When do accommodations enhance education? When do they water down learning experiences? As a former special education teacher, I believe our goal should be to make learning as fluid as possible while maintaining high standards. Accommodations change how a student learns the material. Accommodations do not change the final outcome or difficulty of material. I share the following examples, which students in my classes taught me.
- Instead of reading a text, a child can listen to an audiobook or oral presentation. Many years ago, a third grade boy taught me the importance of teaching content, such as science, at the child’s thinking ability instead of his reading level. This little guy loved technology (before technology could be found everywhere). He succeeded in math and he adored science lessons. He could not read orally. At that time, I was young and operating from the idea that if I could find books with an easy enough vocabulary, he would succeed. This intelligent little boy felt insulted by the “baby” books I asked him to read. Finally, I realized that no matter how simple the words and sentences, this child continued to omit phrases, hesitate, reread, and twist known words. I had to find a way to get the science information from the written text into his brain. I decided to find or create an audiobook or read the words aloud to him. While listening and following along, he began to succeed
- A child can dictate answers to a test. This same little boy also helped me understand the importance of using accommodations when testing. I began to read test questions to him and write his exact answers. Once I allowed this child to tell what he knew, his science grades changed from “D’s” to “B’s” or “A’s”. Although he could not write answers that reflected what he knew, he could state answers orally.
- The format of a test can be adapted. While teaching at the university, I decided to make my life easier by replacing one essay question with a “matching” one. As I glanced around the room, I noticed a student hunched over her exam. When I asked if she felt ok, I saw her tears. As we talked outside the classroom, she told me that she knew the material but could not switch from the first column to second. After I reworded the question, she wrote what she knew and demonstrated mastery.
- The environment can be altered to adapt to a student’s attention needs. Another university student with an attention disability told me that taking a test in a classroom with others distracted her. She wrote slowly. As others began to turn in tests, she became anxious as well as unfocussed. Allowing her to use as much time as she needed in a separate space allowed her more success.
- Flexible timing can also provide an acceptable accommodation. One of my daughters, a teacher, told me that when giving children a long assignment or test, she built in frequent breaks. Every ten to fifteen minutes, everyone in the class stood, stretched, and sang a song before continue the task. Research informs us that even adults stop attending well after about fifteen minutes
The longer I taught, the more convinced I became that using accommodations made sense. I realized that not only children with identified disabilities benefitted from honoring individual differences. Many children who will never be identified for special education learn more easily when we attend to their preferences. Making a task as hard as possible does not cement learning. Facilitating competence while maintaining high standards allows for more frequent and pleasant learning successes.
The Understood Team. “Accommodations: What Are They and How Do They Work?” Understood. 2015. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/
Frandsen, Barbara Slaying the Dragons: 21st Century Literacy. Austin, Texas: Author House. 2013.
Strom, Erich. “Common Modifications and Accommodations.” Understood. Jan. 03, 2014.