The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is easy enough to understand, but what does it look like in a school, and how is text to speech a part of UDL? UDL is a set of principles that provides an instructional framework for a flexible approach to individual learning needs. This differs from assistive technology (AT). AT is specifically about tools and devices that can help students with communication disabilities complete complex tasks and interact better with others.

While assistive technologies are effective, UDL flips the model by offering these benefits to all students, allowing them to choose which tools fit them best, even customizing their learning in different paths depending on whether they are trying to write an essay or solve a trigonometry problem. Differentiated instruction is where the educator presents information differently to various students in the same classroom. Typically, this is done by placing students in smaller groups during class, based on learning styles, level of educational advancement, and other factors, such as learning disabilities or physical challenges. The teacher then crafts group-specific lessons, reading assignments, projects, evaluation methods, and ways of presenting information that fit each group best. This allows students to enjoy the social experience of being in a large class with their peers, without the frustration or difficulty that often accompanies the “one lesson fits all” approach.

Text to speech is a key part of both UDL and differentiated instruction, because it gives the teacher another choice to offer students. For example, text to speech is a tool first used exclusively by special education students. For those with sight problems or disabilities that impaired their ability to read text, the usefulness is obvious. But today, publishers and school districts have begun adding text to speech to everyday learning tools, from textbooks to school websites. When offered the chance to use this tool, some students whose profiles don’t suggest they need text to speech, have discovered that it helps them retain information, either by replacing reading dense texts or by reinforcing what is learned through reading. Some students even combine the two, allowing text to speech to run while they read along. This is called bimodal learning.