For the Learner, the UDL Lens begins with “ACCESS”

Doscover the learner using the UDL LensIn working with educators from around the country and in Europe the last 3 years, I have had the pleasure in showing them how to use the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express to help empower learners to understand the what, why and how of their learning. The 3-step “Discover the Learner”™ process is intentionally designed for each learner to develop the skills to support their own learning so they can become independent, self-directed learners, learners with agency.

A question came up about why the UDL Lens begins with Access, the “what” of learning. They pointed to the definition of UDL in How to Personalize Learning (Bray and McClaskey, 2016), Chapter 2 that…

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that provides equity for all individuals so they have opportunities to learn. UDL provides a framework for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

You see the UDL Guidelines where changed in 2014 to begin with the “why of learning” for curriculum development and that is the point; it is a framework for creating universally designed lessons. The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express was designed to empower the learner to understand the what, why and how of their learning.

These educators also shared a blog post where the author emphasized that learners needed to be engaged before they are given access to the content. The author used herself as a learner to describe “engagement” and why it should come first. This added to the confusion among educators so the intention of this post will hopefully “clear the air” in why Access comes first for the learner and how using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express can lead to learner agency. But before we do that, let’s take a look at a brief history of UDL.

A Bit of History Behind UDL – A Framework for Curriculum and Instruction

The originators of UDL (Dr. David Rose and Anne Meyer) from CAST reintroduced the UDL principles and guidelines (2014) in its publication Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) and changed the sequence of the UDL principles to begin with “why of learning”. The original UDL principles began with the “what of learning” (multiple means of representation) for almost 20 years. In it’s revision in 2014, CAST wanted to point out the importance of engagement in curriculum development and instruction in how teachers should first provide options for engagement, the “why of learning”. This made sense in that the focus in how to engage learners in the lesson should be considered first when universally designing instruction.


For the Learner, the UDL Lens begins with “Access”

Giving access to the content for all learners is by far the most important step when designing instruction or introducing new content or concepts. Understanding what your learners’ strengths and challenges in accessing information is key in designing lesson materials that will accessible to all the learners in your classroom from the start. Access as described in this chart below comes directly from the UDL principle of multiple means of representation, the “what of learning”. Access takes different forms of representation so that the learner can transform and process information into useable knowledge and become an active participant in their learning.

UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express

Consider the variability of the learners you may have so that each has Access to the content, anytime and anywhere.

  • For all learners, accessing and understanding the vocabulary as it relates to the content in a lesson is critical before engaging the learner.
  • For the learner who has difficulty reading, lesson materials would need to be in a digital format so they can use a text-to-speech tool to access the information or in an audio format or combination thereof.
  • For the learner who has visual impairments or blindness, audio and/or Braille files of the lesson materials would be needed at a minimum to provide access.
  • Learn more about the ways that educators provide access to the curriculum at the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM).


The Progression in Developing Expert Learners (Learners with Agency)

The purpose in using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express is to empower each learner to understand the strengths and challenges they have in accessing information, engaging with content and expressing what they know and understand. This chart below shows the progression from left to right where you begin thinking about how you can provide accessibility for the variability that your learners have in their learning. In the next progression, you want learners to develop specific skills and learning strategies to support their learning through guided practice. With daily independent and self-directed practice over time, the learner becomes resourceful and knowledgeable, purposeful and motivated, strategic and goal-directed—an expert learner, a learner with agency.


UDL lens of Access Engage and express progressions chart[From How to Personalize Learning, Chapter 2. Table content adapted from CAST, Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice, 2014]


It is an important distinction for educators to know that they are not creating experts. They are creating learners who are capable of being self-directed and self-reflective.” Steve Nordmark @snordmark


Learn more about the 3-Step “Discover the Learner”™ process in these posts on the Learner Profile™, Personal Learning Backpack™ and Personal Learning Plan™.

The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express, Learner Profile™, Personal Learning Backpack™ and Personal Learning Plan™. Discover the Learner™ are trademarks of Kathleen McClaskey.