Two terms commonly used when speaking of children receiving Special Education services are accommodations and modifications. People often mistakenly use the terms interchangeably, but in reality they have very different meanings and ramifications.
Accommodations do not change the content or difficulty level of the material being learned; rather, they provide support to the student so his disability does not hinder his ability to succeed. Modifications, on the other hand, alter the content or expected outcomes for the student. Based on the child’s disability, the Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Committee* determines if either of these is needed. If they are deemed necessary, this same committee decides on the accommodations and/or modifications to be used.
Another way to help understand the distinction between the two is this: accommodations relate to how a student learns something, whereas modifications relate to what he is learning. To better understand this difference, let me provide a few examples from my own experience. Many of my students had a difficult time decoding, so I would record the material, story, etc. and then have them listen and follow along with their copies of the story so they could successfully complete the comprehension task. For other students, staying on task for an extended period of time was difficult. To assist them, I would break assignments into smaller chunks, with short breaks between the chunks. In these examples, the content did not change, only how the students received or expressed the material changed, so these were accommodations rather than modifications. On the other hand, there were times when I would reduce the number of response options on a multiple choice test or decrease the length of a class assignment for specific students. Because I was changing the expectations for these children, they were considered modifications.
Some believe this to be an issue only for special education teachers. In fact, whether the instruction is being conducted by a general education or special education teacher, it is that teacher’s responsibility to know and implement the accommodations and/or modifications put in place by the ARD Committee. Therefore, it is vital for all teachers to understand the differences between the two.
*In most states this is referred to as the IEP team.
Mahadevan, L., & Peterson, R. (2015). Accommodations and Modifications for Students with Disabilities – What? When? How? [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.tcecconference.com/uploads/files/Accommodations_and_Modifications_MAHADEVAN_HANDOUT.pdf