Further Considerations: Designing an Inclusive and Diverse Syllabus with UDL in Mind

Opening Your Class to Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Students
(UDL Principles: Engagement and Representation)

Trans- and gender non-confirming (GNC) students might feel especially anxious about enrolling in a language class where they know partner or group work is frequent and where gender pronouns and agreements are often a focus. As already discussed, the tone for the semester is set even before students walk or log into your classroom—through the language you include in your syllabus. What can you do to make trans- and GNC students feel welcome and safe in your classroom?

Here are a few tips for your syllabus. Click on each tip to see details and examples.

Instructor: Sasha Lupin
Pronouns: she/hers/her
Email: Sasha.Lupin@institution.edu
Twitter: @sl111
Skype: SLupin

Your statement might read as follows: You all have the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that you chose for yourselves. My name is Sasha Lupin and I go by Sasha. My pronouns are she/hers/her. On the first day of class I will distribute a short form for you to fill out so I can get to know you. On this form, you can indicate your preferred name and pronouns as these will not be reflected on my roster. Of course, you can leave your pronouns blank and if you would like to discuss this further, please say so on the form and I will follow up with you.

Doing so will ensure that students engage and connect with the class content more deeply. Including a wide variety of trans and GNC voices ensure that cishet students will find an experience or view with which they connect and engage with the complexities of the trans and GNC community.

Reflective Questions:

  • Examine the textbooks currently in use in your language program: 
    • Are non-binary neutral pronouns introduced?
    • Are binary and GNC people featured?
  • Besides the tips provided above, what other strategies have you seen and used yourself in a syllabus?

Diversifying Your Syllabus
(UDL Principle: Engagement)

Textbooks continue to be the primary means by which language learners in the United States are introduced to target language communities and cultures and often function as “the basis for the syllabus, the springboard for other activities and discussions, guidance for new teachers, and socialization into the practice of language teaching and learning for students” (Chapelle, 2016, p. 2). Research shows that language textbooks are complex political and ideological artifacts and they often validate and perpetuate socially dominant categories of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and ability (e.g., Canale, 2016; Criser & Knott, 2019; Curdt-Christiansen & Weninger, 2015; Del Valle, 2014; Gray, 2013; Shardakova & Pavlenko, 2004; Thompson, 2013; Uzum et al., 2021) in the source culture, which leads to their selective representation of target language communities and cultures (Keles & Yazan, 2020). Who and what is represented in FL textbooks are often the result of “politics of erasure and misrecognition” (Gray 2013, p. 6), which are part and parcel of a tourism discourse that often shapes the representations found in language textbooks. When textbooks do not entirely erase non-mainstream languages, communities, and cultures in the target communities, they are often treated in “decontextualized and trivialized manners divorced from the everyday life of people and the political struggle to define cultural identity” (Kubota, 2004) and construct language learners as “cultural voyeurs” (Curdt-Christiansen & Weninger, 2015). 

To start the process of diversifying your syllabus consider the tips below. Click on each tip to see details and examples.

Move your curriculum away from ethno-national definitions and socially normative representations of target language culture and society. Decenter knowledge and knowledge production by bringing to the center texts produced by authors and artists from marginalized or socioeconomically disadvantaged groups (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, disabled people) in the target cultures and magnify their voices and views in the process.

Adopt learning objectives that address issues of power and disenfranchisement. Give students opportunities and tools for dialoguing with texts and building webs of multiple positions by using texts that also represent non-dominant target language communities. Offer variable appraisals of one event or site and in the process ensure that these voices are amplified but also that the world and social realities in which we live are more accurately and completely represented.

Engage students in comparative work that shows alternative perspectives and viewpoints, rather than an essentialized view of target cultures and communities. Create teaching modules and materials that appropriately integrate target language and content learning, but also embrace the use of your students’ dominant language(s) for certain critical tasks.

Don’t throw away linguistic accuracy but raise your students’ awareness of how notions of “good” French, German, or Spanish and “native speakers” of French, German, or Spanish reflect certain language ideologies (i.e., the relation between language and power), including how language plays into notions of and discrimination against or marginalization of the Other.

Reflective Questions:

  • Examine the textbooks currently in use in your language program. Which language communities and cultures are present, erased, or misrepresented?

  • If the issues raised in this section have not yet been addressed in your program, where and how could you do that, starting with your syllabus? Do you anticipate any resistance and, if so, from whom and why?

Minding Your Language
(UDL Principles: Engagement, Representation, and Action/Expression)

When designing a course syllabus, you need to think of it as a communication piece. Bain (2004) suggests making the syllabus the beginning of a conversation that makes promises rather than demands to students. What is promised is a clear learning process and a way for students to monitor the progress they are making in their learning. Although creating a strong framework to help both the instructor and students stay organized and in sync throughout the semester is key, does it have to be a black and white, multi-page, text-heavy agenda driven by the instructor and to which students must comply? How do you get students’ attention? How do you get them excited about a course so they read the entire syllabus and decide to enroll and stay in it? How do you increase their desire to learn the languages and cultures of target language communities? 

To help you answer these questions, consider the tips below. Click on each tip to see details and examples.

Referring to your syllabus as a contract is not likely to inspire, intrigue, engage, and connect with students. Although you may not be able to remove certain language in your syllabus (e.g., the language of institutional policies and requirements), you can use language to build relationships with your students.

Ask questions that students would ask themselves. In your course schedule, introduce class sessions around essential questions or big ideas that you will explore instead of just providing the topic or chapter title and the textbook and workbook pages to read. Here are several examples:

Basic Course Information:

Original Reformulated
Course description What’s this course about?
Course objectives What am I going to learn?
Learning objectives What will I know and how will I be able to apply what I learned?
Instructor information Who is my instructor, what’s their teaching style, and how can I contact them?

Course Schedule - Original:

Week Day Topic Textbook pages Student-activities manual
1 1 Chapitre 1 Introduction pp. 1 - 5 1.1, 1.2, 1.3

2 Chapitre 1 Introduction pp. 6 - 11 1.4, 1.5, 1.6

3 Chapitre 1 Introduction
Quiz 1
pp. 12 - 15 1.7, 1.8, 1.9

4 Chapitre 1 Introduction pp. 16 - 21 1.10, 1.11, 1.12

5 Chapitre 1 - Examen

Course Schedule - Reformulated:

Week Day Topic Questions and Themes you will explore How can you prepare for this session? What will take place during the live class session?
1 1 Chapitre 1 Introduction Qui suis-je? Qui sommes-nous? Watch: Video “Mon identité, ma francité”

Do: Complete a short word cloud
Community-building activities

Qui suis-je? Qui sommes-nous? Read: Sample social media profiles

Do: Introduce yourself through a Flipgrid or Threadit assignment
Community-building activities


The syllabus is your first opportunity to get students excited about a course. Typically, students are served a dry course description that includes some technical jargon in the field that might read like this: 

In this course students will learn basic communicative skills in Spanish while developing an awareness and appreciation of Hispanic/Latino culture. For that, the course will… 

But will students want to read this? “In this class you will…,” “the course will…,” “the aim of this course is to…,” “the primary objective of this course is…,” and “students enrolled in this course will…” are all poor openers; they neither address the students directly nor entice them to enroll or stay in a course. 

Instead, start with a sentence that speaks to a desire, fear, need, or curiosity. Next provide catchy and concise course details, include a personal benefit to students, explain the benefit further without going overboard, get a bit more specific on what will be taught, and end with a call to action.

Your course description could say something like the following:

Recently you went to a get-together organized by a local campus group. A few minutes in, behind you, a conversation broke into Spanish and people were laughing and appeared to be having a good time. You caught a word or two here and there, but FOMO set in. You so wished you could turn around, introduce yourself, and join in, but… 

You’ve come to the right place. In Spanish 101, you put yourself on the path to becoming a participant user of Spanish. You will learn to ask and answer questions; name and describe persons, things, places, and events; deal with certain situations; tell stories orally and in writing; write emails and text messages; and comprehend some authentic texts. In this process, you will learn how to project a confident and interesting you. As you do so you will also expand your knowledge of the cultures of Spanish-speaking communities at home and beyond. Start your Spanish-learning journey here!

The syllabus is usually the first contact students have with the instructor and the course and it is not uncommon for the course description to address students as “students” and “they.” For example:

The primary objective of Arabic 2002 is to prepare students for upper-division Arabic courses. In this course students will engage in extensive practice of the four skills. They will also develop cultural awareness and understanding of Arabic-speaking communities around the world. After completion of this course, students will be able to express themselves in both spoken and written forms that are culturally appropriate.

Writing in second person rather than third person will make the content of your syllabus more approachable. This is true not just for the syllabus but also for activities, assignments, concepts, and evaluation criteria. So, talk to students directly. Avoid using the third person and calling them “students” or even worse “pupils”! Using "you" and "your" helps students think about the course as an active connection between people. Here’s how the description above might be reformulated to address students’ directly:

The primary objective of Arabic 2002 is to prepare you for upper-division Arabic courses. In this course you will engage in extensive practice of the four skills. You will also develop cultural awareness and understanding of Arabic-speaking communities around the world. After completion of this course, you will be able to express yourself in both spoken and written forms that are culturally appropriate.

The language you choose and the way you frame the content of your course, engage students, and present your course policies communicate in direct and indirect ways your values and expectations and your views of students as learners. Addressing your students as competent and engaged learners can foster positive motivation. Stay away from language that emphasizes performance and punishment and consider language that emphasizes collaboration, flexibility, and possibility. Here are a few examples:

Original Reformulated
Student must… I encourage you to…
Late work will be penalized by a deduction of 20%.  Late work is eligible for partial credit of 80%. 
Students are expected to attend every class session. Unexcused absences will affect your final grade. It is important that you attend every class session. Otherwise, you miss out on the learning opportunities that we engage in during class time. 

Designing an Appealing and Accessible Syllabus
(UDL Principles: Engagement and Representation)

You have improved the language of your syllabus, but if you want students to not only read it but also be able to read it, you need to break the visual monotony of a 15-page document that is all print. Very few people enjoy reading big blocks of text and a dense, text-heavy syllabus is especially difficult for students with dyslexia, AD(H)D, and learning disabilities, or for speakers of languages other than English. Many syllabi do not comply with accessibility requirements and are hard to navigate.

The tips below will help you design a more appealing and accessible syllabus. Click on each tip to see details and examples.

Spend some time designing your syllabus. You don’t have to be a graphic designer, but instead can incorporate some or all of the following using a word processor and its built-in design components: 
  • Make effective use of white space. You can do that by increasing margins, enlarging line spacing, etc. In the digital age, we no longer hand out paper copies of a course syllabus, so spread the content out for readability
  • Use two fonts that are very distinct from each other, one for titles and the other for the rest
  • Use font sizes (Title, Heading 1, Heading 2) to establish a hierarchical structure within the document 
  • Use tables to present your course schedule
  • Use bulleted lists to organize and simplify content 
  • Bold, italicize, or highlight text for emphasis
  • Use 12-14 sans serif font, 1.5 line spacing, and dark font on light colored background
  • Use document-internal links and hyperlinks to external web-based resources to cut text and ease access.

Think about which pressing questions students might have about a course and use these to decide which information to include in feature boxes. 

Use feature boxes and sidebars for: 
  • instructor profile
  • course materials
  • table of contents (to include on the first page of your syllabus with document-internal hyperlinks that make navigating the syllabus easy on electronic devices)
  • grading scale (consider presenting it as a pie chart)
  • tips to succeed in the class
  • help and resources
Use timelines for:
  • schedule of topics
  • assignment and assessment due dates

Trade some text for accessible images and visual representations of content. Group together icons to convey important course information such as your email, office hours, class location, class meeting times, and coursebooks and materials. Images and other visual representations should have alt text to facilitate use of screen readers.

With many free infographic tools available, the infographic syllabus has been gaining momentum. However, if you are not ready to invest time into the creation of an infographic syllabus, Tips #1 and #2 are all you need. Most lower-level language syllabi run upwards of 15 pages and for an infographic syllabus, the information will have to be condensed quite a bit, but it is doable.


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