UDL series — Representation: Languages and Symbols

24 June 2022
By Sam Graff

UDL, a blog series…

To recap, the first blog post in the series describes the principles of UDL and how to take the initial small step into achieving a UDL classroom. You can find the link back to the first post of this series.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) “is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights in how humans learn” (Cast.org). UDL can create an equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students in the classroom.

Within the UDL framework, there are three major categories and their subcategories:

Representation: Languages and Symbols

Providing multiple means of representation is not limited to audio and visual representation, but includes languages and symbols as well. Students might encounter barriers when information is presented in only one form, and providing clarity of language and symbol can reduce those barriers. You can provide options for language and symbols by clarifying vocabulary, symbols, syntax, and structure; decoding of text, and promoting usage across languages and illustrating concepts.

Clarify vocabulary and symbols

A first small step into providing more options for languages and symbols is to clarify them. For instance, the same word can have two completely different meanings in different disciplines.   Let’s take the example of the word suture. What comes to mind first? Does the anatomical structure that helps hold the bones of the skull together first stick out? Or is it when you have an incision and the health care provider stitches your wound? Both are sutures. Recognizing that words can have multiple meanings is the first small step that can be taken in this UDL principle. As an instructor, you have options to help increase students’ vocabulary. First you can add footnotes or hyperlinks in your resources so that students can have access to more information. Or you can provide vocabulary quizzes on Moodle, which can be low-stake or non-graded assessments that can help students grasp the vocabulary in a new class. For some Moodle tutorials, check out the  Moodle Micro-Skill Tutorials. Once in this course, you can select the quizzing module and select how to create a quiz in Moodle. Carly Born demonstrated how this can be done. 

Clarify syntax and structure

Sometimes the syntax of a sentence or the structure of a graphical representation can be challenging to a student if it is not familiar or obvious to them. One way to give equal access to information to all students is to provide alternative representations that clarify the syntactic or structural relationships between elements of meaning. 

If presenting a new mathematical formula (syntax) that might be unfamiliar to the student, try adding alternatives when presenting. For example, if you were to talk about/teach the Pythagorean theorem, you would not just give the formula and move on but you might give the following information for this topic. 

pythagorean theorem right angle triangle
Click for larger image

Pythagorean theorem is a theorem in geometry: the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides.

a2 + b2  = c2
a= the base of the right triangle
b = the height of the right triangle
c = the hypotenuse of the right triangle

Review resource from Khan Academy: The Pythagorean theorem intro | Right triangles and trigonometry

Providing images and links to other explanations helps clarify the information given in class. 

Support decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols

In some cases visual symbols, like a biohazard material sign or flammable sign, might not have a text label along with the sign. These signs might be new to some students, and it will take time for students to learn them. Providing an opportunity to decode the symbols and review the meaning of them can increase comprehension. Try to be consistent with using symbols. For example, introduce them at the beginning of each lab, or ask students to review them before coming to class.

Promote understanding across languages

For students who are not native English speakers, providing resources (e.g., websites) that might include other languages besides English decreases barriers and increases inclusivity. An example of a language inclusive website is the United Nations website; you can see the choices of languages in the upper right corner. Other tools that can be used to help students with translation are free online translators like Google translate, which is a good resource but not a perfect one. Another is DeepL, the free version of which will allow you to translate up to three documents per month including PDFs. 

Illustrate through multiple media

If the presentation consists of a lot of text, it can cause an information overload and potentially lead to a low understanding of the material. When presenting information, consider adding illustrations. An illustration can be a photo, graph, map, image, animation, video, or a comic strip. If you would like to create a storyboard or a comic strip, Storyboardthat and makebliefscomix allow you to create them for free. This illustration of concepts can make the information in the text more comprehensible for students and more accessible for those who find just text difficult.

Incorporating resources that enhance the knowledge of the language and symbols used in a course can increase accessibility and inclusiveness in the classroom. 

We would love to hear from you!

Comment below on how you clarify language in your courses.