it does mean that it doesn’t have to be considered or allowed for students without an IEP. An example is a text reader. If a student needs a text reader to access the curriculum, it should be noted on his or her IEP in the appropriate place and be made available at all times (including testing). Other students who do not have an IEP may prefer having text read to them as opposed to reading it themselves, but teachers are not required to allow this and many state assessments will not permit it either.

This is a good time to make the leap to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is all about creating a flexible curriculum that provides access for all students. I once heard it put that AT removes barriers for individual students and UDL prevents barriers from being there in the first place. I like this definition. UDL is more of a concept or teaching practice. It’s similar to differentiated instruction and is not something you can touch like AT. UDL has three basic principals:

  1. Multiple Means of Representation – represent information to students in a variety of ways
  2. Multiple Means of Expression – let students express themselves (demonstrate their knowledge) in a variety of ways
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement – choose activities and provide content in a way that engages students in different ways.

I also call UDL good teaching. UDL recognizes that there is no such thing as a “regular” education student and that all of us learn in different ways. So if I am an audible learner, let me listen to the text if that helps (this doesn’t mean forgo teaching reading skills, it is just a way to provide equal access for your students and help engage them). When teaching a lesson, use lecture, video, small group and individual discussion, blogs and interactive websites, etc… When it comes time for your students to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, give them ownership. Let them choose from a variety of options or create their own as long as it demonstrates that they’ve mastered the content.

I could go on about this stuff forever, but for now just know that UDL and AT is not an either/or situation. UDL will help many of your diverse learners gain better access to the curriculum. This may include having what we traditional call assistive technology readily available for any student to use. Other students will still need specific assistive technology, like communication devices, wheelchairs, etc… to help access the curriculum and daily functions. By using UDL and AT together, all students will not only have better access to the curriculum, but will also find learning an engaging process that they will never forget.

I know UDL is a tough concept for some. Knowing the basic principles are one thing, but putting them into practice is another. Therefore I will try and post more UDL strategies and ideas in the future.