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Meeting the Needs of Differently Abled Students

Some students face other special challenges in CALL environments. Not only does students’ need to develop the necessary language and literacies create barriers to computer use, but other challenges, both physical and cognitive, can also make completing tasks requiring technology use very difficult for some students. Many times these challenges are not apparent until the  student becomes involved in the task, as was the case with Jana and Alice in the chapter’s opening scenario. To meet the needs of these and other students in CALL classrooms, teachers can apply principles of universal design (UD) as they develop tasks and activities.

As noted in CALL-EJ (Egbert, 2004), UD is a concept that has only recently been applied to language learning. In education, materials and environments designed with UD principles in mind

  • can be used by diverse learners
  • provide choices for learners
  • are not unnecessarily complex
  • work in settings with a range of characteristics
  • are easy for learners to navigate and understand
  • do not depend on physical abilities to use
  • accommodate physical, social, and psychological differences (adapted from Bowe, 2000; Burgstahler, 2002)

Although UD works for all students, Burgstahler (2002) notes that nontraditional students benefit especially from UD: those who have physical or learning disabilities; international students; and other students with varying cultures, abilities, backgrounds, and learning needs. These students benefit because instructional materials and activities designed according to UD principles make

the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. (Council for Exceptional Children, 1998, p. 2)

Educators can use UD principles in their materials and environments to present information in multiple ways… offer multiple ways for students to interact with and respond to curricula and materials (give them choices of pace, how to respond, how to get the information)… [and] provide  multiple ways for students to find meaning in the material and thus motivate themselves. (Bowe, 2000, p. 4)

More specifically, Strehorn (2001; see also Egbert, 2004) suggests that teachers can

  • record classroom lectures and interactions not only for extra listening practice but also to provide review for students whose listening skills need additional support
  • have a variety of electronic and non-electronic resources, including dictionaries, available to learners
  • have the syllabus and other course documents available in many formats, including paper, electronic, and oversized
  • use books on tape, CD, or DVD
  • provide students with notes from classes
  • read documents out loud
  • supply time frames and clear rubrics for assignments
  • allow students to choose how to respond to assignments

In ESL classrooms both analog (video/audio) and digital (computer) technologies help teachers to use the principles of CALL and UD by incorporating cueing, organizers, multimodal instruction, and modeling, as well as supporting interaction. Technology can present texts in alternative modes (visually, graphically, auditorily) to meet the learning needs of the students. Whichever tools are used, they should not only assist learners in meeting objectives but also allow all learners to participate as fully as they need or want to in the process.

An important barrier to implementing UD principles in ESL classrooms is the potential conflicting and complex needs of learners from many  different cultural backgrounds, with widely varying values and learning styles. Meeting these special demands poses special issues for language teachers who plan to implement principles that give everyone access to instruction. This issue is discussed later in this chapter.


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Meeting the Needs of Differently Abled Students by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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