Applying UDL to Writing Instruction
by Randy Laist, Professor of English, Goodwin University
Writing is an invaluable academic skill, but it is also much more than that. It is a tool for thinking, a means of personal expression, and a vehicle of self-discovery. Despite the intellectual, interpersonal, and psychological value of writing, however, too many students, as well as adults, feel “shut out” of writing. They say things like, “I’m just not a writer” or “I’m more of a math person.” Their minds go blank in front of a keyboard. They have cold sweats and self-doubt. Sometimes, they have the impression that there is some secret that they never learned, or some gate that they were never given the key to. They feel paralyzed by a fear of exposure, embarrassment, and ridicule. Maybe you know someone who feels this way, or maybe you yourself cope with borderline graphophobia. The prevalence of this dread of writing poses a challenge to educators to teach writing in a way that makes it seem less like a burdensome threat and more like a natural way of working with ideas.
With its emphasis on identifying and eradicating barriers to learning, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides a framework that can help to empower student writers. In many ways, UDL is particularly well-suited to the teaching of writing. UDL and composition instruction both emphasize the “voice” and subject-position of individual students, and the “process” model of writing instruction that is common in composition classrooms provides the kind of scaffolded learning experiences espoused by UDL-based pedagogy. At the same time, however, there is also a tension between the composition classroom’s focus on the medium of textual writing and the priority that UDL places on allowing students to explore multiple means of self-expression. In a writing classroom, the means of expression is the course content, putting UDL-informed writing teachers in the awkward position of balancing the availability of video, audio, and graphic forms of expression against what may sometimes seem like an antiquated commitment to teaching students to write sentences and paragraphs.
One way out of this dilemma is to define “writing” in a way that encompasses composition in other media. To be sure, new media of communication have expanded the definition of what it means to write to include the design of video, audio, and graphic representations of ideas. Productions in any of these formats require many of the same skills as writing an academic paper, such as identifying a message, establishing a consistent tone, and organizing information within a rhetorical framework. This multimedia approach to “composition” enables students to cultivate an appreciation for the ways that different forms of communication can shape the presentation of a message, and it also allows students to experiment with forms of communication that reflect their own educational goals and personal styles of self-expression.
At the same time, UDL principles can also facilitate instruction in text-based composition — “writing” in the traditional sense. The writing process as typically taught involves several stages — prewriting, researching, organizing, drafting, revising — each of which presents students with various challenges. Thinking about the stages of the writing process through a UDL lens can help writing instructors design activities that make each of these stages more accessible to more students. Even as the final goal of a writing project might be a written text, alternative forms of composition can enhance the sub-stages of the writing process in ways that provide multiple means for students to engage with the material and express their ideas. While textual forms of brainstorming such as freewriting help some students identify and elaborate their ideas about a writing project, other students might explore their thoughts about a topic in other ways, such as through graphic organizers, picture-essays, improvised monologues, small-group discussions, social media conversations, or some combination of these different activities. While we tend to steer students toward academic, text-based research sources, the contemporary information ecosystem can enhance student inquiry by supplementing print-based sources of information with YouTube videos, documentaries, blog posts, Twitter feeds, and other multimedia alternatives. Organizing an essay, traditionally taught by asking students to produce a print-based outline of a proposed piece of writing, can also be accomplished through the development of a photo essay, a storyboard, a scrapbook, or a podcast-style talk-through of the writer’s main ideas. Even the process of drafting out an essay can be made less daunting for some students by inviting students to use voice-to-text software, or encouraging them to develop their paragraphs around relevant images, or allowing them to work in teams or pairs to shape their ideas into sentences and paragraphs. Likewise, the revision of a piece of student writing might take place through any number of formats, encompassing peer-reviews and friend-reviews, recording and playing back a reading of a student draft, or the development of a draft into a script for a podcast or narrated slideshow. Incorporating these other means of engagement and expression into the process of generating a piece of textual writing illustrates the many ways that different modes of communication reinforce and augment one another. It also reduces some of the barriers that intimidate writing students, emphasizing the extent to which writing is connected to non-textual forms of communication.
A framework for a “Universal Design for Writing” would embrace all of these strategies, while also stressing the accessibility of the written word as an expressive possibility for all students. Students who feel empowered to write discover a bottomless source of inspiration, intellectual autonomy, and self-understanding. Applying the principles of Universal Design to the writing classroom can help more students to overcome their graphophobia and to find their voices as writers.
Randy Laist is a professor of English at Goodwin University. He is the author of Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels (2010), Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s (2015), and The Twin Towers in Film: A Cinematic History of the World Trade Center (2020). He is also the editor of Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series (2011), Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies (2013), College in the Movies: Representations of Higher Education in Cinema (2018), Excavating Indiana Jones: Essays on the Films and Franchise (2020), and Imagining the 1980s: Representations of the Reagan Decade in Popular Culture (forthcoming).