Adapt and Overcome
Ways to Modify Curriculum and Provide Accommodations for Struggling Learners
By Faith Berens, M.Ed
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant
I am not always the most flexible person; I am a planner—it’s part of my “C” personality type. If my family and I embark on a trip, I like to know when we will depart, the route we will take, and where we might stop for lunch. When things don’t go the way I plan, I tend to get a little flustered. This is something that God has been working out in me over the years. God has used my husband to balance out this side of me. My husband is a strong leader, but also very laid back in many ways, having a calm and steady temperament. As a former Army man, one of the mottos he frequently uses is “adapt and overcome.” He frequently reminds me when an unforeseen obstacle or event causes our plans to go to the wayside, we must adapt and overcome, or change route, strategy, or tactic.
Indeed, as parent-teachers, we must learn to adapt and overcome, particularly when it comes to our kids who are not taking the “normal” or traditional learning path. It can be stressful at times when the plans that we have laid out for our children, the materials we have selected, or teaching methods are not working! Many parents discover that it can be quite a challenge to find alternative curricula and materials that are the right fit for their struggling student. One size does not fit all, particularly when it comes to teaching a child with special needs.
It is very important to differentiate the material and teaching strategies for our children as they do not all learn at the same rate or in the same way. Often, prepackaged curricula available from various publishers do not include much direction on how to modify or adapt the content, make suggestions for alternative strategies, provide a variety of presentation methods, or give ideas for alternative assessments at varied levels.
So what is a parent to do? How can one take the curricula and materials purchased for the school year and make them a good fit for your child? In this newsletter, we will discuss the difference between accommodations and modifications. I will offer general suggestions for modifying curriculum and provide the parent-teacher with strategies for adapting methods and materials to enhance your teaching skills. Finally, I will provide ideas that will help you “adapt and overcome” in order to ensure your child’s success this school year.
Modifications vs. Accommodations
Frequently, when working with special needs students, we will need to modify curriculum and/or provide accommodations. These changes help students access content, learn new skills and information, and demonstrate what they have learned. Thus it is important for parents to know the difference between modifications and accommodations and also when to provide either or both.
Accommodations are adjustments to the way we present material to account for learning preference. Changes might include when and where the material is presented, as well as how the student demonstrates learning or how he or she works with the material or information. Accommodations do not change the level of difficulty of the content or material. Common accommodations parents often implement for their child with a diagnosed learning disability include:
- Providing extended time on standardized tests,
- Using a reader,
- Using a laptop or word processor rather than requiring handwritten essays,
- Allowing a “scribe” to transfer answers marked in test booklet to a “bubble” answer sheet on a standardized test.
Modifications do change the level of difficulty. When a parent-teacher changes the quantity of problems, sentences or work load, alters the materials, or student output, these are examples of modifications.
Tools and Strategies for Success
1. Use Multi-sensory Teaching Materials and Techniques
Multisensory teaching combines three learning senses—auditory (hearing and speaking), visual (seeing and perceiving), and kinesthetic (touch and movement). Teachers teach in two or more ways, and students can express their responses in a variety of ways. So rather than just using pencil-and-paper activities, parents use various learning experiences, such as an art project or performance, allowing the child to work in his areas of strength. Hands-on, multi-sensory learning experiences are not only fun, but connect with real life and are very motivating for learners.
Some examples of multi-sensory curricula (this is not exhaustive-there are many):
Total Curricula packages:
- Weaver, Alpha Omega
- The Barton System for Reading and Spelling
- The Writing Road to Reading (Spalding Method)
- Sing, Spell, Read, Write
- AVKO’s Sequential Spelling
- All About Spelling
- Spelling Power (with hands-on activity box task cards)
2. Provide Powerful Teaching Tools—Graphic Organizers and Right Brain Strategies
Providing students with graphic organizers and visual representations is very effective. A graphic organizer is a chart, diagram, flow chart, timeline, Venn Diagram, etc. Usually, the graphic organizer is given to the student blank (there are books available commercially with ready-made, reproducible graphic organizers) or is presented enlarged on chart paper, over head, on a chalkboard or white board. The teacher and student work together to complete or fill in the organizer as material is read or presented. Students can fill these organizers in with pictures, words, phrases, etc.
Utilizing graphic organizers with special needs students is particularly beneficial because they require less writing, reinforce important concepts and vocabulary, and allow students to “see” a visual representation of abstract ideas and information. Graphic organizers can be used with students at every grade level and with just about any subject.
Right brain materials and strategies are anything that use color, pictures (graphics), and intense emotions as hooks for information or data. An example of a right brain strategy or method is making a flash card of a sight word your child is having difficulty remembering. By putting the word over a picture and incorporating lots of color, silly humor or strong emotion, with perhaps a short silly story or chant, the word becomes embedded into his long term memory.
One of my students was having trouble remembering the word “friend.” She kept reading it “fried.” So, we made up a story about three friends, f, r, and i, who went on Friday for french fries; some kids tried to get in front of them in line and they yelled, “Go to the E-N-D, END of the line!” We underlined the word “end” inside of “friend” and highlighted it with color. She drew pictures on the card, as well. From then on, she never forgot how to read or spell the word “friend.”
3. Tap into Technology and Adaptive Equipment
Adaptive equipment and assistive technology are very important options for many children with special needs. Some students may need to use communication boards, the Picture Exchange Card system, devices that enlarge print/text, reading pens, books on audio, as well as text to speech or speech to print software programs. There are even special calculators and online math software and that allow students to practice math independently while receiving immediate, important feedback. With the internet, smart phones, book readers (like the Kindle), there are many more options available for students, and we can utilize this technology to make content more accessible for our students.
Check out these exciting software programs:
4. Use Performance-Based Activities And Assessment
Performance-based activities are again, assignments that are not only for paper and pencil, but can include making lapbooks or flipbooks, dioramas, cooking, art, hands-on experiences, acting out skits and performances, writing songs or poems, etc. These are fun activities that incorporate real life skills, content, and information, but are more meaningful for students then simply completing a workbook page.
Now, you may be wondering, how does one grade these types of activities and projects? As a former teacher, often I used checklists and rubrics to award a grade or score to the student. These types of assessments should be laid out in chart or table format. The rubric provides number ratings and specific elements or criteria for a task or assignment. The individual elements or criteria for the project are evaluated, giving the student a total score. This is an objective way of grading and is understood easily by students. The rubric and checklist should always be provided to the child before the project is started so the child knows what elements you will be looking for and on which he will be scored.
5. Incorporate “Alternative” Materials
Sometimes it is necessary to provide alternative curricula for children who are reading significantly below their age/grade level or for children with developmental disabilities. They may still be able to work on content that is appropriate for their age and grade, but it may have to be at easier reading levels. Below are some suggestions and resources:
- Hi/Low readers-High interest, but lower readability and easier vocabulary texts
- Texts written at easier readability levels, for example, “Bring the Classics to Life” Series
- Alternative curricula for high school content, for example, Pacemaker Series or Remedia Publications
- Reword material and questions: Many times, language and vocabulary in standard textbooks and workbooks can be at an inappropriate level for our children. Sometimes the types of questions are at levels of thinking that are beyond our child’s grasp. By rewording, rephrasing, and re-designing the questions or material, you can alter the level of difficulty for your child. Judith Munday, private special needs consultant and homeschool workshop presenter, shares in her workshops and books about using Blooms Taxonomy, which is a handbook/chart that breaks down the level of cognitive challenge with wording and types of questions at the appropriate level.
Be encouraged that as the parent-teacher, you can effectively adapt curricula and materials this school year. There are powerful tools and strategies that can help your child overcome difficulties and be successful. By providing multi-sensory learning experiences and work, your students will have greater attention and retention. Resources such as graphic organizers and right brain strategies, can be used by everyone, at any age and grade level, and with various subjects, but are particularly helpful with struggling learners. Performance-based activities are not only fun and motivating for students, but they allow for alternative ways for your child to demonstrate what he has learned rather than just pencil-and-paper activities. In addition, alternative methods of assessments, such as checklists and rubrics, allow you to assess how your child is progressing and what skills are being developed and mastered. By utilizing technology and adaptive equipment, you can help make content and learning experience more accessible for your child. Finally, but most importantly, ask the Lord to guide your plans, selections, and to give you wisdom and discernment about how to best teach your child. With these tools and strategies, you can adapt curricula and help your child to be an overcomer this school year!