How to equitably accommodate individual learner needs in the language classroom (a practical teacher question ANSWERED!)

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SalamMoi!
And welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re talking about how to equitably accommodate individual learner needs. Along the way, we’ll be sharing key points every teacher should know — including best practices for granting accommodations and misconceptions about what accessible instructional methods are (and aren’t) supposed to accomplish.

One common question teachers ask is this: How do I know whether a particular accommodation will be truly effective for a student’s learning vs. an unproductive crutch?

The truth is that you can’t always know 100%. The real question is this: which side do you want to err on – providing too many accommodations or too few?
It’s true – granting too many accommodations could potentially result in “lowering the bar” for your students, but granting too few could end up perpetuating unnecessary barriers to student learning. If you’re like most teachers, you spend a fair amount of time and energy asking yourself how to balance granting individual students accommodations while maintaining high expectations and a sense of fairness across the classroom. If I had to bet, I’d venture to say you’ve asked yourself at least one of the following questions at some point during your teaching career: Am I too lenient? Am I too strict? Am I properly discerning my students’ needs? Is this student trying to take advantage of the system? Are they getting the support they need? Would providing an extension for one student be unfair to the others? Am I helping or enabling their poor time management? Should undiagnosed anxiety count as a reason for granting an extension on an assignment? While there is a lot of gray area, there are a couple helpful points to keep in mind…

Importantly, you shouldn’t have to make all of these decisions on your own.
Unless you also happen to be a learning specialist, medical health professional, or trained therapist – you can’t possibly diagnose and prescribe accommodations accurately. So, don’t expect yourself to have all the answers or solve all the problems. For all the big decisions, lean on the expertise and documentation that your school system can provide — such as school policies, documented accommodations forms, and IEPs (Individualized Education Program). Of course, there are a thousand and one little day-to-day decisions about learner needs that don’t fall neatly within documented accommodations. For those, the main thing to remember is this:

Accommodations are meant to level the playing field, not lower expectations. 

Accommodations are modifications in the way tasks are presented that allow students with disabilities to complete the same assignments as other students.

Accommodations are not meant to “dumb down the content”, give students an unfair advantage, or lower overall expectations. What they are meant to do is make it possible for students with diverse needs to access the learning content and show what they know, without being impeded by unnecessary barriers. If peer students should ever think accommodations for others seem unfair, reflect on their perspective while also reminding them that “fair” doesn’t always mean “same.” In fact, so-called “neurotypical” or “abled” students benefit from modification support all the time; the difference there is that the types of support they need (e.g. tutoring, eye glasses, study guides) tend to be seen as “normal.”  Support for students with learning disabilities are not all that different. For example, if a student has a documented challenge with their working memory, granting them time-and-a-half for a test doesn’t give them an unfair advantage; it levels the playing field. That’s clearly different from unproductive accommodations, like routinely granting unnecessary extensions for a student who is taking advantage of your leniency. Now, we won’t pretend this is a clear cut science. It’s messy. But at the end of the day, remember this: your Northern Star isn’t “where should I set the bar for this student?” but rather “how can I keep the bar where it is — and help them meet it?”

Oh - one more thing! (don’t skip)

Stay curious. Best practices change, school policies shift, and supportive technology evolves. Speaking of supportive technology, if you don’t already use the Mango Language app with your students, check it out. It’s a great classroom supplement, and it’s also ADA compliant so that learners of different needs can use it (e.g. maintains adequate color contrast, works with screen readers including Apple Voiceover and Android Talkback, and makes sure our content is labeled with alt tags). To learn more about the Mango app yourself, check out our White Paper (get a FREE copy by signing up here), which outlines how the app’s unique features can help offer an innovative entry point for learners of diverse needs! Point is – keep asking questions, innovating, and checking in. The most important thing is to be intentional and reflective — and to show yourself some grace along the way. We hope that the next time you hear the word “accessibility,” it gets you thinking about learners of all different backgrounds – not just students with documented disabilities — because a classroom that is accessible for learners with disabilities is ultimately a better classroom for everyone. We also hope you found some inspiration for simple and engaging ways to provide your students with multiple points of entry into your course content.  Thanks for reading! Hələlik! Hei hei!  We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article, where we’ll dive into how you can make your class optimally accessible to each of your students while also avoiding teacher burnout.

Want to explore more about accessibility in the classroom? 

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English (recording language)
  • Azerbaijani | Salam is ‘hello’ and hələlik (hehl-ehl-i) is ‘goodbye’
  • Finnish | Moi (moy) is ‘hello’ and hei hei (hey hey) is ‘‘goodbye’
  • Italian | Bando alle ciance (ban-doe al-eh chan-chey) means ‘without further ado’ (lit. ‘ban the chatter’)
  • Interested in learning English, Azerbaijani, Finnish, Italian, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!
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Meet The Author:
Author - Emily Rae Sabo
Emily Rae Sabo
Linguist at Mango Languages
Emily Sabo (Ph.D., University of Michigan): A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics Ph.D. in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

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