The Difference Between Accommodations and Modifications

If you are a teacher, you have heard the words accommodations and modifications. Many times people use these terms interchangeably, but they are very different and serve very different purposes. Whether you are a general education teacher or special education teacher, it is important to know the difference so you can identify if you are providing accommodations or modifications as well as understanding what they mean on the IEP. 

What is an accommodation?

An accommodation is an adaptation that is used to help students access the curriculum.  These can be provided in a general education classroom or for a student with an individualized education program or IEP. There are four main classroom accommodations which are changing of the presentation, changing the way a student responds or demonstrates what they know, the setting in which they learn, and the schedule and/or timing.  These accommodations allow students to meet the same learning targets or standards as their peers and does not change the level or rigor or expectation.

It is important to think of accommodations not as giving a student an unfair advantage, but rather getting all students to the same starting line by giving the students exactly what they need.

Examples of accommodations:

Presentation of Material

This is just what it sounds like, it changes the way the material is presented or taught to the student. Some examples include, but are not limited to, visual supports to aid in learning, chunking the material and providing breaks in between, providing guided notes, providing a visual schedule, using audio books, assistive hearing devices, taking notes on a computer versus paper. You could even give students a graphic organizer to help organize their thoughts before writing.

Student Response

Sometimes students need to respond in a different manner to be able to demonstrate what they know. Some examples of testing accommodations may be allowing the student to use voice to text software when working on an essay or allowing them to record answers in a test booklet instead of recording them on  computer.  It may even be allowing them to answer fewer questions. The use of assistive technology can also be an accommodation that a teacher implements.


The setting in which students complete work can be changed to provide an accommodation too. They may need an area with less distractions or a quieter learning environment. This again does not change the expectations, the students are still required to meet the same learning targets just in a different location. This may look as simple as preferential seating in the front of the class during instruction as well.

Schedule and Timing

This is one of the most common accommodations that is seen. This can look like extended time or allowing additional breaks. The length of time should be different from student to student as well and not a blanketed double time.

Essentially, accommodations change HOW the students learn. These will help a student progress and possibly not even need them in the future.

What is a modification?

A modification refers to a change in what a student is expected to learn and demonstrate their understanding. Unlike accommodations, which alter how a student learns the same material as their peers, modifications adjust the content, expectations, or assessment criteria. Modifications are decided on by the IEP team and at an IEP or annual meeting. This is something that needs to be followed by all of the adults who work with the student and will be on the student’s iep for all to see.

Modifications can change the content taught and the presentation in which they demonstrate what they know. To be clear, even if you have students who are receiving a modified curriculum, it is essential to provide access to the general curriculum. This is something may teachers skip which does more harm than good.

Think of it this way: if you have a student who is in first grade and in the class they are learning to read. But your student still needs to learn their letters. If you pull the student from the general education curriculum for the entire year, now they are behind already and also have missed and entire year of core curriculum as well. This will only further complicate matters. There needs to be a balance between exposing a child to the curriculum as well as providing them instruction at their own level.

Examples of modifications:

1. Differentiated reading material: When working on a project students may have an off level reader that is more at their reading level. One way to do this is by using adapted books. Say your class is learning about the 5 senses. The general education curriculum may go into detail on specifics, but your students may need less content and at an easier level. Adapted books are typically easier reads that allow students to learn the general concepts of what you are teaching.

2. Alternate projects: If the rest of the class is doing a research project, you may have your students who recieve modifications doing an alternative project that has a similar concept, but again at their level.

3. Reduced work: If the general education program suggests students completing 10 problems a day, you can provide 5 problems a day.

4. Simplified assignments: Similar to differentiated reading material, making all of the assignments simplified. It is important though, to be always aware of what the learning target is. When you are providing an instructional intervention you want to be thinking of the target to be sure that you are teaching students the building blocks to get there. For example, if the class is working on elapsed time and your student cannot do that yet, you should work on telling time to the hour and to the minute instead of staying on addition. Although addition is important, your students will never learn time if they are only working on addition.

The number one thing that I have used that helps in these situations is when I have task boxes that cover a skill but has the skill broken down. What do I mean by that? Take this task box set of addition for example. It varies from basic counting using 1-1 correspondence to working on addition problems. This makes it SO easy to accommodate all students’ learning because I can grab out their exact level and have them work on it.

Essentially modifications change WHAT a student learns.

Both accommodation and modifications are an essential part of successful education programs. They also allow for equal access to the curriculum and allows students to be fully included when implemented correctly. Because there are so many different types of support, you have to look at the individual needs of not only your classroom but of each student to know what will be the best approach for them. It is also important to remember that you do not need to keep the same accommodations or modifications forever. The student may need a different support in language arts than they do in math. 

Accommodations and modifications are not just for elementary school students. Yes, as students get older there are state assessments that do not allow for accommodations. However, during the year a middle school student can be allowed to have an accommodation if it is going to help them be successful in learning the material. If the alternative is that they simply won’t learn it- I know that i would be allowing the student to have the extra time or the visual support they need.

When you are able to add in the right supports, you classroom instruction will become easier and more enjoyable because all of your students will be getting exactly what they need. A special bonus- when you provide these, there is typically a decrease in problem behaviors as well!

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