Differentiation is an essential component of successful teaching in today’s classroom. Yet it is far easier to state in theory, than it is to create such diversity in practice to reach all learners. Given the ever-increasing expectations placed on teachers, it is no small task to meet state standards in your content area, while including students with IEP’s, 504’s, English Language Learning, and other learning differences, in meaningful ways. Educators are faced with significant percentages of students reading 2 or more grade levels below expectation. It can feel as if the only two options that remain are watering down curriculum to keep everyone afloat, or rigidly teaching to the standards, with the acknowledgement that many of your students will spend the year feeling lost and unsuccessful.
The great news is there is a better way, that goes beyond both of these seemingly futile options. Accommodations are commonly known in education as specific to IEP and 504 documents, created to support a student’s academic needs on an individualized basis. However, there are universal presentation accommodations that can be made to teacher-created academic materials to provide greater access to content for all learners, without watering down information or limiting academic rigor.
Make directions clear and concise-
Assignment directions can sometimes read more like a train of thought, and lose their intent along the way. Begin each direction with an action word, to clearly state what is expected. Try to keep each direction/step to one line of text, and bullet each step. Make it simple and to the point, so students know where to go next.
Make vocabulary words memorable-
Bold or underline all vocabulary words in every document, for every unit. Build a strategy to support students’ acquisition of new vocabulary by making it stand out on the page. This will be something your students will come to expect all year long, and it will cue them of important words they need to know.
Remember the I Do’s-
Have an “I Do” example at the beginning of every section, every time, and when possible, on assessment materials as well. These examples are essential for subjects like math, but can be equally beneficial in any content area. Use them as a learning opportunity for enrichment (“Talk to your partner about something you notice about the ‘I Do’ example I provided”), and scaffolding for your students who need to see clearly what the steps to a process are. It gives them something to refer to later when they get stuck, or tomorrow when the content may seem less fresh.
Executive Functioning (EF) Support-
Paper supplies are at a premium at every school, but if you can, avoid making double sided copies that involve students having to do a lot of page flipping. Students with EF challenges can get lost in a sea of paper when the number of required tasks is high. Also, provide what is needed to complete a problem or task all on the same page. It takes added steps out of the process, yet keeps frustration levels low. When creating matching assessments, keep all items needed for that section to one page. Then you can be sure you are assessing your students on your content area, and not on executive functioning (which continues to develop into our 20’s!).
The debate still continues on the best fonts for students with dyslexia, but in practical terms, choose ones with easy readability like Verdana, in 12 or 14 font size. Also, avoid cursive fonts or when handwriting on whiteboards, unless you provide the printed version below it.
While these tips are short in number, try to avoid feeling overwhelmed, as if you must now overhaul every teaching material you’ve ever made. Start with something your students see consistently (like lab reports for science, or writing prompts for English). Test out some different presentation accommodations on small items, and then ask for your students’ feedback. What do you like about this presentation? What’s helpful? What’s not? Let it open a door of communication between you and your students on how assignments can be more accessible and easy entry, no matter the kinds of higher level thinking you will lead your students to later. If they cannot access your materials at the onset, they will have little chance of catching up to those higher level discussions anyway. Furthermore, presenting material in clear, concise ways shows ALL students the importance of clarity in our work. No matter the fields our students grow up to make into careers, they will likely be working with others, and sharing information and strategies to make processes more effective. Why not start modeling now, how to present material that is not only clear, but provides better access to everyone?
Erin Roof is a special education teacher at Peak to Peak Charter School, a K-12 college preparatory school in Lafayette, Colorado. She began her teaching career in special ed over 20 years ago, and has taught in 6 states and across multiple need categories, spanning grades K-12. In her current role, she serves as the elementary to middle school transition coordinator, supporting IEP students in grades 5 through 7.