Instructional Accommodations

Great Expectations

An important theme across all areas of this website is one of "great expectations" for ALL students. All of the tools and strategies that you will discover on this website begin with the expectation that, with research based strategies for instruction and support, all students can learn toward grade level academic content standards, and all but a small percentage of students with the most significant disabilities can achieve proficiency on those standards. This goal cannot be met with any one strategy or way of support alone. In other words, there are no "magic bullets." It will take a combination of everything presented on this website. That said, this section addresses one of the important pieces of the learning puzzle accommodations.

Nolet and McLaughlin (2000) describe instructional accommodations as "a service or support that is provided to help a student fully access the subject matter and instruction as well as to demonstrate what he or she knows" (p. 71). These accommodations do not change the content of instruction or expectations for performance. In order to do this, teachers need to have clear goals for instruction based on grade level academic content standards and benchmarks or indicators.

Defining Instructional Accommodations

One of the ways to increase student access to academic content standards through instruction in the general curriculum is by using instructional accommodations. Accommodations are changes in the way a student accesses learning, without changing the actual standards a student is working toward. Using accommodations can be complicated - the goal is to find a balance that gives students equal access to learning without "watering down" the content.

Accommodations use needs to be aligned or matched between classroom instruction, classroom testing and district or state tests. Most accommodation use does not begin and end in school, however. Students who use accommodations will generally also need them at home, in the community, and as they get older, in postsecondary education and at work. Students need to have opportunities to learn to use accommodations in classroom settings, and they also need to be able to take classroom tests using accommodations. Testing conditions in the classroom should be as close as possible to those of district or state testing situations to increase a student's comfort level and allow for the best possible performance.

Accommodations for assessment and instruction are integrally intertwined. There are some accommodations that are appropriate for classroom use that would not be appropriate in testing situations. However, no accommodation should be recommended for an assessment that a student has not had a thorough opportunity to learn to use comfortably and effectively during classroom activities.

There is a whole section in the assessment area of this website devoted to assessment accommodations.

Accommodations are typically categorized according to whether they are changes in presentation, response, setting, or timing/scheduling. Here is a brief description of each of these categories. Clicking on any of the titles in the next section will open a page of more detailed information about the accommodations in that section.

  1. Presentation Accommodations allow students to access instructional materials in ways that do not require them to visually decode standard print. Students with print disabilities (defined as an inability to visually decode standard print because of a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability) may require alternate visual, tactile, or auditory formats.
  2. Response Accommodations allow students to record their work in alternate ways or to solve or organize their work using some type of material or device.
  3. Timing/Scheduling Accommodations change the allowable length of time for assignments, projects, and tests, and may also change the way the time is organized.
  4. Setting Accommodations change the location in which instruction is given or the conditions of the setting.

Modifications or Alterations

Accommodations do not reduce learning expectations. They provide access. Changing, lowering, or reducing the learning expectations is usually referred to as a modification or alteration. Modifications can result in greater gaps between students and their classmates. Using modifications may result in implications that could adversely affect a student throughout his or her educational career. These modifications include:

  1. Requiring a student to learn less material (e.g., fewer objectives, shorter units or lessons, fewer pages or problems)
  2. Reducing assignments and tests so that a student only needs to complete the easiest problems or items.
  3. Revising assignments or tests to make them easier (e.g., crossing out half of the response choices on a multiple choice test so that a student only has to pick from 2 options instead of 4).
  4. Giving a student hints or clues to correct responses on assignments and tests.

Deciding Which Accommodations to Use

For students with disabilities, we now have a body of literature that strongly documents the difficulty of making decisions about appropriate accommodations - both for instruction and for assessment. Decisions about which accommodations to use is very individualized and should be made for each student by that student's IEP team. That's why it is vital for every member of each student's IEP team to be well informed about accommodations. A team approach to determining appropriate accommodations and then supporting students in the use of those accommodations is critical. The team needs to include the student and parents, general and special educators, paraeducators, and any support personnel who are needed to help the student use an accommodation - such as speech and language clinicians, physical and occupational therapists, and school psychologists.

Consider accommodations in light of a student's access to instruction across all subject areas. It is important to get each student's input about familiar and comfortable accommodations, and ask what the student thinks would be most helpful. Teachers and other members of each student's IEP team should have information about the way the student learns best, and types of accommodations that the student finds helpful on classroom assignments and during previous testing. If this information is not readily available, it may be helpful to work with a student prior to his or her IEP meeting and try out a variety of accommodations in the classroom in order to figure out what works well. Here are some considerations in the selection of accommodations:

  1. increased access to learning
  2. promotion of student independence
  3. use across environments and tasks
  4. technological features like software and compatibility with other devices
  5. ease of use (set-up, operation)
  6. amount of training required for the student and teacher
  7. cost to purchase and maintain

The tendency may be to recommend the use of a variety of accommodations, with the assumption that "the more accommodations, the better," or "at least something will help" a student access academic content. Unfortunately, this hit or miss approach does not necessarily enhance a student's access to learning. Every student with a disability does not need an accommodation, nor do all students with the same disability need the same accommodations. For example, students with low vision may simply wear glasses or contact lenses, or use a hand held magnifier, computerized magnification, several different sizes of large print, braille, or audio presentation. A student with difficulty reading print because of a learning disability may use no accommodation, a human reader, a cassette tape or compact disc, or a screen reader. The ultimate decision about whether to use an accommodation rests on each student and his or her preferences and abilities. The ultimate effectiveness of the use of an accommodation depends on a student's familiarity and opportunity to practice using it in everyday life - in the classroom, at home, and in the community.

Including Students in the Decision Making Process

Students can play a significant role, with the support of their IEP teams, in choosing and using accommodations. For students with disabilities, understanding their disabilities and learning self-advocacy strategies are critical for success in school. Some students have had limited experience expressing personal preferences and advocating for themselves. Speaking out about their preferences, particularly in the presence of "authority figures," may be a new role for students, one for which they need guidance and feedback. Teachers can play a key role in working with students to advocate for themselves in the context of choosing and using accommodations. In addition, these skills can be used throughout a student's daily life, and on into post-secondary education, career and community life. For example, college students may be required to complete a formal application for accommodations and request permission from the instructor. These are critical skills for students to learn while still in high school.

Students need to know what accommodations are possible, and then, based on knowledge of their personal strengths and limitations, they need to select and try accommodations that might be useful for them. The more input students have in their own accommodation choices, the more likely it is that they will actually use the accommodations - especially as students reach adolescence and the desire to be more independent. Self advocacy skills become critical here. Students need opportunities to learn which accommodations are most helpful for them, and then they need to learn how to make sure those accommodations are provided in all of their classes and wherever they need them outside of school. Many college students are surprised when they find out that the only way they can receive accommodations is by asking for them - there is no special education teacher assigned to take care of individual student needs. Colleges have disability services available, but only for students who request them. Assertive self-advocacy is especially important when confronting instructors and employers who do not understand why a person should be given "special privileges."

Documenting Accommodations on a Student's IEP

Once a decision has been made about which accommodations will be used, it is important to document the accommodations on a student's IEP. These decisions need to be reviewed at least annually. Accommodations needs change over time! Students can work on decreasing the need for some accommodations or increasing the variety of accommodations they can use across multiple settings and situations. As students gain academic skill and knowledge of their learning strengths, some accommodations will no longer be needed (e.g., need for books on tape decreases as print reading skills improve), or, a student with a print disability may make increasing use of computerized accommodations (e.g., screen reader) as they become available and less use of human readers, note takers, or audio tapes. IEP teams need to work with students to continually refine their use of accommodations - using only what is most necessary and useful for the student and continually improving efficiency. Most accommodations should become transparent - that is, known only to the user, without disrupting other class members or providing overwhelming burdens to teachers.

The figure below shows an example of a way to document accommodations use on a student's IEP. In this case, the student uses an oral reading accommodation for assistance in content area instruction and assessment while receiving direct instruction in basic reading skills.

Present level of performance

Tom comprehends grade level academic content that is read aloud to him (via human reader, cassette or compact disc, or computerized text reader). However, Tom has not yet developed decoding skills to read grade level material independently. Progress monitoring using curriculum based measure shows Tom's decoding accuracy at less than 50%.

IEP goal

Tom will decode print at grade level with at least 90% accuracy. His progress will be monitored using curriculum based measures.

Services and Accommodations

  1. Tom will receive individualized direct instruction in reading from a reading specialist for 30 minutes per day.
  2. Tom will receive a "read aloud" accommodation, using a human reader, cassette or compact disc (recorded books), or computerized text reader (medium depends on availability - Tom prefers a computerized text reader when possible) in academic classes and on classroom tests and state/district tests. Tom will use this accommodation on all test items that do not test the skill of decoding words in print. Use of this accommodation will be discontinued when Tom reaches his IEP goal of decoding with 90% accuracy.

Documenting Accommodations on a Student's 504 Accommodations Plan

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public schools to provide accommodations to students with disabilities even if they do not qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The definition of a disability under Section 504 is much broader than the definition under the IDEA. All IDEA students are also covered by Section 504, but not all Section 504 students are eligible for services under IDEA. Section 504 states:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. 

(29 U.S.C. ยง794)

Here are examples of students who may receive accommodations based on their 504 accommodations plan:

  • students with communicable diseases (i.e., hepatitis);
  • students with temporary disabilities from accidents who may need short term hospitalization or homebound recovery;
  • students with allergies or asthma;
  • students who are drug addicted or alcoholic, as long as they are not currently using illegal drugs
  • students with environmental illnesses;
  • students with attention difficulties

Collaborative Implementation

It is important to identify appropriate accommodations with students as part of their regular classroom activities and then to use the accommodations as needed throughout a student's daily instruction. Each student's unique set of accommodations should be understood and supported by all school personnel involved with a student, including general and special education teachers, paraeducators, and support staff such as speech clinicians, school psychologists, and therapists. Support for the use of accommodations also needs to be provided by family members, employers and coworkers, and other community members who interact regularly with the student.

Some accommodations are easier and less time consuming for teachers to provide than others. Research has shown that the attitudes and willingness of teachers to provide accommodations often varies depending on the difficulty of providing the accommodations. For example, finding a quiet room and test proctor and arranging for extra time for every classroom test might seem too much of a burden for an already overwhelmed general education teacher. This is where the importance of a team is so critical. First, it must be determined that a student really needs the accommodation. Every student who receives special education services does not need to take tests in private settings. The logistics of providing each accommodation to each student need to be worked out carefully by the student's IEP team so that the student gets what he/she needs in a manner that is feasible for staff. A simple form describing a student's accommodations could be updated regularly and shared with everyone who assists a student in the implementation of his or her accommodations.

Keeping Track of What Works

One way to keep track of what accommodations work for a student is to support the student in keeping an "accommodations journal." The journal lets the student be "in charge" and could be kept up-to-date through regular consultation with a special education teacher or other staff member. Just think of how much easier it would be for an IEP team to decide which accommodations to document on a student's IEP if the student came to the IEP meeting with a journal documenting all of these things:

  • Accommodations used
  • Test results when accommodations are used
  • Student's perception of how well the accommodation "worked",
  • What happens when the student doesn't use the accommodation,
  • What combinations of accommodations work better,
  • Perceptions of teachers and therapists about how the accommodation appears to be working

Increasing Access in Other Ways

There are other important ways to increase a student's access to academic content standards through instruction in the general curriculum. This website describes many of these excellent research based strategies, including:

  • Learning Strategies and Study Skills 
    There are many ways to assist students in becoming proficient on grade level content that do not lower expectations.
  • Content Enhancements 
    These include advanced organizers, visual displays, study guides, mnemonic devices, peer mediated instruction, and computer assisted instruction.
  • Universal Design for Learning 
    We are learning to think more carefully about the design of instruction from the beginning to be sure that it can be accessed by the today's diverse student population.
  • Assistive technology 
    The definitions of assistive technology and accommodations overlap and it is not necessary to sort out the details, as long as the goal of increasing access is met as efficiently and effectively as possible. Assistive technology is defined as, "Any item, piece of equipment, or product system whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individual with disabilities" (Technology-related Assistance for Individual with Disabilities Act, 1988).
  • Non-academic accommodations 
    These include specific accommodations for individual students in certain situations that may come up during a school day. For example, when there is a fire drill, a student with a wheelchair may need to use an elevator or be carried down stairs by more than one adult. A student with Asberger's syndrome may need to be escorted out of the building before a fire drill to prevent a severe attack of anxiety caused by loud noises. The same student may need to be released from class before other students to reduce the anxiety caused by noise and crowds. This list could go on and on because it is so very specific to the unique needs of individual students.


Developed by: Sandra J. Thompson, Ph.D., Research Associate, National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota