Faculty Club / Assessment / 10 Ways to Use Universal Design to Help Language Learners Succeed

10 Ways to Use Universal Design to Help Language Learners Succeed

To make Spanish more accessible to all of her students, this professor drew inspiration from the ADA accessibility laws and modifications.

To make Spanish more accessible to all of her students, Professor Allison Zaubi drew inspiration from the ADA accessibility laws and modifications.

Allison Zaubi, MEd


Adjunct Lecturer of Spanish,
College of Charleston

MEd in Languages (concentration: Spanish), BA in Theater for Youth

Allison Zaubi’s path to becoming a college lecturer of Spanish was anything but straightforward. “I failed out of French in middle school and failed out of Spanish in high school,” she admits.

Daunted but not defeated, she tried Spanish again while attending the College of Charleston and picked up enough to get by in Costa Rica, where she taught elementary English after graduation. It was on that trip that she had a eureka moment: Learning a language should not be so difficult!

“While in Costa Rica, I learned to speak Spanish because I like to talk and interact,” she says. “I realized if I can learn to speak Spanish, anyone can. Human beings are programmed to interact and to communicate,” she asserts. “There’s no reason that people should struggle with a language.”

So she set her mind to figuring out ways to help students be more successful in their language studies. Today, as an adjunct lecturer of Spanish at her alma mater, Zaubi has taken her twin interests—learning disabilities and foreign languages—and merged them into an approach that can benefit students struggling in any type of course.

An epidemic of confusion in foreign language courses

“Before college, I struggled tremendously with foreign languages and had very little confidence. I slipped through the cracks,” Zaubi says. Though she did not know if she had a diagnosed learning disability, she struggled with comprehension. And, she realized, she was far from alone.

Interestingly, it was a job at the College of Charleston that led to Zaubi’s solution. After teaching Spanish at College of Charleston for four years, in 2012, she began working in the school’s Disability Services office as the coordinator of SNAP (Students Needing Access Parity) services. Among her responsibilities was lining up speakers for campus presentations relating to disabilities. The work exposed her to a wide array of learning accommodations and strategies used to improve student learning in the classroom. Since she was also still a Spanish lecturer while with SNAP, Zaubi had an opportunity to put her learnings into practice—with the goal to benefit all students, not just those with a diagnosed disability.

“Turns out there’s a name for [what I was doing],” Zaubi says. “It’s called Universal Design Learning—and I started researching it.”

Adapting learning-disability strategies to teach a foreign language

Universal Design Learning (UDL) was inspired by the architectural concept of universal design, whose goal is to make all buildings and environments accessible to people, regardless of age or ability. It turns out there are broader benefits to making buildings accessible to people with physical disabilities. Zaubi explains, “When you install a ramp, for instance, it can be used for strollers or rolling suitcases, not just wheelchairs.”

It was this idea of “universal benefit” that inspired Zaubi to apply UDL principles to teaching. For example, she was required to accommodate some students with diagnosed learning disabilities by offering them shorter tests so that they could finish in the time allotted. “But a lot of people get nervous when taking a test,” Zaubi points out. “The anxiety interferes with their performance.” That, too, can make it tough to complete a lengthy test on time. So she shortened the tests for everyone. Once Zaubi saw how well that worked, she started looking at other learning barriers she could remove.

“My methodology is implementing universal design into foreign language. But it isn’t specific to Spanish,” she adds. “It’s just focusing on equal access to the content for all students. By law, colleges must be ADA compliant. Everything has to be accessible as a result. But just like that ramp, everyone can benefit from [our] making [course] material more accessible.”

See another Best Lesson on Universal Design Learning


“You don’t need a disability in auditory processing to struggle [to decode what is being said in a lecture]. There are a lot of barriers to learning a foreign language. Anxiety is higher; students are afraid of speaking because they might sound dumb. And when students zone out in a foreign language class, it’s harder to get back on task.”
-Allison Zaubi, MEd

Course: SPAN 201 Beginning Spanish III

Course description: Develops a basic proficiency in Spanish and familiarity with Hispanic culture through practice in the use of basic language skills and acquisition of vocabulary.

See materials

10 UDL principles for teaching a foreign language

Professor Zaubi has learned that there are countless details that can be optimized for accessibility. The key is to remove as many barriers to learning as possible. Below are some of her guidelines:

1. Make sure type is super-readable

Consider the fonts you use when teaching. Using fancy fonts, italic fonts, or large sections in all caps can make it harder for students to read. Zaubi limits her choices to sans serif, non-italicized Arial or Calibri, no smaller than 12-point font, for all printed materials to make them very easily read.

2. Spell out instructions—verbally and in writing

Why take the risk of a student getting confused on an assignment or an exam? “After I distribute a test, I’ll go through each section and explain what they need to do,” says Zaubi. “I’ll also put my instructions [for my Spanish courses] in English. These are simple measures any instructor can take.”

3. Read auditory recordings out loud

In traditional foreign language exams, there is often a listening segment where the professor plays a prerecorded passage (usually from a digital resource), and then students answer questions about what they heard. “I read it [myself] instead of playing the recording, so they can see nonverbal cues while I am reading it,” Zaubi says. “I have a student who is hard of hearing: He reads lips. But most [other] students [also] benefit from watching me read.”

4. Turn slide shows into annotated videos

Zaubi uses an app called Explain Everything that allows anyone to annotate slides from a PowerPoint presentation and turn them into videos that can be easily shared on YouTube. Then, the YouTube platform can be used to create captions automatically, through the use of speech recognition technology.

“When you pull up a PowerPoint presentation (previously saved as a PDF), the app records it and allows you to annotate each slide with side notes or drawings or arrows. Then you just save the presentation and upload it as a video file or an MP4 to YouTube,” says Zaubi. Finally, she copies the YouTube link to the college’s learning management system, where all lectures are posted and available to all students, not just those approved for accommodations.

5. Repeat students’ questions, then answer them

When a student asks a question in class, not everyone hears it. That happens all the time. So before answering the question, says Zaubi, “I repeat it so everyone can hear. When a student hears their question repeated, it validates their learning experience.”

“I love teaching students who struggle in Spanish or just plain hate it. The challenge to cater to all students’ diverse learning styles forces me to constantly be creative. My job never gets boring, and the payoff is indescribable.”
-Allison Zaubi, MEd

6. Minimize distractions

There are lots of ways to remove distractions, like closing the classroom door. Because Zaubi loves natural light and open windows, her room has nice transparent shades that block distractions but allow light and air in.

7. Circulate in the classroom

“I circulate a lot to boost engagement,” Zaubi says. “I don’t stand at a podium. I like to walk around when [the students] are working in groups. They are more prone to ask a question when I am right there.”

8. Present information in a visual way

Zaubi notes that most students’ attention span does not last a full class period. In light of this, she shares her tips for making concepts easier to understand:

  • Use lots of images.
  • Do not clutter the slides.
  • Do not use too much fine print.
  • Use graphic organizers (also known as semantic maps).
9. Be explicit about how to study

Just because students are in higher education and studying complex subjects, professors should not assume they know how to study for their finals. “Try to review specific strategies for studying the material,” Zaubi advises. “I ask [students], ‘What would be the best way to study this? Who has ideas?’ We talk about what has been successful, even things like what helps with test anxiety.”

10. Show them what excellent work looks like

Along with providing rubrics used for student work and reviewing them prior to the assignment, Zaubi also includes concrete examples of her expectations. “[If there is] a nice paper from the last class, I share a copy of it, removing the student’s name,” she says. “Otherwise, some students have a hard time knowing what an A paper looks like. I make it easy for them.”


Zaubi says that positive outcomes are demonstrated in her students’ overall performance on assessment (both formative and summative). She adds, “One way I know this approach is impacting outcomes is that many of my students with so-called disabilities don’t use any accommodations, because they feel confident that they don’t need to.”

She says the student population with diagnosed disabilities and approved accommodations know that both the presentation of material and assessment will be accessible, and therefore they choose not to use their accommodations (such as access to PowerPoint slides, recorded lectures, note-takers, and extended time on assessment).

Get the Faculty Club newsletter

Browse by Topic