Scaffolding and Strong Foundations

Building scaffolding
Scaffolding is required to activate prior knowledge, link new to existing information and connect different ideas. Image: Hans Braxmeier.

From sketch design to fully-realised dream, construction is a complex process. Creating a building from scratch requires appropriate scaffolding from the outset. Strong foundations then underpin the structure, allowing the building schema to take shape as a built form.

Not dissimilarly, learners require a number of ‘structures’ to build their knowledge and skills toolkit. Some require extensive scaffolding to shore up their educational schema, whilst others require liberties in the design of their learning to allow them to extend their thinking and advance mastery.

Regardless of the schematic development process for learners, they require opportunities to express their learning. Like a site visit to sign off on a stage of building production, learners need to perform or express and act on their learning at each stage.

Practical Strategies

Scaffolding: ensure adequate scaffolding is in place for the individual needs of each student. As mastery of a skill is gained, phase the level of scaffolding. An example of this is when segmenting sounds as part of learning to read. The student may initially use Elkonin boxes or ‘sound buttons’ to identify sound-letter correspondence. As the learner moves towards mastering segmentation, reliance on the scaffolds is released.

Guides: Students respond differently to different teachers and their interpersonal skills and teaching styles and methods. Exposing students to a range of teachers or learning mentors increases opportunities for students to make sense of their learning. An example of this is a peer tutoring or support program. Learning from, or practising with a peer provides a different perspective, potentially rewarding the learner with a new or deepened understanding.

Models and demonstrations: Another post in Lizzie’s UDL Files discusses the value in students being encouraged to communicate their learning through different modes. The same is true in teaching new concepts. There are very many ways in which most concepts can be demonstrated or modelled. Making use of a range of models increases the chance of a student finding a model that supports their schema-building. An example is in the teaching the multiplication facts. When using concrete materials to model, demonstrate using region models, arrays, physical jumps on a number line and physical grouping of objects.

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. You can read more about UDL Checkpoint 5.3, Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.

 

There is More Than One Way to Peel a Potato

Potatoes and a knife.
There is more than one way to peel a potato – provide opportunities for students to express their learning through a range of communication modes. Image: Sonja Paetow.

There is more than one way to peel a potato. A comical idiom to explain there is more than one way to achieve the goal. This is the theme of UDL checkpoint 5.1, which is about multiple means of communication.

There is no single method of communication that works for all students to express their knowledge and understanding. Rather, only some methods will work for some students in some learning situations. While some learners express themselves with great clarity through the medium of art. But when it comes to written composition, for example, they may face a barrier in communication.

As such, educators must provide alternatives for students to express themselves. This  provides a way for the student to communicate their skills, knowledge and understanding of the learning. It also reduces intrinsic bias against or towards students who do not or do possess skill in a single-mode-of-expression only option.

There may be times when a specific method, mode, or skill is required to communicate learning. In order to manage this, consider the following process.

The Process

    • Define the learning goal
    • Identify the non-negotiables
    • Support a range of methods for the student to communicate their learning

Options for Students to Communicate Learning

Physical communication methods:

    • installations, sculptures, dance or other body movements
    • demonstrations, plays, theatre show
    • presentations, such as video or in-person

Visual communication methods:

    • movies, storyboards, animations
    • drawings/illustrations/diagrams, photos, animations, infographics
    • montages or collages, models, sculpture, touch-displays
    • games, brochures, digital presentations, websites
    • social media post threads

Auditory communication methods:

    • podcasts or audio clips
    • compositions, including music, songs, poems
    • voice avatars, such as Lyrebird or Voice Changer
    • surveys, case studies, interviews

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. 

Avoid Unintended Barriers Accessing Assistive Technology

An image of a braille keyboard and an audiobook keyboard.
Alternative keyboards, including braille keyboards, and audiobook players assist in reducing barriers to accessing technology.

Have you ever been given a tool or a piece of technology with the promise of it making life simpler…only to find it adds more complexity to your life because you just don’t know how to use it?

Consider the needs, then, of our learners using assistive technologies to access learning who may face unintended barriers. Being aware of some practical strategies to avoid inadvertently building more barriers to access learning through assistive technology is beneficial.

For anyone frustrated with an unresponsive program on their device, it is likely the keyboard command ‘Ctrl-Alt-Delete’  will come to the rescue. Having keyboard commands as alternatives to mouse functions supports accessibility. Therefore,  provide alternate keyboard commands for mouse actions.

To improve access for learners and ensure students have alternatives to using a keyboard, deploy switch and scanning options. With the click of a switch, switch control assists uses to, for example, enter text, select from menus and move the cursor. Switch control is available in the ‘accessibility’ menu of many computers.

For keyboard users with physical, sensory, or cognitive challenges, standard keyboards pose functional barriers. Depending on your learner’s needs, AbilityNet highlights the following alternatives to standard keyboards:

      • ergonomic keyboards
      • smaller, compact keyboards
      • separate numeric keypads
      • keyboards with larger keys
      • high-contrast keyboards
      • early learning keyboards
      • more specialist keyboards – Braille, chording and expanded devices
      • typing without a keyboard

Spectronics provide information regarding a range of on-screen keyboards to limit or remove barriers to computer use stemming from a range of physical or cognitive challenges.

Tactile feedback overlays added to touch screens can improve their accessibility to vision-impaired users. Microsoft’s touchplates are tactile guides that provide tactile feedback for touch screens. Touchplates are physical guides that overlaid on the screen that are recognised by the underlying computer application. Additionally, customised overlays for touch screens and keyboards provide support for interacting with large touch screens or accessing spatial data. Read more regarding the challenges with touchscreens faced by vision-impaired users, and some overlay options.

Implementing the above practical strategies could go a long way in supporting access when using assistive technologies. Be sure that any software selected for use works flawlessly with the tools!

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

Simple Solutions Sometimes Overcome Physical Barriers to Learning

A student writing with the aid of a pencil grip.
Low-tech adjustments can support learners to overcome physical barriers to learning. Image by ePhotographyAustralia.

The third pillar of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines urges educators to provide learners with multiple means of action and expression. This pillar recognises that there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners. Whether due to a physical, cognitive, learning or preferential impact, learners ability and interest in expressing their knowledge and skills differ.

Guideline 4 relates to physical activity. Within this guideline, there are two checkpoints. We explore Checkpoint 4.1 in this post. Checkpoint 4.1 provides guidance on varying the methods students use for responding to and navigating the physical environment.

Practical Strategies

For motor skills that may serve as a physical barrier to learn, consider, multiple methods of achieving the outcome. For example, if writing is impacting access, a range of low-tech or high-tech alternatives are available:

Low-tech solutions can be used for a multitude of barriers:

Adaptive scissors, for example, can remove a potential barrier for some students.

A range of seating options are available to manage a student’s seating position and sensory input  – wobble stools, cushioned seating, adjustable height seating are some examples.

If the writing surface is problematic, consider alternatives – paper quality and size and mini-whiteboard choices can help.

Investigate writing implements – is the pen or pencil troublesome – can a longer/shorter, thicker/thinner/triangular, less inky/smoother flowing tool assist? Would the student benefit from a pen/pencil grip?

Consider the input source. For example, is the text large enough? Is it supported with adequate graphics to support understanding? Are manipulatives of adequate size and weight for the task?

Higher-tech options include assistive technologies that support physical access to learning.

The use of computer technologies can be helpful. Within such access, deeper layers of support can be implemented, including keyboard adaptions, eye-gaze communication, speech-controlled input and adaptive switches.

In addition to providing multiple means for the student to act on their learning and express themselves physically, also consider the barriers to learning that may be met by a student facing physical barriers. CAST, the home of UDL, recommend providing alternatives in expectations surrounding work rate, timing allocated to tasks, speed of task completion, and extent of the physical requirements involved in interacting with learning materials, manipulatives and other equipment, and technologies involved in the lesson.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

From Emergency Workers to the Classroom – Transfer of Learning is Imperative

Firefighters and two firetrucks attending to a fire.
Emergency workers constantly transfer knowledge to new contexts. Image by Jon Pauling.

Consider our emergency workers. Each time they are out on a call, the context and situation are new. They must take their skills and learnt strategies and apply them in a situation that potentially they have not experienced before. We can be grateful to the concept of transfer of learning that these emergency crews can take their skills, strategies and knowledge and apply it to new problem-solving situations.

Transfer of learning is an integral part of the learning process. It relies on cognitive accessibility, a term to describe the memory systems’ capacity (both long-term and working memory) to support recall and transfer of skills. When a student has memory systems that are less effective in supporting the transfer of learning, supports are required.

So how can we support our students? Employing techniques designed to enhance students’ memory is one area supported by CAST, the home of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They suggest using mnemonics, strategic note-taking, visual imagery, and explicitly teaching for transfer as classroom-based strategies. Access CAST’s reference list to locate evidence for a range of strategies to support memory and transfer.

Practical Strategies

For those looking for simple-to-use, immediate action to provide transfer of learning comprehension supports for students, consider the following, adapted from CAST:

1. Support your students’ development of their organisation skills. Strategies include using checklists, graphic organisers, diary/calendar notes, sticky notes and electronic reminders

2. Support your students’ memory of information and strategies through the use of mnemonic strategies. Examples include using visual imagery, incorporating paraphrasing strategies, and employing retrieval practice.

3. Ensure students are provided regular and spaced explicit opportunities for review and practice. Then, guide opportunities in the longer term to revisit key ideas and encourage students’ to link these to new concepts.

4. Enhance students’ note-taking practice by providing scaffolds such as templates, graphic organisers and concept maps.

5. Develop a culture of connecting of valuing connections between new and prior knowledge. One of my skilled colleagues teaches her primary school class to make a specific hand signal when something they learn connects to their own prior knowledge of experience. This supports connection-making and enables the class to engage with the materials without verbally interrupting. Other scaffold methods include using word webs or part-filled concept maps.

6. Employ creativity through analogy, metaphor, drama, music, or film. for example, to embed new ideas in familiar contexts.

7. Provide explicit, supported opportunities to generalise learning to new situations. FOr example, provide opportunities to explore new problem-solving situations that use a particular strategy – this could range from maths to empathy! Also, support students to apply their learning to practical, real-world applications within the learning environment and beyond.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

Strategies to Support Students to Connect and Comprehend New Concepts

A paragraph of text with key points being highlighted.
Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships to develop understanding. Image by YeriLee from Pixabay

A colleague completed her PhD in the field of dyslexia. Thanks to her expertise – her knowledge, skills and experience in this field – her ability to synthesise new information about reading difficulties, to make meaning, is masterful.

By identifying key features in information, she refines what is important. This facilitates efficient comprehension of the information, supporting her to embed relevant information from the new source with her existing knowledge. The result is a broadened knowledge base and a deeper understanding of the information. Subsequently, she takes complex ideas and distils them succinctly and with clarity.

To share or apply knowledge efficiently shows a deep understanding. For educators, this is an outcome desired for our students. But when they are not experts in every skill, concept or content area being taught, how can we support our learners to recognise valuable information? To support the assimilation of valuable information into their knowledge banks? To disregard the insignificant and focus on the substantial?

Practical Strategies

CAST, the home of UDL, recommends educators provide explicit cueing to assist students to distinguish critical information.

This may be supported by emphasising key elements in information sources (for example, text, graphics, diagrams, formulas). This may be achieved visually or verbally, through the students highlighting these points or the educator making bold or italic key information, or through expressing the points aloud.

When using highlighters, different colours may be used to distinguish different classifications of information.

Scaffolding including learning routines, mastery routines and graphic organisers may be valuable for students to identify important concepts and emphasise relationships between them.

Concept or brainstorming maps, webs or trees support learners to visually document key concepts and relationships.

Use many examples to illustrate real-world examples of concepts. Be sure to support the development of mastery by providing non-examples, too. The Frayer Model is a graphic organiser tool useful for developing critical vocabulary.

Additionally, educators should prompt students to make explicit connections between previously learnt content, knowledge and skills. This supports the consolidation of the existing content or knowledge whilst also providing an opportunity for the students to build relationships to new concepts.

Do you want to learn more to help develop your students into expert learners? There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

From Love to Criminal Profiling

A globe, non-fiction text, magnifiying glass and pen on a desk.
Background knowledge is crucial to comprehension. Image: StockSnap on Pixabay.

What do criminal profiling, the ‘getting-to-know-you stage of a relationship, the job application work history and reference check process, and school learning all have in common? The need for background information.

Whether it’s the earlier stages of a flourishing relationship, reference and employment checks when applying for a new job or profiling people to prevent crime, background information is crucial in developing understanding and making meaning. What we are doing in each of these scenarios is trying to comprehend or understand a person.

In the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, one of the three main principles relates to information presentation. Naturally, comprehension is a key theme.

Comprehension

So, what is comprehension?

Comprehension is about making meaning; about understanding. In Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading (p 25), Kerry Hempenstall defines reading comprehension as “Extracting and constructing meaning from written text using knowledge of words, concepts and ideas.” CAST, the home of UDL, explains that comprehension is about transforming accessible information into useable knowledge. Both sources agree that it is the educator’s duty to support learners to access knowledge to develop understanding in teaching.

Background Information

A key component of comprehension is background information. Pre-existing or taught knowledge of the domain studied is crucial for students to develop their understanding. So how can we help our students to develop background information?

First, take every opportunity to introduce or develop domain-specific knowledge. This can be through pre-reading or pre-teaching. Using demonstrations or models help to achieve this.

Next, support the development of general knowledge through engagement with news and current affairs, documentaries or video-clips. Link this to existing knowledge by supporting students to make connections to what they already know. Encourage linking and drawing on prior knowledge by using anchor charts, making visuals and embedding opportunity for mastery of concepts.

Also, develop a culture of curiosity in your learning spaces. Model thinking aloud that highlights your curiosity. Then, model how to uncover knowledge of your curiosity through, for example, effective searches on the internet. Mind-mapping, or developing metaphors to make connections, are other effective strategies.

Additionally, making use of graphic organisers is beneficial. Students benefit from making explicit connections across and between key learning.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

UDL and Comprehension Across Languages

A collection of phrasebooks
Making vocabulary clear increases accessibility. Image: Tessa Kavanagh, Pixabay

Recall the halcyon days pre-COVID. International travel was relatively accessible for many. An essential travel tool was a phrasebook, translator app or digital translator to aid understanding across languages. These tools facilitated at least a basic opening into communication, culture and comprehension in a foreign country, in a foreign language. Without a sound grasp of the language, life and learning can be difficult. Everyday activities that are taken for granted in a home country may suddenly become complex, confusing and result in a heavy cognitive load.

Imagine then, the complex process of learning for students for whom we teach in a language outside that which is familiar. For some, it may be learning new jargon, for others it may be learning in a second language.

As with all principles and checklists in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the overarching goal is to make learning accessible to all. The following strategies are based on recommendations by CAST.  Educators may employ these to facilitate accessibility where the language used may otherwise present a barrier to learning:

    • Make all key information in the dominant language also available in first languages for learners with limited-English proficiency
    • Provide information in Auslan for learners who are deaf
    • Link key vocabulary words to definitions and pronunciations in both dominant (eg. English) and first languages
    • Define domain-specific vocabulary/jargon using both domain-specific terminology and in common language or alternative representations, such as illustrations, charts, images
    • Create a culture of shared learning through activities such as a word wall, group glossary or word bank, where all learners may add contributions of vocabulary and their translations
    • Provide translation tools or links to multilingual glossaries on the web
    • Embed visual supports for vocabulary clarification (illustrations, charts, images, infographics, videos, etc) into learning experiences
    • Make use of concrete materials to support abstract concepts, as in maths learning

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

LOL: It’s Funny Until it’s Not

A graphic of a pink cloud with the letters LOL in white.
LOL! Funny, except when acronyms create a barrier to learning.

What is your story of a misunderstood emoji or text message abbreviation? My uncle, upon learning of a significant and upsetting event, signed off his text message with ‘LOL’! Whilst confusing, it was bemusing that he would ‘Laugh Out Loud’ at this unfortunate scenario. Of course, it transpired that he thought LOL stood for ‘Lots of Love’.

Although this example is a simple and funny example of potential barriers to communication, it is symbolic of the challenge some learners face. Symbols, icons, emojis, labels, vocabulary, acronyms, abbreviations, and more are often taken for granted, But they may act as a barrier to learning for some. For reasons including word knowledge, world experience, background, language, context and learning ability, some learners may find such terms or symbols a barrier to accessing meaning.

Small, easy-to-implement strategies have the power to diminish potential barriers for these learners. A range of experimental studies, scholarly articles and studies support the strategies below.

Practical Strategies

CAST recommends the following strategies to minimise potential barriers for some learners;

    • Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols, especially in ways that promote connection to the learners’ experience and prior knowledge
    • Provide graphic symbols with alternative text descriptions
    • Highlight how complex terms, expressions, or equations are composed of simpler words or symbols
    • Embed support for vocabulary and symbols within the text (e.g., hyperlinks or footnotes to definitions, explanations, illustrations, previous coverage, translations)
    • Embed support for unfamiliar references within the text (e.g., domain-specific notation, lesser-known properties and theorems, idioms, academic language, figurative language, mathematical language, jargon, archaic language, colloquialism, and dialect)

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a single, global guide to web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals. Recommendations cover a wide scope and greater detail than those above. Although designed to support creators to make web content more accessible for people with disability, the features are useful options for all learners. Refer to WCAG Guideline 3.1 for information regarding the goal of making text content readable and understandable.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

More Than Meets the Eye

A photo of a woman standing with her back to the camera, looking towards a contemporary painting, suggesting that providing supplementary sources of information to complement visuals can reduce barriers to learning.
There’s more than meets the eye in many visuals. Supporting learners with alternate sources of information reduces barriers to learning. Image by Béla Dudás from Pixabay.

Picture yourself, head cocked, eyes squinting, posing thoughtfully in front of a newly acquired work in your favourite gallery. Overheard, muted voices share their musings on the meaning of the work. At odds with your initial perception, you struggle to make sense of the piece. Reading the print description and listening to the narration on the audio guide provide some insight. You learn there is so much more embodied in the artwork than meets the eye .

Now consider learners for whom visual representations are not accessible. Vision impairments, visual processing disorders, or just difficulties in interpreting visual information all create barriers to learners in accessing information.

Visual information is often complex – representations and relationships between objects, graphics, tables, infographics, illustrations, datasets and more –  lead to difficulty for some in synthesizing and making meaning. Additionally, visuals, such as artworks or symbolic representations often contain multiple meanings. Context, experience and prior knowledge may be required in order to comprehend the intended meaning.

Providing supplementary sources of information to complement visuals reduces barriers to learning.

Practical Strategies

CAST, the home of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recommend the following practical strategies to reduce the barriers to learning that visuals may impose:

    • Provide descriptions (text or spoken) for all images, graphics, video, or animations
    • Use touch equivalents (tactile graphics or objects of reference) for key visuals that represent concepts
    • Provide physical objects and spatial models to convey perspective or interaction
    • Provide auditory cues for key concepts and transitions in visual information
    • Follow accessibility standards when creating digital text 
    • Allow for a competent aide, partner, or “intervener” to read text aloud
    • Provide access to text-to-speech software

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.