The 4 ingredients you need for reaching students with disabilities online

The 4 ingredients you need for reaching students with disabilities onlineWhen coronavirus began getting serious national attention in the US back in March, I was at the California State University, Northridge Assistive Technology Conference. Soon after returning home to Portland, Oregon’s governor issued a shelter-in-place order. That is when my obsession with sourdough started (and I know I’m not alone).

I began searching for the best recipe, eager to find good directions that would launch me into the world of sourdoughs. It took weeks for me to cultivate the perfect bubbly, sour goop that would lay the foundation for some pretty amazing bread. When I finally did, I knew I’d zeroed in on a few key ingredients to make impeccable sourdough: time (for plenty of mistakes), temperature, practice, and patience.

As the countdown to fall continues, teachers and administrators alike are scrambling to research what quality education and lesson plans look like for students with disabilities. And like me and my sourdough, many teachers are wanting the best evidence and research to support them in this adventure that is teaching during COVID. I saw that in June, when NWEA hosted a two-hour virtual summit, Fall 2020: Planning a successful restart. As I monitored the chat about equity and access for students with disabilities, it was evident the enormous pressure teachers are under to support students with quality instruction in a world that is new to everyone. A few questions kept popping up:

  • Can you provide guidance on effective specialized instruction in a remote setting?
  • How can I provide students with disabilities the extra layer of instruction they need?
  • How can I ensure my students with disabilities have the accommodations they need to learn online?

Fortunately, there is a lot of evidence on quality instruction for students with disabilities that just needs to be translated to distance learning. It all boils down to four key ingredients:

  1. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework
  2. Formative assessment strategies
  3. Student data
  4. Individualized or small-group instruction

Combining them can lead to the equivalent of baking a fine loaf of sourdough: teachers confident that they can reach all their students, and students with disabilities who feel seen, heard, and empowered to grow.

Ingredient #1: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework from CAST that provides a foundation to instruction that will ensure motivation, provide access to materials, and give students the ability to respond in ways that are appropriate for them to show what they know and understand. UDL framework goes deeper than differentiated instruction and brings attention to potential barriers students face. It fosters collaboration and promoting understanding while building goals and outcomes for students.

One area of UDL that is essential is accessibility. To make that happen, begin by determining the purpose of the instruction and/or assignment. This makes it easier to remove barriers. For example, let’s say the assignment is to read The Story of Ruby Bridges and the purpose is to have a rich classroom discussion, not demonstrate reading fluency. To accomplish it, you can offer both text and audio versions of the story to remove barriers for students who may struggle with reading.

It’s also important to examine what senses are needed to engage with instruction or an assignment and to allow various options. For example, if the assignment calls for writing a paragraph, can the student use voice command or a braille device to show their knowledge of paragraph writing? Be open to ideas and remember that every student is different.

Ingredient #2: Formative assessment strategies

Formative assessment can be powerful for every student, including those with disabilities. As my colleague Chase Nordengren recently explained, “Rather than focusing on a specific test, formative assessment focuses on practices teachers undertake during learning that provide information on student progress toward learning outcomes.” By utilizing this process during learning and teaching, we can gain evidence of student learning to improve our instruction and student understanding. The National Center on Education Outcomes has given us five strategies to support this concept:

  1. Establish and communicate learning targets
  2. Establish and communicate clear criteria for success
  3. Build in opportunities for students to self-assess or ask questions
  4. Give brief, clear, actionable feedback based on criteria
  5. Give students opportunities to revise assignments or re-do similar assignments

Giving our students well-communicated targets with clear criteria provides a big-picture approach for learners. Building in opportunities for students to check for understanding gives us information on how a lesson plan is working and gives the student time to grow in new learning. Simple, clear, and actionable feedback—something as simple as a thumbs up or down—can help students know if they’re on track. And though it will often feel like time is against us, giving students as much of it as we can—to make mistakes, to revise, to have a quiet moment to breathe and process—can help them take their learning even further. For students with disabilities, these five strategies are the beginning steps to self-awareness, which is the foundation for advocating for themselves in the future. As they do with all students, these five strategies also support the importance of focusing on their goals and understanding their learning process.

Ingredient #3: Student data

Whether a formal way is used to collect data on student learning, like MAP® Growth™, or a less formal method is preferred, such as writing samples and weekly vocabulary assignments, data collection provides the keys to knowing where students are instructionally. For students in special education and receiving explicit instruction, it’s highly recommended to monitor progress weekly, because some behaviors and skills are subtle. Monitoring weekly gives teachers the ability to notice the most minor of changes, changes that may have a large impact and may otherwise go unnoticed. But one cannot simply collect data; we must analyze and interpret data to guide instruction.

Students are telling us constantly what they know and understand, even though sometimes it is hard to see it. I encourage you to look for ways to analyze information weekly based on what you taught that week. If a syllabication rule is taught, for example, analyze whether the student implemented the rule in their writing or decoded a word using the rule in their reading. If so, how often? If not, why? Are there other foundational skills the student needs before syllabication? By collecting this kind of data and reflecting on student’s information, you can use the information to guide weekly lessons, and it will pay off.

Ingredient #4: Individualized or small-group instruction

COVID-19 research out of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University indicates that individualized or small-group instruction is one of the top suggestions for special educators during distance learning. As we know, students in special education (or any intervention program, for that matter) show greater positive outcomes when instruction is delivered one-on-one or in a small group. This gets to the question of how to implement or get to the extra layers that students with disabilities may need when you’re teaching in an online environment. Even though adding that extra time into schedules may seem impossible, it’s worth a try. Nothing beats more time spent with a qualified teacher delivering specialized, systematic, and explicit instruction.

Recipe for success

Here’s an example of how these four ingredients can come together during distance learning. Give yourself some time—and plenty of patience—as you practice.

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article