Modifications and Accommodations for English Learners

Acc and ModsModifications and Accommodations for English Learners

Knowing how to modify instruction and assessment for English Learners (ELs) can be difficult. There are multiple considerations to be made and factors that might make an accommodation appropriate for one student and not for another. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act stated that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  The courts consider language to fall under the phrase “national origin.” That discrimination includes grading practices that do not take into account the student’s English language ability. Then in 1974 Lau v. Nichols, the courts further asserted that English Learners could not be treated the same as native English speakers and that they required special considerations and instruction in order to have equitable access to the curriculum. Thus modifying classroom instruction and assessment is not just a best practice, but a civil right for English Learners. Consider the following guidelines:

  • Classroom teachers must know and understand an EL’s proficiency level in order to make appropriate accommodations. They must also recognize that language impacts not only the demonstration of knowledge, but its acquisition as well. Teachers must modify not only their assessment of ELs, but also their instruction. Testing accommodations should parallel classroom modifications and should not be used in isolation.
  • What’s appropriate for one student may not be for another. There is no one-size-fits-all. Considerations like level of English language acquisition, level of native language proficiency, access to resources, difficulty and type of content, and even teaching style will make a difference. For example, a teacher who uses daily note-taking may provide guided notes as an accommodation, while another who uses cooperative learning may provide students with vocabulary word boxes and sentence stems.
  • Modifications and accommodations should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are meeting students’ needs. As students gain proficiency their needs will change. Student needs may also vary from class to class or subject matter to subject matter. For example, a recent arrival may need more support in US history than in a world history class.
  • While students are acquiring English they often miss content information. Consider that students who have been enrolled in US schools, even as early as kindergarten, may still have content knowledge gaps and need additional background information and scaffolding.
  • Newcomers and students in the lower stages of English language acquisition may need instruction below grade level. In most cases curriculum maps are designed to spiral, with standards introduced with increased complexity each subsequent year. It is important that ELs receive instruction in prerequisite standards that lay the foundation for grade level content, if they need it. For example, students who have not mastered addition are unlikely to successfully master the concept of multiplication. A student who can only identify beginning sounds, will struggle learning about vowel teams if they are not allowed to progress through the developmental sequence necessary to attend to medial vowels with precision. Taking short cuts will only delay a student reaching grade level proficiency.
  • Lastly, modifications can be scaffolded according to students’ language proficiency levels.  Check out this article on Scaffolding Assessment to Access Student Learning.

* Please note, the terms “modifications” and “accommodations” are often used interchangeably. Classroom modifications is used here to indicate changes to classroom instruction, while testing accommodations is used specifically in regards to classroom assessment and grading.  Summative testing accommodation criteria are often state-mandated and vary widely by region.  See your local guidelines in regards to compliance for your specific area.

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