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What Teachers Need to Know About Academic Supports

Accommodations vs. Modifications. Strategies vs. Interventions. What’s the difference? Read on to find the answer and learn what every teacher needs to know about academic supports for students.


I’ll never forget sitting in an IEP meeting during my first year of teaching. As a new teacher, I felt nervous conducting meetings with parents, fellow teachers, and my principal. As much as I prepared, unexpected questions often popped up during meetings.

In one meeting, a parent pressed me on the difference between academic support terms like accommodations and modifications. I remember feeling panicked and my face flushing hot. I felt so confused about all those academic support terms. At the time, I thought accommodations, modifications, and interventions were the same.

I blabbed out some blibber-blubber. (Who knows what I even said??) But unfortunately, no one else jumped in to save me.

I felt embarrassed and humiliated. But looking back, I wonder how many others at that table were as confused as I was.

I did take the opportunity to learn the difference. That was twenty-some years ago.

Still today, I still hear the terms accommodation, intervention, modification, support, adaptation, etc., used interchangeably and often incorrectly.

I don’t want that embarrassing and humiliating scene to happen to you. So let’s dig into four academic support terms for students:  Strategy, Intervention, Accommodation, and Modification.

*By the way – read to the end and learn how to grab the FREE Cheat Sheet!


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Types of Academic Supports for Students:

1. Strategies:

A strategy is an informal instructional approach, method, activity, or practice that helps students learn. It’s a method of delivering lessons and curricula. Most teachers use a variety of strategies in their daily instruction.


Classroom Instruction

For classroom instruction, strategies should be specifically chosen based on the needs of particular students or the class as a whole. However, most teachers use a variety of strategies every day.

Examples of strategies include cooperative learning, task cards, Think-Pair-Share, and using graphic organizers.


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2. Interventions:

Interventions are more formal and are a set of specific strategies or procedures. They’re usually progress monitored, meaning data is collected. Interventions target specific skill sets that students must improve to close a skill gap. An intervention is taught in addition to the regular curriculum, not in place of it. It involves teaching new skills to help students overcome an area of difficulty. Interventions should lead to improved learning and success.


Classroom Instruction

In addition to regular classroom instruction, students receive extra intervention activities and lessons. For example, students may attend a small group or one-on-one instruction tailored to their needs in a specific skill area. Interventions can be provided by classroom teachers, support teachers, other school staff, or school volunteers.

Examples include DIBELS – Acadience, specific phonics programs, and behavior programs.


Students receiving intervention may take diagnostic tests and receive ongoing monitoring to ensure progress is being made.


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3. Accommodations:

Accommodations DO NOT change the curriculum or what students are expected to learn. Students are expected to learn the same curriculum, but the learning methods may be different. In other words, accommodations change how students learn the material.

Accommodations are commonly seen on 504 Plans and IEPs. For teachers and students working with those types of plans, accommodations aren’t choices; they are legally required and must be followed as written. No wiggle room.


Classroom Instruction

Students are expected to learn the same curriculum, but the learning methods may be different. Accommodations should allow students to learn in a way that is better suited to their needs and skills without giving them an unfair advantage. Accommodations are provided by various school staff, including teachers, special educators, and others.

A few examples of classroom accommodations include audiobooks, online textbooks, guided notes, and outlines for lectures and classes.

Classroom Testing

When it comes to testing, students receiving accommodations generally receive the same content, complexity, and test questions as students without accommodations. The delivery, test style, or testing location may be different.

Examples include students testing in a small group setting, students providing oral answers instead of written answers, or taking a paper and pencil test rather than an online or computer test. Those types of changes don’t affect the actual questions or content complexity.

Standardized testing accommodations may or may not be different than classroom testing accommodations. You’ll have to check your state’s testing manual for specifics. Every state follows different guidelines for standardized testing, and updates frequently happen in education.

4. Modifications:

Modifications DO change the curriculum and what students are expected to learn. Those curriculum changes DO affect the content, complexity, volume, expectations, and/or pacing of the material taught to students. In other words, modifications DO change what a student is expected to learn.

Modifications are often associated with special education services and are commonly seen in IEPs. They are specific and individualized for each student.

Classroom Instruction

Students receiving modifications are not expected to learn the same curriculum, so instruction or assignments are differentiated or changed. Those changes are based on the needs and strengths of the individual students. Modifications are provided by school staff, including teachers, special educators, and other school staff.

Examples include different spelling lists, reduced or different vocabulary words, different assignments, and a different grading scale.


Classroom Testing

Students receiving modifications commonly take different, alternate tests than their peers. The alternate test may be shorter, less complex, or entirely different in another way.

Examples include testing over different or less complex material, reduced choices on a test, different test styles (essay vs. multiple choice), and a different grading scale, such as Pass/Fail.

Standardized testing modifications can include alternate assessments in place of typical statewide grade-level tests. Guidelines qualifications for students are different in each state, so check your state’s testing manual for specific information.


One More Thing About Academic Supports for Students-

Now that you know the difference between types of academic support for students, one final important guideline to keep in mind is this:  Depending on its use, a support can be classified differently than this article indicates.

For example, think about providing a calculator to a student. If that student knows his facts, it’s an accommodation. If the student doesn’t know his facts, it’s a modification.

Ultimately, the difference lies with the intent. For example, if the intent of a given support is to lessen complexity, the support is probably a modification.

Remember – Use the information in this article as a guide, not as an absolute. Supports can vary across schools, districts, states, and countries. Use this guide as a conversation starter with teachers, administrators, and parents.

Always do what’s best for kids – no matter what you call the support.

Supports are meant to do just that – SUPPORT students and provide just the right level of help they need to be successful – no more, no less.

So – the next time someone asks what the difference is between an accommodation and a modification, you can pipe up with just the correct answer!


*HEY! Want all this information on a one-page reference sheet?

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Looking for an IEP Checklist of Student Accommodations and Modifications for your teaching binder? Click here or the picture below to read more and grab the FREE checklist!


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