Learning Disability

Accessible Formats

Audio Recording

Recorded Audio Books are human voice recordings provided to students through Learning Ally(formerly known as RFB&D). While most of the books are audio only, a select number of books have been converted to the VOICEtext format, which provides highlighted text that is followed while the audio is played.

Accessibility features

  • Learning Ally books are read by content matter specialists and are designed to be clear and understandable, with students who have disabilities in mind.
  • Speed controls allow students can speed up or slow down the rate at which the book is read.
  • Students can easily click to navigate by pages, chapters or sections as well as add their own digital bookmarks.
  • Can be read on Daisy players or PC, Mac, IOS, and Android devices using the free downloadable software or apps provided by Learning Ally.
  • Content is “Reflowable”, meaning the text is optimized to fit the page regardless of font size.
  • For audio recordings in the “VOICEtext” format, the text will be highlighted as it is read which reinforces word recognition, improves fluency, builds vocabulary and develops decoding skills.

Works with:

  • Free Learning Ally Audio App (IOS and Android)
  • Free software from Learning Ally called ReadHear by gh
  • DAISY Devices (Cost depends on device; device can be ordered through Learning Ally)


Braille is a series of raised dots evenly arranged in quadrangular letter spaces or cells. The configuration of dots can be read with the fingertips by people who are vision impaired. Braille materials are provided by the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. For more information on Braille you can read this overview pamphlet provided by DBVI.

Accessibility features

  • Braille is unique written language the may be the most accessible option of reading and writing for students who are blind or have a significant visual impairment.

Note:(An average classroom textbook in braille usually weighs 8-10 pounds and is bound in sections for usability)

Works with:

  • Students who have been trained in the use of Braille.

Braille Ready File (BRF)

Braille Ready File (.brf ), often referred to as eBraille or web-braille, is a specialized digital text format used to create embossed braille or be read using a braille display or with a refreshable braille device. Braille Ready Files are provided by the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired and by Bookshare.

Accessibility features

  • Braille is unique written language that may be the most accessible option of reading and writing for students who are blind or have a significant visual impairment.
  • Digital files on a refreshable display prevent the need to carry and store large volumes of embossed braille text.

Works with:

  • Refreshable Braille display
  • Braille embosser

Digital Talking Book (DTB) / DAISY

A Digital Accessible Information System (Daisy) Talking Book (DTB) is a digital or human voice recording of the full electronic text with the capability to navigate and bookmark sections of the book. A Daisy talking book is made up of a series of files linked together. A computerized text DAISY book can be read using refreshable Braille display or screen-reading software, printed as Braille book on paper, converted to a talking book using synthesized voice or a human narration, and also printed on paper as large print book. In addition, it can be read as large print text on computer screen. Learn more: Understanding DAISY (National Center on Accessible Educational Materials).

Accessibility features

  • Text-to-speech capabilities allow the text to be read aloud
  • Highlights text as it is read for improved comprehension
  • Built in bookmarks and electronic navigation
  • Images are tagged with alternate text descriptions that can be read aloud.
  • Page numbers of the Daisy correspond to the page numbers of the printed text.
  • Older Bookshare Daisy files did not contain graphics. Newer Bookshare Daisy files and Daisy files converted from NIMAS will have graphics with alternative text that can be read aloud.
  • Content is “Reflowable”, meaning the text is optimized to fit the page regardless of font size.
  • Most Daisy readers will have a series of additional beneficial features such as:
    • Dictionaries
    • Bibliographers
    • Contrast and color: Boost the contrast with various built-in color variations
    • Built-in graphic organizers
    • Pronunciation assistance
    • Highlighting of Digital Text for notes
    • Web access

Note: To open Daisy book use the (.opf) file, in a specialized Daisy reader.

Works with:

  • Text-to-speech programs such as Read: OutLoud
  • Kurzweil 1000 and 3000
  • Read and Write: Gold. Click these links for a comprehensive list of Daisy compatible hardware and software.
  • AIM-VA and Bookshare

Electronic publications (ePub)

ePub (short for electronic publication) is a free and open e-book standard by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). ePub files are simplified versions of the Daisy format and are usable on most all electronic devices. AIM-VA converts ePubs from Daisy, NIMAS, and word files.

Accessibility features

  • Compatible with text-to-speech programs.
  • Content is “Reflowable”, meaning the text is optimized to fit the page regardless of font size.
  • Readable on the computer as well as many mobile devices.
  • ePubs created by AIM-VA are available on the student’s bookshelf, can be streamed online and read aloud using Streamit!
  • Built in bookmarks and electronic navigation through “Table of Contents” often included
  • Publishers can tag images with alternate text descriptions that can be read aloud.
  • Page numbers correspond to the page numbers of the printed text if programmed by the publisher

Works with:

AIM-VA’s Stream-It and popular eReaders. These include, but are not limited to; iPad, Kindle, iPhone, Android, Kobo, Nook, Sony Reader, Windows Phone, PC and Mac OSX notebook/desktop systems.


HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language, is the predominant markup language for web pages. Books that are downloaded in HTML include many different files which can be opened from a central index file. They are extremely compatible from computer to computer and you only need to have a web browser such as Firefox or Internet Explorer to be able to open these files.

Accessibility features

  • Compatible with text-to-speech programs
  • Content is “Reflowable,” meaning the text is optimized to fit the page regardless of font size.
  • Can be opened in any web browser, with or without internet access.
  • Built in bookmarks and electronic navigation
  • Publishers can tag images with alternate text descriptions that can be read aloud.
  • Page numbers correspond to the page numbers of the printed text if programmed by the publisher

Works with:

Read OutLoud; Kurzweil; Web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome; or a text editing program such as Notepad

Large print

Large print is defined as print for text passages that is larger than the commonly used print and font sizes from eight to twelve points in size. Large Print is created by AIM-VA and available on a first-come, first served basis. AIM-VA maintains its current large print library but is no longer printing new large print texts

Accessibility features

  • AIM-VA provides most large print books on black and white, spiral bound, 11x14inch paper.
  • Many large print books come in multiple volumes. No volume is greater than 270 pages.
  • Trade books come in 16 point or greater font and are available in a traditional book-bound fashion.
  • For most textbooks, large print will be 18 point font.

Note: If a student needs materials in Large Print, please order the materials in .pdf accessible and print the materials in the font size needed. AIM-VA maintains a large print library but is no longer converting materials into large print.

Works with:

Students who need larger text


A Microsoft Word Document is the file type used with the commonly known program Microsoft Word. This format is optimized by using the Microsoft sans serif typeface in black; unless a font color is needed for instruction and active hyperlinks. Due to special character limitations, math, science, and music texts are not available.

Accessibility features

  • Includes content related graphics which are programmed with alternate text descriptions that can be read aloud.
  • Font style matches the original text (i.e. bold, italics, underline).
  • Page numbers correspond to the page numbers of the printed text.
  • Footnotes are positioned within text to provide greater understanding of content.
  • Headings are created for navigation and can be viewed in the document maps.
  • Microsoft Word files can be easily saved as RTF files

Note: This format requires a compatible text-to-speech program to have the text read aloud.

Works with:

Best if used with Microsoft Word

NIMAS Format

NIMAS is the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard. NIMAS means the standard established by the Secretary of Education to be used in the preparation of electronic files suitable and used solely for efficient conversion into specialized formats. This format is only available for text copyrighted in or after 2006. These files are stored in the NIMAC, a virtual library which can only be accessed through AIM-VA.

Accessibility features

  • If graphics are present, alternative text that can be read aloud may also be available.
  • Electronic navigation through “Table of Contents”
  • Requires special software to read

Note: This format is traditionally used by Authorized Users such as AIM-VA and Bookshare to create other formats. This format is compatible with some software programs but is not commonly used by local education agencies.

Works with:

NIMAS files are source files and are not student-ready. For more information: NIMAS Files Best Practices (National Center on Accessible Educational Materials).

PDF Accessible

A PDF Accessible file is a digital scan of a book or document that turns printed text into an electronic format that is readable by a computer or portable device. These scanned files will look exactly like their printed counterpart and will maintain formatting regardless of screen size or magnification. PDF accessible is the most readily available format that is created by AIM-VA. AIM-VA users can order these files for any book not already in the AIM-VA library.

Accessibility features

  • Provides an identical digital representation of a printed book.
  • Compatible with text-to-speech programs
  • PDFs can be opened by using a variety of programs on the computer as well as many mobile devices.
  • Users can increase the page size without distorting the text; allowing PDF Accessible files to be used as digital large print.
  • Most PDF readers will have a series of additional beneficial features such as:
    • Highlights text as it is read for improved comprehension
    • Contains note taking features like in text highlighting and commenting
    • Bookmarking and electronic navigation

Works with:

Adobe Reader and text-to-speech programs such as: Read: OutLoud, Kurzweil 1000 and 3000, Read and Write: Gold.

Did you know

Did you know that your students can type their answers right on the page of a PDF, Accessible and PDF, and Fully Accessible Workbooks using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader?

  • Click on Comment tool on the right side of the screen.
    Click on Comment tool on the right side of the screen.
  • Click on the plain ‘T’ on the top Comment bar.
    Click on the plain ‘T’ on the top Comment bar.
  • Click on the page where you want to type your answer. Type it!
    Click on the page where you want to type your answer. Type it!
  • Print the page when you are finished!

PDF Fully Accessible

A Fully Accessible PDF is a PDF that was converted directly from a structured WORD document. These documents look exactly like word documents and are annotatable, readable by a computer, and are optimized by adding additional accessibility features to the file, like “tags”. A tag contains information such as header locations, hyperlinks, and alternative text descriptions for graphics. This allows PDF Fully Accessible documents to be bookmarked, navigated much easier, and provides detailed information about images in the text.

Accessibility features

  • Compatible with text-to-speech programs
  • Includes content related graphics which are programmed with alternate text descriptions that can be read aloud.
  • Font style matches the original text (i.e. bold, italics, underline).
  • Page numbers correspond to the page numbers of the printed text.
  • Footnotes are positioned within text to provide greater understanding of content.
  • PDFs can be opened by using a variety of programs on the computer as well as many mobile devices.
  • Content is “Reflowable”, meaning the text is optimized to fit the page regardless of font size.
  • Most PDF readers will have a series of additional beneficial features such as:
    • Highlights text as it is read for improved comprehension
    • Contains note taking features like in text highlighting and commenting
    • Bookmarking and electronic navigation

Works with:

Adobe Reader and text-to-speech programs such as: Read: OutLoud
Kurzweil 1000 and 3000, Read and Write: Gold

Rich Text Format (.rtf)

Rich Text Format (RTF) is a simple document file of text and graphics developed for easy transfer between applications, platforms (i.e., MS-DOS®, Windows, OS/2, Macintosh), and different output devices. RTF files are directly converted from NIMAS files with all original NIMAS features built in.

Accessibility features

  • RTFs can be opened by using a variety of programs on the computer as well as many mobile devices.
  • Requires a compatible text-to-speech program to have the text read aloud.
  • Easily editable size and color.

Works with:

Notepad, Microsoft Word, and other basic word processing software

When Writing Is Hard

Let’s face it: Not all kids love to write. For some, every step of the writing process is difficult — including spelling, handwriting and getting organized ideas onto paper. In this edition of Growing Readers, you’ll learn more about dysgraphia and how you can support your child’s writing.

Let’s face it: Not all kids love to write. For some, it’s hard to come up with anything to write about. Other kids have a lot to say, but it’s hard to get the ideas written down in a meaningful way. For a small percentage of children, every step of the writing process is difficult — from processing the ideas to forming the letters to write to conveying the right message. These children may have dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing. Kids with dysgraphia may struggle with spelling, poor handwriting and getting their ideas onto paper. Learn more about dysgraphia and ways you can help your child.

Young children

It’s important to recognize when there’s a problem and to know who to turn to for help. If your young child has a tight or awkward pencil grip, avoids writing, and has trouble forming letter shapes, talk to your child’s teacher.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers can often offer other types of writing paper and pencils to find something more comfortable for your child. They can also help you understand how to teach proper pencil grip and provide suggestions for fun ways to practice letter formation.

School-age children

School-age children may exhibit other signs of difficulty. These include illegible handwriting, avoiding writing, and having difficulty completing a writing assignment that makes sense. Often these kids have to focus so much on the act of writing that they omit simple words or really simplify what they want to say as a way to use easier words and shorter sentences.

Parents can provide support by having their child type assignments when possible, and structure homework time to allow for extra time for completion. When reading a draft, focus on the content of the writing rather than the neatness or the spelling. Once the content reflects what the child wants to say, turn your attention to some of the more mechanical aspects of writing, like spelling and punctuation.

Our weekly picks

Top 10 Resources on Spelling and Word Study

Learn more about the English spelling system, how spelling supports reading, why children with dyslexia and dysgraphia struggle, which words should be taught, and instruction that works.

  1. Word Study Instruction in the K-2 ClassroomFind out how to integrate small-group word study instruction and hands-on word work activities to keep students motivated and engaged in learning about the English spelling system.
  2. Word Study: A New Approach to Teaching Spelling“Word study” is an alternative to traditional spelling instruction. It is based on learning word patterns rather than memorizing unconnected words.
  3. Why Phonological Awareness Is Important for Reading and SpellingPhonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic writing system. And research shows that difficulty with phoneme awareness and other phonological skills is a predictor of poor reading and spelling development.
  4. How Spelling Supports ReadingMake sense of the English spelling system. And learn more about the relationships between letters and sounds and how a proper understanding of spelling mechanics can lead to improved reading.
  5. Looking at WritingSee writing samples from real kids in pre-K through grade 3. You’ll see the evolution from “invented” spelling to a more sophisticated understanding of the rules of English spelling in these examples.
  6. Developing Writing and Spelling at HomeFind simple, hands-on activities that encourage everyday writing, such as preparing a grocery list or writing a thank you note, as well as tips on how to handle “writer’s strike.” (In English and Spanish)
  7. Spelling and DyslexiaThis fact sheet explains why people with dyslexia have trouble spelling, how to diagnose a specific spelling problem, and spelling instruction and accommodations for children with dyslexia.
  8. What Is Dysgraphia?Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing abilities. Learn the warning signs and techniques for teaching and accommodating young kids with dysgraphia.
  9. The Basic Spelling Vocabulary ListThis list was created to help teachers know which spelling words should be taught to kids in grades 1–5. The list contains 850 words that account for 80 percent of the words children use in their writing — the ones they need to be able to spell correctly.
  10. Root Words, Roots, and AffixesFamiliarity with Greek and Latin roots, as well as prefixes and suffixes, can help students understand the meaning of new words. This article includes many of the most common examples.

Universal Design for Learning: Meeting the Needs of All Students

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides the opportunity for all students to access, participate in, and progress in the general-education curriculum by reducing barriers to instruction. Learn more about how UDL offers options for how information is presented, how students respond or demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and how students are engaged in learning.

Katherine, a speech-language pathologist in a large elementary school, works hard to provide appropriate and relevant services to students in general education classrooms. She doesn’t do much pull-out, instead preferring to work in classrooms using adapted classroom materials. As a result, she spends a lot of time modifying materials and developing personalized resources for specific students. As she packs up her bag filled with paperwork to finish at home, she thinks, “There must be a better way to meet the needs of all the students on my caseload.”

Katherine’s situation is common for school-based SLPs. All of her students have different needs, abilities, and preferences. Neither their strengths nor their barriers to learning are always obvious. They tend to be the students “in the margins” — those who need different kinds of supports and scaffolds to learn (Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005). In fact, they are a heterogeneous group struggling to learn for a wide variety of reasons:

  • Sensory or physical disabilities.
  • Emotional or behavioral challenges.
  • Learning disabilities or reading difficulties.
  • Autism spectrum disorders.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Lack of appropriate background knowledge.
  • English-language barriers.

Not so long ago, these students would be educated primarily in self-contained or separate classes or schools (Rose et al., 2005). Today, most of these students are in general-education classrooms and expected to progress in the general-education curriculum. Schools and educators are accountable for real progress and demonstrable learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, the typical curriculum — usually centered on printed materials — is designed for a homogeneous group of students and is not able to meet different learner needs. That design puts the burden on learners to adapt to inflexible curricula and on educators, like Katherine, to create modified materials personalized to the needs of each student. The real challenge for educators, then, is to provide learning opportunities in the general-education curriculum that are inclusive and effective for all students.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL), defined in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 as a “scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice,” turns this situation around. UDL puts the burden of change where it belongs: on the curriculum itself (Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008). By facilitating the design and implementation of a flexible, responsive curriculum, UDL offers options for how information is presented, how students respond or demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and how students are engaged in learning. UDL implementation provides the opportunity for all students to access, participate in, and progress in the general-education curriculum by reducing barriers to instruction.

Origins of UDL

The roots of UDL are found in early civil rights and special education legislation that emphasized the right of all students to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2005). The UDL framework was conceived by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in the late 1980s as the result of the alignment of three conceptual shifts: advancements in architectural design, developments in education technology, and discoveries from brain research.

Universal design. After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the 1990s, schools and other public buildings were retrofitted with ramps and other architectural features to provide physical access. These changes were an expensive afterthought rather than proactive design. Leaders in the field of architecture suggested a more cost-effective strategy — designing the buildings from the beginning with flexible Universal Design principles in mind so that all users could have access.

Digitized text. At the same time, technological advances allowed alternatives to “one-size-fits-all” academic materials that used only one fixed medium — print. Access to computers was becoming more common in schools, and assistive technologies that allowed educators and students to manipulate text resulted in the availability of flexible instructional options. Now, text could be easily enlarged, simplified, summarized, highlighted, translated, converted to speech, graphically represented, and supported through accessible, digital materials.

Brain research on learning networks. Concurrently, brain imaging conducted while individuals were engaged in learning tasks (e.g., reading, writing) revealed three networks at work in the brain during learning: recognition network (the “what” of learning), strategic network (the “how” of learning), and affective network (the “why” of learning) (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

Influenced by architectural Universal Design principles, the accessibility and flexibility offered by digitized text, and the conceptualization of three learning networks, innovators at CAST developed what they called “Universal Design for Learning.”

UDL principles

The UDL framework values diversity through proactive design of an inclusive curriculum, thereby eliminating or reducing barriers to academic success. Initially proposed as a means for including students with disabilities in the general-education classroom, it is now better understood as a general-education initiative that improves outcomes for all learners.

>UDL addresses the three learning networks within a broadly defined concept of curriculum that includes goals, materials, methods, and assessment (Hitchcock et al., 2005). According to the following three UDL principles, each area of the curriculum should provide multiple, varied, and flexible options for representation, expression, and engagement:

  • Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation (recognition network).
  • Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression (strategic network).
  • Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement (affective network).

The four interrelated components of the UDL curriculum require further explanation.

  • Goals are typically described as learning expectations. They represent the knowledge, concepts, and skills students need to master and are usually aligned to state standards. Recent national discussions about Common Core Standards have heightened the critical importance of linking goals in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) with state standards and classroom expectations.
  • Methods are generally defined as the instructional strategies used by educators to support student learning. Methods should be evidence-based and supported by an analysis of learner variability. UDL methods are flexible and adjusted through consistent monitoring of student progress.
  • Materials are the media used to present content and demonstrate learning. UDL materials offer multiple media options and include embedded supports.
  • Assessment within the UDL framework refers to the process of gathering information about a learner’s progress using a variety of methods and materials. UDL assessments are particularly concerned with accurately measuring learner knowledge, skills, and engagement by maintaining construct relevance and reducing or eliminating irrelevant or distracting elements that interfere with the assessment’s validity.

The purpose of UDL implementation is to create expert learners — learners who can assess their own learning needs, monitor their own progress, and regulate and sustain their interest, effort, and persistence during a learning task. Many students learn within traditional classrooms with a traditional curriculum. However, most need supports and/or scaffolds to become expert learners.

UDL in action

Further examination of what UDL in action looks like requires an understanding of UDL application steps and a review of the available supports, such as the UDL Guidelines (see table[PDF]).

Applying UDL within a classroom or for a caseload of students starts with three initial steps: define appropriate goals that allow for multiple means of attainment, assess diverse learner needs, and evaluate barriers that may exist within the current curriculum.

Defining appropriate goals. In today’s high-stakes accountability systems, standardized goals sometimes include the means for achieving the standard within the goal itself. For example, a goal that requires all students to “Identify the elements of fiction (problem, solution, character, and setting) and analyze how major events lead from problem to solution” (Massachusetts ELA Curriculum Frameworks, Standard 12) allows students flexibility in how they will meet this expectation. Conversely, a goal that requires all students to “Print with appropriate spacing between words and sentences” has only one rigid expected outcome because the means for demonstrating achievement of the standard is embedded in the goal and restricted to one medium of expression.

In establishing student goals, then, it is important that they are aligned to state standards yet also defined in a manner that allows students multiple ways to demonstate the goals have been met. (See the UDL Goal Setter Mentor tool for additional examples and models.)

Assessing diverse learner needs. All learners have strengths, weaknesses, and preferred areas of interest within the context of the learning environment. Using a UDL lens, speech-language pathologists and other educators can identify the strengths, needs, and interests of individual students across the three learning networks (i.e., recognition, action and expression, engagement) and combine them into a UDL class/group profile. Who are these students? How do they learn best? What strengths, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and interests do they bring to the learning situation? What forms of communication do they use? How do they execute a plan for learning? What are their talents?

Evaluating curriculum barriers. Most curricula are designed as if all students learn in the same way. In reality, the idea of a “typical” learner is a myth. Likewise, barriers to learning may not be present within students but rather in the intersection of students and the curriculum. By analyzing the characteristics outlined in a UDL class/group profile in light of the flexible methods and materials offered through a UDL approach, SLPs and other educators can move beyond identifying individual learning difficulties to focusing on and addressing the barriers that exist within the curriculum. When provided with the right tools for accessing and understanding information and content that is of interest, students with diverse learning profiles can find appropriate challenges, engage in the learning situation, and progress. The CAST Curriculum Barriers Tool is a free, practical tool that shows how to conduct an analysis of curriculum barriers.

Guidelines and educator’s checklist

The UDL Guidelines (Version 2.0) are organized according to the three UDL principles and provide explanations and examples of curriculum options for learners. Consider the needs of two of the students on Katherine’s caseload to learn more about how to use the UDL Guidelines and UDL Educator’s Checklist [PDF]. The specific programs and materials used in the following cases are examples, not recommendations.

Case 1: Adam

After Adam contracted meningitis at the age of 4 years, he was left with a severe bilateral hearing loss. Because of the rich background and early learning support provided by his parents, he was already reading at a third-grade level when he entered kindergarten. He is very interested in dinosaurs and art, and he wants to be an astronaut. Katherine’s focus is on ensuring that his articulation skills do not deteriorate, teaching him to use his residual hearing as much as possible, and developing communication strategies that allow him to participate fully in the general education classroom.

After Katherine and the teacher completed a UDL Class Profile and Curriculum Barrier Analysis, they included these options in the kindergarten curriculum to support and scaffold Adam’s learning:

  • Multiple means of representation: Video captioning and video description (i.e., adding text or audio to describe what happens in a video to support access by persons with visual difficulties); highlighted vocabulary in subject matter content, such as science and social studies materials; main ideas offered through graphic organizers; vocal directions matched with printed and visual/image representations (e.g., pictured directions in learning centers); pre-teaching opportunities for new vocabulary and concepts; color shading used for emphasis; use of Visuwords for vocabulary development; visual cueing for feedback during class.
  • Multiple means of action and expression: Models of expert performance provided using differing approaches; paired voice with visual displays; outlines of subject matter content; use of Interactives: Elements of a Story to teach narrative structures; use of Writing Fun by Jenny Eather to develop expressive writing skills.
  • Multiple means of engagement: Choice of topics for projects (including dinosaurs and astronauts, as appropriate); simple self-monitoring checklists in learning centers for students to self-assess completion and accuracy; consistent attention-getting techniques that use visual as well as auditory cues; paired peers to share small-group activities; use of CAST UDL Book Builder to create engaging topical books for science and social studies projects.

Case 2: Bridget

As a fourth-grader, Bridget has strong math skills but struggles with reading. She reads at a beginning second-grade level and is still trying to master writing simple sentences with correct syntax. Her communication skills score significantly below age level, especially in expressive vocabulary, syntactical expression, and comprehension of figurative and abstract language concepts. She’s an avid soccer player, loves music of all kinds, and plays flute in the school band. Katherine’s focus is developing Bridget’s vocabulary and language comprehension skills and her use of age-appropriate syntax.

After Katherine and the fourth-grade teacher completed a UDL Class profile and Curriculum Barrier Analysis, these options were included in the fourth-grade classroom curriculum to support and scaffold Bridget’s learning:

  • Multiple means of representation: video presentations for subject-matter content; highlighted vocabulary in subject matter content, such as science and social studies materials; main ideas offered through graphic organizers and concept mapping (e.g., Education Oasis); speech-to-text options (e.g., Click, Speak and AIM Explorer); pre-teaching opportunities for new vocabulary and concepts; color shading used for emphasis; use of Visuwords for vocabulary development.
  • Multiple means of action and expression: animated digital coaches (i.e., animated characters that appear on screen to offer support or simply information) to help with comprehension; models of expert performance using differing approaches; outlines of subject matter content; use of Interactives: Elements of a Story to teach narrative structures; use of Writing Funby Jenny Eather to develop expressive writing skills.
  • Multiple means of engagement: creation of voice avatars (i.e., a vocal character representing a real person) for digital text presentation (e.g., Voki); choice of topics for projects (including soccer and music, as appropriate); simple self-monitoring checklists; curriculum handouts for students to self-assess completion and accuracy; frequent feedback; use of computer software to teach early reading skills (e.g., Starfall); paired peers to share small-group activities; use of CAST UDL Book Builder to create engaging topical books for science and social studies projects.

Meeting all students’ needs

The UDL framework provides a flexible, responsive curriculum that reduces or eliminates barriers to learning. Using a UDL approach, SLPs and other educators offer curriculum options that present information and content in varied ways, differentiate the manner in which learners can express what they know, and engage students in meaningful, authentic learning. With UDL, more students are:

  • Engaged in their own education.
  • Learning in greater breadth and depth.
  • Achieving at higher levels.
  • Motivated to continue learning.

Finally, UDL allows Katherine and other SLPs to teach effectively in diverse classrooms and spend more time on instruction facilitating learning rather than retrofitting a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum. The bottom line is: UDL helps educators meet the needs of all students.

Embedded Supports to Differentiate Instruction for Struggling Students

Learn how technology tools can support struggling students and those with learning disabilities in acquiring background knowledge and vocabulary, improving their reading comprehension, and making connections between reading and writing.


Many of your students with learning disabilities, or those who are struggling, may be anywhere from two to five years behind their peers in reading and writing. To ensure that your students are prepared to meet the high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards, you may need to incorporate a variety of supports into your English Language Arts (ELA) instruction, including Universal Design for Learning (UDL), explicit instruction of evidence-based strategies, and the use of technology tools. Focusing on literacy is critical at the upper elementary and middle school levels in order to help address these gaps before students move into high school.

Learn how technology tools can support struggling students and those with learning disabilities in acquiring background knowledge and vocabulary, improving their reading comprehension, and making connections between reading and writing.

Using in your classroom

The use of embedded or readily available digital learning supports and tools has been shown to be an effective way of addressing the needs of diverse students, particularly those with disabilities.

For many students who struggle with reading or writing, the act of decoding, or puzzling out correct spelling, requires significant effort. Built-in tools that provide just-in-time supports relieve the cognitive load on students, allowing them to focus more of their attention on comprehension or generating written content.

Using technology to build background knowledge and vocabulary

As students move from learning to read in earlier grades to “reading to learn” in upper elementary and middle school, specific background knowledge and content-area vocabulary become even more important. Preteaching and explicit instruction of key vocabulary are critical elements in helping your students become more successful readers. This is especially true for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs); even if their spoken English is proficient; technical and content-specific vocabulary may be completely unfamiliar.

Explicit instruction building on the principles of UDL can help your struggling students connect new vocabulary with sounds and spelling patterns. These students also should be given multiple opportunities to use and hear new words in context.

Is it “soda” or “Coke”?

Classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, with many students likely to be multicultural or multilingual. It is important that you review your curriculum for assumptions made around background knowledge and vocabulary. Consider regional differences in language—a can of soda may be “pop” for one student, while others may have grown up calling all soda “Coke,” regardless of the brand.

Building background knowledge

You can help your students build background knowledge and vocabulary through demonstrating relationships between words and concepts, engaging student interest, and providing a variety of supports and scaffolds, including technology tools.

  • Online reference materials, including dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias, can provide students with instant access to definitions, translations, and explanations of unfamiliar terms and concepts. Look for tools with text-to-speech (TTS) capabilitiesso that students can hear words and definitions read aloud.
  • Multimedia supports, including video, how-to diagrams, animated illustrations, and other visuals, are useful tools for building background knowledge, especially for ELLs. Sites such as How Stuff Works include content-specific illustrations to help learners grasp sequences, interactions, and relationships. Maps and diagrams showing relationships between words and concepts also can help students connect new words to those they already know.

Using technology to teach comprehension strategies

All students can benefit from ongoing instruction in comprehension strategies as expectations continue to differ across content areas and technical writing styles in texts for different subjects vary. Although students may not struggle with comprehension in ELA classes, they may have difficulty with denser science texts or when reading historical documents. Providing all students with strong comprehension strategies for content area reading is critical, especially for your struggling students. Your struggling readers may have difficulty with: decoding text, staying focused, monitoring their understanding, making inferences, or generalizing information. They need many opportunities for guided practice, seeing and hearing strategies modeled, and frequent prompts to employ appropriate strategies.

A variety of technology tools are available that can help support your instruction of research-based comprehension strategies for all learners, including those with disabilities:

  • Digital text, whether scanned by a teacher or in the form of a digital textbook, offers many advantages for teachers looking to differentiate reading instruction. Digital text can be read aloud using TTS software and customized to meet the visual needs of students with print-based disabilities or other challenges accessing text (e.g., enlarged fonts, background colors).
  • Text-to-speech (TTS) software with built-in electronic references can support learners’ comprehension and vocabulary development by providing them with the opportunity to hear text read aloud while following along on the page. Many students with dyslexia have better listening than reading comprehension. Struggling readers may spend much of their energy trying to decode a text, leaving little attention for comprehension. TTS software frees up attention so that students can focus on building understanding. Look for programs that highlight text as it is read so that students can follow along and practice using scanning and tracking skills as they read.
  • Annotations and study skill features are included in many literacy software programs and digital textbooks. These tools can help your students become more active readers. Teach your students how to annotate texts with virtual sticky notes, bookmarking, highlighting, and color coding. Such tools also can help you differentiate instruction for students who struggle by making more use of built-in supports. Making these tools available to all of your students also helps them take ownership of their learning and access tools as they need them.

Using technology to support connections between reading and writing

Content-area reading and academic literacies become more important as students move into high school, but content-specific writing tasks may also pose challenges for your students. Although students may feel comfortable writing a personal narrative or creative story, they may struggle to write an acceptable lab report or analytical essay. Struggling readers are often struggling writers who need explicit instruction and guided practice to become proficient and flexible authors.

Your students must be able to write for multiple audiences and purposes, alone or collaboratively, and be able to use a variety of tools and platforms to do so. Students with disabilities may struggle with many of the components of writing, including: spelling, handwriting, planning, revising, and editing. Many technology tools are available that can support your students in these tasks:

  • Spelling and grammar checkers, including newer contextual spell checkers, can be useful tools for students with learning disabilities. Although they are common elements of every word processor and many Web browsers and e-mail programs, students may need strategies for using them effectively. Students should know how to attempt a spelling in order to generate a list of suggestions, how to skim a list of suggested words, and how to identify the correct word from that list. Students with dyslexia may be prone to making errors in their writing that are not picked up by spell checkers (using a correctly spelled word in the wrong context). For these students, contextual spell-check programs not only check for errors in spelling, but also highlight areas of mistaken word choice.
  • Word-prediction software programs are built on common patterns of English writing and misspellings and may have the ability to “learn” from users’ mistakes. As a student types, these programs make predictions and offer suggested next words or phrases. Corrections are often more accurate than a traditional spell checker.
  • Graphic organizer software with outlining and drafting capabilities can be used to support struggling writers in a number of ways. The programs can be used as presentations to whole groups for a discussion of relationships and concepts or by individual students as organizers before and during reading assignments to aid comprehension. Mapping relationships visually can help students make abstract connections more explicit. Programs that then convert these maps to outlines or drafts can help your learners apply their thinking to their writing.
  • Voice-recognition softwarecan be helpful for students with dysgraphia, spelling disabilities, or other motor issues that may inhibit their writing. Voice recognition offers students an alternative way of getting their thoughts down on paper and may be especially useful for those students who would traditionally need to use a transcriber for writing tasks.

What the research says

Millions of youth lack the literacy skills they need to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace, and the trajectory of achievement in secondary schools for struggling, reluctant, or English language learners point to this as a continuing need (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009). Those with learning disabilities (LD) are among the least prepared. Students labeled as “struggling” are generally considered to be two or more years behind grade-level expectations. According to Cortiella (2011), among students with learning disabilities:

  • One fifth are five or more grade levels behind.
  • Nearly 50 percent test more than three grade levels behind (in both reading and mathematics).
  • Almost 25 percent are one grade level behind.

Youth who struggle with academics, including those with LD, will likely benefit from focused attention on their background knowledge and vocabulary as part of literacy instruction (Heller & Greenleaf, 2008). As learners move from general survey courses in middle and high school to more in-depth disciplines and career training topics, specific background knowledge and vocabulary assumed in reading materials and preparation tasks become even more important. Preteaching and making explicit the background knowledge and vocabulary assumptions needed for success in a training program are keys to helping young learners engage the material thoughtfully. This is especially true for students who are ELLs; even if their oral English is quite proficient, the content areas and specific job-related vocabularies are often completely unfamiliar (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2006). Learners with LD need explicit, multisensory instruction that helps them connect new vocabulary with the sounds and spelling patterns as well as many opportunities to use and hear new words in context.

Research on increasing student engagement with reading and writing tasks has shown that tapping into their interests can energize youths’ motivation to do the extra work required to be successful. Several studies of youth and adults have found that even severely dyslexic learners reported reading a significant amount of text and actively engaging in inquiry for extended periods when driven by their interests (Ito et al., 2008; Kamil et al., 2008).

All students benefit from ongoing comprehension strategy instruction throughout their academic careers (Kamil et al., 2008) as the texts and expectations continue to change dramatically across content areas (for example, a biology lab report is constructed and written quite differently than a history text) (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). A variety of comprehension strategies are appropriate for all readers, but struggling readers often have a very limited repertoire. They need explicit modeling and guided practice to learn new strategies or apply different strategies appropriate for specific texts (Kamil et al., 2008; Torgesen et al., 2007). Supporting and reinforcing comprehension instruction requires a deliberate increase in the amount and quality of time devoted to open, sustained discussion of reading content. Far from watering down expectations, this recommendation calls on instructors of all types of courses to increase the intellectual intensity with which they engage their learners in discussions of text and modeling of comprehension (Kamil et al., 2008). This discussion time can be used to model and role play thoughtful, respectful conversations and critical thinking skills—soft skills that struggling students often lack and that workforce development programs and employers identify as key to workplace success.

Understanding Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects a child’s handwriting. Children with dysgraphia usually have other problems such as difficulty with written expression. Learn more about causes, the importance of early assessment, dysgraphia and spelling, and effective instructional strategies that strengthen written language skills.

What is dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is a Greek word. The base word graph refers both to the hand’s function in writing and to the letters formed by the hand. The prefix dys indicates that there is impairment. Graph refers to producing letter forms by hand. The suffix ia refers to having a condition. Thus, dysgraphia is the condition of impaired letter writing by hand, that is, disabled handwriting. Impaired handwriting can interfere with learning to spell words in writing and speed of writing text. Children with dysgraphia may have only impaired handwriting, only impaired spelling (without reading problems), or both impaired handwriting and impaired spelling.

What causes dysgraphia?

Research to date has shown orthographic coding in working memory is related to handwriting and is often impaired in dysgraphia. Orthographic coding refers to the ability to store written words in working memory while the letters in the word are analyzed or the ability to create permanent memory of written words linked to their pronunciation and meaning. Children with dysgraphia do not have primary developmental motor disorder, another cause of poor handwriting, but may have difficulty planning sequential finger movements such as the touching of the thumb to successive fingers on the same hand without visual feedback. Children with dysgraphia may have difficulty with both orthographic coding and planning sequential finger movements.

Does dysgraphia occur alone or with other specific learning disabilities?

Children with impaired handwriting may also have attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) — inattentive, hyperactive, or combined inattentive and hyperactive subtypes. Children with this kind of dysgraphia may respond to a combination of explicit handwriting instruction plus stimulant medication, but appropriate diagnosis of ADHD by a qualified professional and monitoring of response to both instruction and medication are needed.

Dysgraphia may occur alone or with dyslexia (impaired reading disability) or with oral and written language learning disability (OWL LD, also referred to as selective language impairment, SLI).

Dyslexia is a disorder that includes poor word reading, word decoding, oral reading fluency, and spelling. Children with dyslexia may have impaired orthographic and phonological coding, rapid automatic naming and focused, switching, and/or sustained attention.

OWL LD (SLI) is impaired language (morphology — word parts that mark meaning and grammar; syntax — structures for ordering words and understanding word functions; finding words in memory, and/or making inferences that go beyond what is stated in text). These disorders affect spoken as well as written language. Children with these language disorders may also exhibit the same writing and reading and related disorders as children with dysgraphia or dyslexia.

Why is diagnosis of dysgraphia and related learning disabilities important?

Without diagnosis, children may not receive early intervention or specialized instruction in all the relevant skills that are interfering with their learning of written language. Considering that many schools do not have systematic instructional programs in handwriting and spelling, it is important to assess whether children need explicit, systematic instruction in handwriting and spelling in addition to word reading and decoding. Many schools offer accommodations in testing and teaching to students with dysgraphia, but these students also need ongoing, explicit instruction in handwriting, spelling, and composition. It is also important to determine if a child with dysgraphia may also have dyslexia and require special help with reading or OWL LD (SLI) and need special help with oral as well as written language.

What kinds of instructional activities improve the handwriting of children with dysgraphia?

Initially, children with impaired handwriting benefit from activities that support learning to form letters:

  • playing with clay to strengthen hand muscles;
  • keeping lines within mazes to develop motor control;
  • connecting dots or dashes to create complete letter forms;
  • tracing letters with index finger or eraser end of pencil;
  • imitating the teacher modeling sequential strokes in letter formation; and
  • copying letters from models.

Subsequently, once children learn to form legible letters, they benefit from instruction that helps them develop automatic letter writing, using the following steps to practice each of the 26 letters of the alphabet in a different order daily:

  • studying numbered arrow cues that provide a consistent plan for letter formation;
  • covering the letter with a 3 x 5 card and imaging the letter in the mind’s eye;
  • writing the letter from memory after interval that increases in duration over the handwriting lessons; and
  • writing letters from dictation (spoken name to letter form).

In addition, to develop handwriting speed, they benefit from writing letters during composing daily for 5 to 10 minutes on a teacher-provided topic. Students benefit from explicit instruction in spelling throughout K?Çô12:

  • initially in high frequency Anglo-Saxon words;
  • subsequently in coordinating the phonological, orthographic, and morphological processes relevant for the spelling of longer, more complex, less frequent words; and
  • at all grade levels in the most common and important words used for the different academic domains of the curriculum.

Throughout K?Çô12, students benefit from strategies for composing:

  • planning, generating, reviewing/evaluating, and revising compositions of different genre including narrative, informational, compare and contrast, and persuasive; and
  • self-regulation strategies for managing the complex executive functions involved in composing.

Do children with dysgraphia make reversals or other letter production errors?

Some children do make reversals (reversing direction letter faces along a vertical axis), inversions (flipping letters along a horizontal axis so that the letter is upside down), or transpositions (sequence of letters in a word is out of order). These errors are symptoms rather than causes of handwriting problems. The automatic letter writing instruction described earlier has been shown to reduce reversals, which are less likely to occur when retrieval of letters from memory and production of letters have become automatic.

What kind of instructional strategies improve spelling of children with dysgraphia?

If children have both handwriting and spelling problems, the kinds of handwriting instruction described earlier should be included along with the spelling instruction.

Are educators in public schools identifying children with dysgraphia and providing appropriate instruction in public schools?

In general, no. Although federal law specifies written expression as one of the areas in which students with learning disabilities may be affected, it does not clearly identify the transcription problems that are the causal factors in dysgraphia — impaired handwriting and/or spelling — for impaired written expression of ideas. Some of the tests used to assess written expression are not scored for handwriting or spelling problems and mask the nature of the disability in dysgraphia. Content or ideas may not be impaired. All too often, the poor writing or failure to complete writing assignments in a timely fashion or at all is misattributed to lack of motivation, laziness, or other issues unrelated to the real culprit — dysgraphia. Children who are twice exceptional — gifted and dysgraphic — are especially under-diagnosed and underserved. Teachers mistakenly assume that if a student is bright and cannot write it is because the student is not trying.

Are there research-supported assessment tools for diagnosing dysgraphia?

Yes. See Barnett, Henderson, Scheib, and Schulz (2007), Berninger (2007a), Milone (2007), and Slingerland assessment below for assessing handwriting problems associated with dysgraphia. Also, see Berninger (2007b) and Berninger, O’Donnell, and Holdnack (2008) for using these tests and other evidence-based assessment procedures in early identification, prevention, and diagnosis for linking assessment results to evidence-based handwriting and spelling instruction (also see Troia, 2008).

In summary, dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that can be diagnosed and treated. Children with dysgraphia usually have other problems such as difficulty with written expression. It is important that a thorough assessment of handwriting and related skill areas be carried out in order to plan specialized instruction in all deficient skills that may be interfering with a student’s learning of written language. For example, a student may need instruction in both handwriting and oral language skills to improve written expression. Although early intervention is, of course, desirable, it is never too late during the school age years to intervene to improve a student’s deficient skills and provide appropriate accommodations.

Reprint permission

Reprints are permitted for educational purposes. This fact sheet may not be reprinted for the purpose of resale. Retrieved from International Dyslexia Association.

Top 10 Resources on Dyslexia

Learn about the common signs of dyslexia, how parents can support their child and celebrate their strengths, the role of assistive technology, how the latest brain research can help kids with dyslexia, and more.
  1. Dyslexia Basics
    Do you think your child or student might have dyslexia? “Dyslexia Basics,” a factsheet by International Dyslexia Association, tells you the definition, symptoms, causes and effects. Find out how to help.
  2. Clues to Dyslexia in Early Childhood
    The earliest clues involve mostly spoken language. The very first clue to a language (and reading) problem may be delayed language. Once the child begins to speak, look for difficulties with rhyming, phonemic awareness, and the ability to read common one-syllable words.
  3. Clues to Dyslexia from Second Grade On
    The specific signs of dyslexia, both weaknesses and strengths, vary widely. Problems with oral language, decoding, fluency, spelling, and handwriting are addressed, as well as strengths in higher order thinking skills.
  4. Reading and the Brain
    Hosted by Henry Winkler, who has had his own struggles with reading, Reading and the Brain explores how brain scientists are working to solve the puzzle of why some children struggle to read and others don’t. Startling new research shows the answer may lie in how a child’s brain is wired from birth. This program is part of our PBS Launching Young Readers series about how children learn to read, why so many struggle, and what we can do to help.
  5. What Are Classrooms Like for Students with Learning Disabilities?
    Classrooms can be perilous in a number of ways for students with learning disabilities. Here are some tips to remember when working with students with LD. Reading Rockets has developed a set of family literacy bags to encourage hands-on fun and learning centered around paired fiction and nonfiction books.
  6. Assistive Technology for Kids with Learning Disabilities: An Overview
    If your child has a learning disability, he or she may benefit from assistive technology tools that play to their strengths and work around their challenges. This article will introduce parents to the role of AT in helping their children with LD.
  7. Spelling and Dyslexia
    Spelling is a challenge for people with dyslexia. The International Dyslexia Association provides a fact sheet explaining why people with dyslexia have trouble spelling, how to find out the reasons a particular child has this difficulty, and how to help children with dyslexia spell better.
  8. Strategies for Summer Reading for Children with Dyslexia
    Here are a dozen simple strategies to help your children keep the academic skills they learned during the school year. Support them as they read. Give them material that is motivating — and some of it should be easy. Help them enjoy books and feel pleasure — not pressure — from reading. The summer should be a relaxed time where their love of learning can flower.
  9. FAQs About Dyslexia
    Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, and Reading Rockets gets lots of questions about it, including what it is, warning signs, what to do, and how to help. Here you’ll find questions from parents and answers from our experts.
  10. Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision
    Thanks to advances in imaging techniques and scientific inquiry, we now know much more about learning disabilities (LD), dyslexia, and the role of vision problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Council on Children with Disabilities, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology published a joint statement that summarizes what is currently known about visual problems and dyslexia. The statement also covers what treatments are and are not recommended when diagnosing and treating vision problems, learning disabilities, and dyslexia.


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