Understanding Accommodations

Teacher and students with globeMore than ever, school personnel are responsible for providing high-quality instruction to all students. Together, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) have increased the expectation that students with disabilities will participate in the general education classroom as well as in state and district testing to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, students with disabilities often experience challenges or barriers that interfere with their ability to access and demonstrate learning. Barriers to learning can be associated with:

  • The way information is presented (e.g., text, lecture)
  • The way the student is required to respond (e.g., writing, speech)
  • The characteristics of the setting (e.g., noise, lighting)
  • The timing and scheduling of instruction (e.g., time of day, length of assignment)

What is an accommodation?

Teachers can address these barriers by providing students with accommodations—adaptations or changes in educational environments or practices that help students overcome the barriers presented by their disability. Two areas in which accommodations can be used are instruction and testing.

  • Instructional accommodations are changes to the delivery of classroom instruction or the accompanying materials. Instructional accommodations change how students learn but do not change what they learn. In other words, they do not change the scope or range of the grade-level content standards, nor do they alter the complexity of the knowledge students are expected to learn. Students with disabilities who use instructional accommodations are required to learn the same content at the same level of proficiency as their peers who do not use instructional accommodations.
  • Testing accommodations are changes to the format of a test or its administration procedures. Testing accommodations change how students are tested but do not change what a test measures. Commonly used testing accommodations include having the test read aloud, allowing for extended time, permitting scribes or dictation, and giving the test in a small-group setting.

Whether for instruction or testing, accommodations provide students with opportunities to achieve the same outcomes and to obtain the same benefits as students without disabilities. By addressing barriers, accommodations create better access to learning opportunities for students with disabilities. For some students, these barriers can be relatively simple to address. For example, a student who has difficulty with fine-motor skills and struggles to hold a pencil might require a pencil grip to help her write out her responses. For others, addressing the barrier can be more complex. For instance, a student who has a visual disability and cannot access written materials might require Braille materials. To better understand how accommodations can address barriers presented by a student’s disability, see the table below.

Disability Category Barrier Example Accommodations
Visual disability Reading printed text
  • Audio version of text
  • Large-print materials
  • Braille materials
Specific learning disability Decoding text
  • Audio books
  • Text-to-speech software
ADHD Remaining focused
  • Allow frequent breaks
  • Mark answers directly in the test booklet vs. on a bubble answer sheet
Orthopedic impairment Writing out responses (due to inability to hold a pencil)
  • Permit oral response
  • Speech-to-text software

Accommodations provide support that allows students with disabilities to achieve the same instructional goals as students without disabilities. It’s important to note that accommodations:

  • Do not change the expectations for learning
  • Do not reduce the requirements of the task
  • Do not change what the student is required to learn

Teachers should provide accommodations that meet the unique needs of each individual student. Not all students with the same disability or even those who experience the same barrier will benefit from the same accommodation. For example, not all students with visual impairments will benefit from Braille materials; some might be better served by audio books.

It is a common misconception that accommodations offer an unfair advantage to students with disabilities. Used appropriately, accommodations level the playing field, allowing students with disabilities the opportunity to perform tasks as well as students without disabilities.

Instructional Practices Often Confused with Accommodations

Teachers use a number of instructional practices to improve their students’ learning. It is not unusual for several of these—specifically, modifications, instructional strategies, and interventions—to be confused with accommodations. In the sections below, we’ll describe each of these practices and explain what makes them different from accommodations.


Modifications are adaptations that change what students learn and are used with students who require more support or adjustments than accommodations can provide. Whereas accommodations level the playing field, modifications change the playing field. Unlike accommodations, modifications:

  • Do change the expectations for learning
  • Do reduce the requirements of the task

The table below lists some modifications that could address the barriers presented by students’ disabilities. Note that the modifications actually change or modify the expectations or requirements of the task.

Disability category Barrier Example Modifications
Visual disability Reading printed text Alternate assignment
Specific learning disability Decoding text Read a lower-level book
ADHD Remaining focused Fewer homework questions
Orthopedic impairment Writing out responses Shorter report

Though educators often confuse them, the terms accommodations and modifications are not interchangeable. Listen as Margaret McLaughlin further explains the distinction (time: 3:03).

View Transcript

Margaret J. McLaughlin
Margaret J. McLaughlin, PhD
Professor and Associate Dean, Special Education
University of Maryland, College Park

Instructional Strategy or Intervention

Another way teachers often help struggling students is to implement an instructional intervention or strategy, both of which involve teaching the students to work through a series of steps to improve in an area of deficit or remediate a certain set of skills. Unlike accommodations, strategies or interventions do not specifically address the barriers presented by a student’s disability; rather, they address a skill or knowledge deficit. To further complicate matters, accommodations can be used in conjunction with interventions. The table below lists a few areas in which students often struggle and contrasts example instructional interventions or strategies with examples of accommodations that might be used to help students be successful in class.

Area of Deficit Example Instructional Intervention or Strategy Example Accommodations
Reading comprehension Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR)
  • Visual cues (e.g., color coding key information)
  • Digital text that provides definitions
  • Alternate formats (e.g., diagrams, pictures, hands-on activities)
Mathematics computation Mnemonic device (e.g., Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally)
  • Calculator
  • Concrete objects or manipulatives
  • Sheet of basic math facts
Regulating behavior Self-monitoring of behavior
  • Separate setting (e.g., different room for testing)
  • Preferential seating (e.g., near teacher)
  • Study carrels

For Your Information

Teachers might believe that, if they are already using differentiated instruction or Universal Design for Learning (UDL), they do not need to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. Although these approaches might meet the needs of many, some students with disabilities will require the further support or services that accommodations offer.


Each of the following scenarios introduces a student with a disability and identifies his or her related challenge. For each student, the teacher implements several types of supports. Determine whether each support is an accommodation, modification, or strategy/intervention.

  1. Danica, a student with a learning disability (LD), struggles with writing. Her teacher has assigned the class to research a planet using a minimum of three sources and then to write a five-paragraph essay about that planet. Because Danica produces few complete sentences and ideas when given a writing task, her teacher implements several types of support to help her complete the assignment.

    TREE (Topic sentence, Reason, Explanation, Ending), a mnemonic device student can use to organize their ideas



    The teacher color codes key information in her materials



    Shorten the writing assignment to one paragraph containing three facts



  2. A 6th-grade student with ADHD, Brody has difficulty organizing his time. His social studies teacher assigns a long-term project that involves researching the history of their town. The assignment includes the following requirements: visit the local library to complete a demographic information sheet, interview three people who have lived in the town since childhood, and create a presentation using that information. Because the teacher knows that Brody has difficulty completing long-term assignments by the due date, she implements several types of support to help him to do so.

    Break the assignment into smaller pieces (e.g., week 1—visit the local library to complete demographic information sheet; weeks 2 and 3— interview three people who have lived in the town since childhood)



    Teach the student to schedule and monitor his time



    Complete a homework packet on the same topic instead of the project



  3. Aliyah, a middle school student with muscular dystrophy, often experiences physical fatigue. She is a highly motivated student and excels academically. Her language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies teachers typically assign homework that requires access to the textbooks used in each of these classes. Because her teachers realize that carrying heavy textbooks home each night is difficult for Aliyah, they implement several types of support to help her complete her assignments.

    Provide access to online textbooks



    Provide a different assignment that does not require the textbook



    Allow her to keep a set of textbooks at home



  4. Ahmed, a high school student with an intellectual disability, reads at a 2nd-grade level. Because he has difficulty with decoding words, he is not able to read fluently enough to comprehend what he has read. His special education teacher has noticed that he typically understands and remembers the information that she presents orally. For this reason, his teacher implements several types of support to help him succeed in the classroom.

    Allow him to use text-to-speech software—text will be read to him



    Explicitly teach phonics to improve decoding skills



    Give him a lower-level reader that provides fewer facts and details




Selecting an Accommodation

For some students with disabilities, instructional or testing accommodations are documented on their individualized education programs (IEP) or 504 plans. When this is the case, teachers are required to provide those accommodations. There are instances, however, when students with disabilities continue to struggle even with the accommodations in place or they begin to struggle in a new area. When either occurs, the teacher might want to try a new accommodation. If the teacher identifies a beneficial accommodation, the IEP team should convene to determine whether it should be added to the student’s IEP.

Before teachers can select an accommodation, they must first identify the barrier that is interfering with the student’s learning and consider how that barrier is affecting his or her performance. Identifying the student’s barrier can help the teacher to determine the type of accommodation that will likely support the student.

Consider Liam

LiamLiam, a middle school student, has low vision and struggles with reading standard print materials in a timely fashion. Although he reads at grade level, he has difficulty finishing science reading assignments in class in the allotted time. At first, his teacher was a bit perplexed: she assumed that Liam’s glasses provided full vision correction. However, after observing Liam while he was reading, she noticed that he still needs to hold reading material close to his face, and even then he squints. As a result, it takes him longer to read a passage. She wonders what type of accommodation will help Liam read text faster or more efficiently.

Accommodations are typically grouped into four categories: presentation, response, setting, and timing and scheduling. Teachers can use the table below to determine the type of accommodation that would best support the student given the student’s barrier.

Barrier Accommodation Category Examples
The way information is presented (e.g., text, lecture) Presentation accommodations

  • Allow a student to access information in ways other than standard visual or auditory means
  • Change the way that instruction, directions, and information are presented
  • Books and materials with large print
  • Visual cues (e.g., color-coded text)
  • Audio books
The way in which the student is required to respond (e.g., writing, speech) Response accommodations

  • Allow students to complete assignments or assessments through ways other than typical verbal or written responses
  • Speech-to-text software
  • Orally dictate responses (using a scribe or digital recorder)
The characteristics of the setting (e.g., noise level, lighting) Setting accommodations

  • Allow for a change in the environment or in how the environment is structured
  • Preferential seating (e.g., near the teacher)
  • Testing in a separate location
The timing and scheduling of the instruction (e.g., time of day, length of assignment) Timing and scheduling accommodations

  • Allow for changes to when and how long students have to complete assignments or assessments
  • Allow assignments to be broken down into smaller sections
  • Extended time to complete task
  • Frequent breaks
  • Shorter testing sessions

Consider Liam

LiamTo address Liam’s barrier—reading standard print—the teacher decides to provide him with a digital textbook that allows him to enlarge the text (a presentation accommodation). She hopes this will help him read more efficiently and complete science reading assignments in the allotted time because he will not be straining to read small print.

Implementing an Accommodation

As mentioned above, when instructional or testing accommodations are documented on a student’s individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan, teachers are required to provide them. For some students, accommodations are recommended for just one or two classes; for others, they are needed in all classes. By reviewing the student’s IEP or 504 plan, teachers can identify the accommodations and the context in which they should be implemented. As you will see below, there are a number of ways that teachers can help to maximize a student’s success with accommodations.

  • boy with headphonesReview the student’s IEP or 504 plan.
  • Know the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Recognize that, though some accommodations will be simple to implement in the classroom, others will be more difficult or might require more time to learn how to use effectively.
  • Allow the student time to practice using accommodations with content that comes more readily to them so they are not struggling with new content and new accommodations at the same time.
  • Be aware that students using accommodations might require more or less time to complete instructional tasks.
  • Recognize that changing demands throughout the school day might mean that a student’s accommodations differ from one class setting to another.
  • Understand how the classroom environment can affect the student’s successful use of his or her accommodations.
  • Be aware of how the student perceives the recommended accommodations (e.g., does your student think his accommodation is useful, embarrassing?).
  • Monitor the student’s progress regularly because needs can change over time.

  • braille keyboardLearn about each student’s equipment needs (e.g., software, devices).
  • Create seating arrangements that support the use of devices without excluding the student from the class. The proper use of many devices requires proximity to an electrical outlet or additional space. However, students should not be isolated—for example, in the back of the classroom—solely for the purpose of accessing an outlet.
  • Set aside space for equipment when it is not in use. Placing the equipment in a safe location protects it from damage.
  • Be sure the audio option is enabled on computers for students who use the synthesized voice feature. Often, computers in classrooms, libraries, or labs have the audio option disabled to reduce noise and distractions. To prevent disrupting other students, provide headphones.
  • Be sure the settings on the computer or text reader (e.g., font size, boldface, speed of braille refreshable text) match the needs of the student. Failing to pre-set these can waste valuable classroom time.
  • Obtain appropriate devices or services (e.g., USB drives, cloud storage) for saving and transporting data files. Students may need to access the files away from the classroom or on different equipment (e.g., a personal laptop).

  • teacher with papers

    Attend trainings about accommodations to understand specific policies and guidelines for your state.

  • Collaborate and communicate with knowledgeable individuals (e.g., special education teachers, parents, students).
  • Read professional journals.
  • View reputable Websites:

  • filling in a bubble chartProvide only the testing accommodations listed on the student’s IEP or 504 plan.
  • Understand that an accommodation might be permissible in one condition but not in another (e.g., a text reader can be used during a comprehension test, but not during a test that measures decoding skills).
  • Allow opportunities for students to become familiar with an accommodation before having to use it in a testing situation. In fact, some states require that testing accommodations be made available to the student for a specified amount of time prior to the day of testing.
  • Be aware that an accommodation might be allowed for a classroom assessment but not for a standardized assessment.
  • Be familiar with the assessment accommodations allowed in your state for standardized tests. Each state has policies and regulations that determine allowable accommodations according to the standardized test being administered.

With careful planning and consideration, teachers can provide accommodations to their students effectively and efficiently. With individualized accommodations in place, these students are more likely to successfully access and demonstrate learning.

Accommodations can be bundled—that is, used in combination—depending on a student’s individual needs. It is possible to bundle accommodations within the same category (e.g., two presentation accommodations) or from different categories (e.g., presentation and setting accommodations). However, teachers might want to start by implementing only one accommodation. This will allow the teacher to collect data on a single accommodation, evaluate its effectiveness, and determine whether it is practical for use in the classroom. After effectively implementing one accommodation, the teacher can implement another that might benefit the student.

Candace Cortiella offers some suggestions about providing accommodations and sounds a cautionary note about providing too many (time: 1:09).

View Transcript

Candace Cortiella
Candace Cortiella
Director, The Advocacy Institute
Washington, DC


For Your Information

Implementing accommodations can require thoughtfulness and planning to meet the needs of individual students. Therefore, teachers should avoid:

  • Providing the same accommodation to all students with disabilities out of convenience
  • Disregarding an accommodation because only one or a few students need it or because it is difficult to implement
  • Believing that only the special education teacher provides accommodations

Evaluating Effectiveness

To determine whether an accommodation is effective, teachers should evaluate whether it is having the desired impact on the student’s performance. To do this, teachers need objective, as opposed to subjective, data on which to base their instructional decisions. Teachers can evaluate students’ performance by following the steps outlined below.

Step 1. Determine how to measure the expected outcome. The type of data the teacher needs to collect will vary, depending on what aspect of the student’s performance they want to measure. To provide the most accurate picture of the changes in student performance they expect to see, the teacher can measure one of the following:

  • Speed or rate: The amount of time a student takes to complete a task (e.g., the number of problems completed correctly in ten minutes)
  • Accuracy: The number of problems or percent of the work that a student completes correctly (e.g., the percent of questions answered correctly on a test)
  • Duration: How long a student engages in a specific behavior (e.g., time on-task during independent classwork)
  • Frequency: The number of times a behavior occurs within a given period (e.g., the number of completed homework assignments per week; the number of times the student initiates a conversation)
  • Latency: The time between when a direction is given and when the student complies (e.g., how much time passes between when an instruction is provided and the behavior begins)

Step 2. Collect data on the student’s current performance (i.e., baseline data). The teacher should first collect baseline data on the aspect of student’s performance she wishes to change. It is important to collect these data before implementing the accommodation so the teacher can compare the student’s performance before and after the accommodation is implemented. To collect these data, the teacher must use a data-collection form. These forms will vary depending on what aspect of the student’s performance is being measured. Click below to view examples of duration and frequency data-collection forms.

Step 3. Collect data during implementation of the accommodation. While implementing the accommodation, the teacher should collect data on the student’s performance using the same data collection method used to collect the baseline data. A good rule of thumb is to collect four to six data points before evaluating effectiveness.

Step 4. Evaluate the effect of the accommodation. The teacher can compare the implementation data to the baseline data to evaluate whether an accommodation has had the desired effect on a student’s performance. Often, the best way to do this comparison is to graph the data to create a visual representation of how the student has responded to the accommodation.

Consider Liam

LiamEach day, Liam’s science teacher devotes the first portion of the period to independently reading a section of the textbook before discussing it with the class as a group. Recall that Liam has difficulty finishing science reading assignments in class in the allotted time due to his difficulty reading standard print materials. Follow along as the teacher evaluates the effectiveness of the selected accommodation, a digital textbook that allows him to enlarge the text.

Step 1 – Determine how to measure the expected outcome. Liam will record the number of pages he reads in the allotted time each day and the number of pages assigned.

Step 2 – Collect baseline data. Before providing a digital textbook of the science text, Liam records the number of pages of the assignment he reads each day over the course of five days. (See the data collection form and graph below.)

Step 3 – Collect implementation data. After introducing the accommodation, Liam records the number of pages of the assignment he completes for five days. (See the data collection form and graph below.)

Step 4 – Compare implementation data to the baseline data. To determine whether the accommodation was effective, the teacher and Liam graph the data. When they compare Liam’s baseline and implementation data, she determines that the accommodation has had a positive effect on Liam’s performance. (See the data collection form and graph below.)


Date Number of Pages Read Percent of Text Read
M 9/4 4/10 40%
T 9/5 3/7 43%
W 9/6 4/7 57%
TH 9/7 2/8 25%
FR 9/8 4/9 45%


Date Number of Pages Read Percent of Text Read
M 9/11 7/10 70%
T 9/12 7/9 78%
W 9/13 6/7 86%
TH 9/14 8/8 100%
FR 9/15 10/10 100%

Liam's graph

For Your Information

In addition to collecting data, when they evaluate the effectiveness of accommodations teachers should also consider the following:

  1. Did the student use the accommodation consistently?
  2. Did the accommodation allow the student to fully access the learning opportunity?
  3. Did the accommodation allow the student to learn and respond to the lesson as well as his or her peers?
  4. Did the accommodation allow the student to feel like a member of the class?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” the student might refuse to use the accommodation, regardless of how effective it may be. It is also possible that the accommodation might be isolating the student from her classmates. To address such issues, the teacher may wish to consider changes to the accommodation or to the manner in which it is implemented.


Beech, M. (2010). Accommodations: Assisting students with disabilities. Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services, Florida Department of Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED565777.pdf

Beech, M., Dixon, S., & McKay, J. (2013). Selecting accommodations: Guidance for individual educational plan teams. Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services, Florida Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/7690/urlt/0070064-selectingaccommodations.pdf

Lee, A. M. I. (n.d.). Accommodations: What they are and how they work. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/accommodations-what-they-are-and-how-they-work

Lee, A. M. I. (n.d.). Instructional intervention: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/instructional-intervention-what-you-need-to-know

Lee, A. M. I. (n.d.). Modifications: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/modifications-what-you-need-to-know

Morin, A. (n.d.). Common modifications and accommodations. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/common-classroom-accommodations-and-modifications

Reed, P., Bowser, G., & Korsten, J. (2002, 2004). How do you know it? How can you show it? Oshkosh, WI: Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative. Retrieved from https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sped/pdf/at-know-it-show-it.pdf

Thompson, S. J., Morse, A. B., Sharpe, M., & Hall, S. (2005). Accommodations manual: How to select, administer, and evaluate use of accommodations for instruction and assessment of students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://osepideasthatwork.org/node/109

Print Friendly, PDF & Email