Lynn Shafer Willner
Lynn Shafer Willner is a researcher on ELD Standards and EL Accessibility at the WIDA Consortium. In this interview, she discusses the ways that assessment accommodations are changing with technology. She also offers guidance on how to effectively implement accommodations for ELLs, adjust instruction for ELLs with disabilities, and focus instruction on students' strengths rather than the areas where they struggle.
Part I: A New Generation of ELL Accommodations in Assessment
How assessment accommodations for ELLs are changing
So right now, we're in the midst of a transition. We're kind of going from — in terms of testing, and we're going from the covered wagon to the spaceship. And so just, like, sometimes I'm saying to myself, "Rome wasn't built in a day," and this is, we're kind of doing the different steps as we're moving through. There are a lot of different changes that need to be implemented. Over the years, the problem has been that we've seen that accommodations have not been assigned and implemented well, and part of the reason for that is that accommodations are added on to tests after the items are designed. So you see that a lot with paper-based tests.
So with the transition to technology and these online assessments, what you can do now is change how you design items. To do this, you had to, have to add in a few more steps to designing the items, and so you're building into the items, like, more precision to how you support kids who have disabilities and/or have language needs or varied types of precise types of accommodation support.
What this means is that item designers need to start thinking about the needs of all students as they're going and building out the items. So you're gonna need to think about visual needs, about auditory needs, about kids with, who have print disabilities.
So we have these more precise accommodations that are being built into items from the outset, but also what we've realized over the past decade is there's a transition to tightening and narrowing what an accommodation is and realizing that some of the things that we thought were accommodations really are good practice for all students, so it's much more of a universal design. And if you think about those effective practices during a test that you can give to all students, there are tools that you can give to kids that all students can benefit from.
A line guide, magnification, highlighting. These are things that help kids attend to the test while they're taking it because testing is very tiring, especially for the younger kids. There are procedures that all students can benefit from and are kind of common sense, so we're talking about breaks, extended time. There are different practices that really make sense at the local level and can be locally assigned.
These kind of practices have been designed into the newly updated standards for educational and psychological testing, so the whole field is really looking at a much more precise, narrow definition of what accommodation is and how support can be provided to students.
Personalizing tests for students
There's been a lot of work that's been done across the field, so how can we go and use the enhancements in technology to go and rethink it. We're not just adding on bells and whistles to tests. What we're really doing is fundamentally reshaping how test items are being offered so that as we get moving and more advanced, there's gonna be simulations. There's gonna be new item types.
It's not just an add-on to the items, but you're really fundamentally thinking about how can you meet a broader range of student needs so you're thinking beyond the labels. So it's not just a label based on status – does a student have an IEP, or is the student an English learner? You're really thinking about student's diverse needs, like a personalized range, and, you know, in other fields, they're doing this with marketing, and they're thinking about how they can use data effectively to inform how you're providing practice.
But we're still in the early stages, so we need to think carefully and cautiously about how we go an effectively provide support.
A new generation of accommodations: Example from Smarter Balanced
One of the more interesting ways that items have been designed is done, I think, by the Smarter Balance Consortium, Assessment Consortium. This is one of my favorites, and what they've done is provided a way to rethink and provide supports not only for kids who have print disabilities, but also kids who have physical disabilities. So folks are building out drag-and-drop items, and they've reshaped — the test item developers have reshaped the layout of items. Sometimes, though, there are kids who have print disabilities or physical disabilities who have trouble with the layout, these new layouts, and so Smarter offers a different type of item design where the items are not arranged side-by-side.
The elements on the page are not arranged side-by-side, but they go top to bottom, and they provide extra space on the screen. So for example, if the student has dyslexia, you need a little more spacing. You need to be able to process, visually process that print on the screen. Also too there in drag-and-drop items, where the text is arranged next to each other on the screen, it's hard for kids who have physical disabilities, it's very hard to manipulate through the items. So with this streamline option, you can go — instead of dragging and dropping, you can manipulate through the items top to bottom, and then you can still participate so you have this classic design of the item that accompanies that same type of item.
So with the new design of items, sometimes you have a broader range of supports built into items. Sometimes you have two versions of an item that are presented. And if there are kids who can't get to that broader range, they can use that alternate version.
Getting used to computer testing
There are many resources from the consortia, from different online test funders. They'll provide you with practice items. They'll provide videos with test demos. Those are good places to start, but it's important to remember to embed that into instruction.
So we're trying to do this as part of instruction, as part of an experience, not after the fact, and if you embed the training that kids will have, the prep work to get ready to take the test, if you embed that into the instruction around close reading, about meta-cognitive strategies, self-monitoring strategies, it's much easier to get ready to, for the particular genre of online testing and online reading, and it is tiring to read off the screen.
When you're reading on the screen, you tend to scan. You tend to look through. Reading — physically reading on the screen is tiring. It's how we all end up wearing glasses after awhile, but what you can do is you can help yourself. There are resources you can call upon. There are tools that are shown on the screen that you can use.
Difference between accommodation and modification
Accommodations are adjustments to the way that the test is presented, the way students do responses, the timing or the setting in the test, and even the environment, and they help kids to be able to access the test, but you want to be able to reduce the barriers that are unrelated to what's being tested. So you don't want kids to be tested on something that's not part of the test, and so accommodations go and help reduce those barriers.
There's a big difference between an accommodation and a modification. You don't want to modify things. You don't want to water them down and make it easier. The whole idea is to keep kids who have additional special needs, we wanna keep them in the game. So we wanna help them to be able to participate.
So ours – idea is to look at supports that help them access that test that's being done. Another way that we're thinking about that, a lot of times we talk about support, so we're trying to reframe how we're thinking about concepts, and we're moving from just saying supports is more of a passive thing: "I'm gonna provide you a support. I'm gonna change the presentation. I'm gonna change the different ways that — the different parts that I can provide to you," and we're changing — if you switch how you're thinking about things and think about it more as resources, then you're asking kids to be more active participants in what they're doing.
So if a teacher is providing feedback, what you're looking at is what type of resources does the student need to go and access that activity, and what kind of reminders might you do to help them connect to the resources that you've already given to them in the lesson?
So what we're doing is we're a lot of — we're changing the way a teacher is thinking about how they're providing support to students, and so we're — it's going from what can I do for you to what can I do to help you help yourself? And we're trying to move kids to a more independent use of resources in the classroom, and our job is to really help them connect to those different resources so that they can go and grow into independent thinkers and learners.
Matching accommodation to student need
It's extremely important to be able to match the accommodation to student needs, so you're — it is important to always be really in-tune with what is their need, what exactly is their need, but the other part is to be able to use that accommodation routinely in classroom instructions. The week before the test, it's a little late to be learning how to use that particular accommodation. If you're building the accommodation and the accessibility support into your lessons from the outset, then students can go have practice in using it as part of that lesson.
The other thing that you'd want to do is to look at if the — if you're providing native language supports, you want to make sure that the student has gone and had practice either using that accommodation in the classroom as part of instruction so they're — they may be receiving the instruction in native language, or that if they've come, they have the native language proficiency to be able to use that. So just because a student is an English learner, you want to make sure that they have the development, the literacy development in their native language to make sense of that accommodation.
There are instances, for example, folks will go and provide students with a word—to—word dual language dictionary, but the — if they haven't been using that dictionary and they really just have oral language proficiency in their native language, it doesn't make as much sense.
Another way to make sense about which accommodations you might provide is the state accessibility and accommodation guidelines, and if the state is in a consortia, you can look at those guidelines. Many states are now doing crosswalk. So you wanna check to see if your state is — has a Crosswalk document where they look through and they've seen the commonalities among the different tests, and that's a much more efficient way to go and look through for which accommodations might be provided with the test.
Keeping track of accommodations for ELLs
In terms of knowing the accommodation requirements for the tests that are being provided, it's important that everyone on the team of teachers and team of educators who are working with the student, everyone needs to be aware of what those accommodations might be.
For many years we've thought about this in terms of an accommodation mindset, so, you know, it's something we add on after the fact. So, "Oh, that must be the sp-ed teacher's responsibility. Oh, the English language learner accommodations are the responsibility of the ESOL teacher." But if we switch our mindset and think about the support and resources that we're providing and use more of an accessibility mindset, what happens is then you start thinking about how you can build this into instruction from the start.
Then it's gonna be part of the conversation. And so it's the team of the special ed teacher, the EOSL specialist, and the mainstream teacher, the dual language teacher. It's everyone together kind of talking about how can we integrate this type of support, all these different resources, how can we integrate them into instruction from the start?
Giving kids practice with accommodations
One of the things that I've kind of learned from over the years is — I mean, I did a lot of bean counting, looking at accommodations, how they're used. I look through the data for all these years, and there was just so much variability and practice, and if you keep thinking about accommodations as an afterthought then you're gonna find you're not sure about how this is gonna be working.
But if you add on support and it's part of a meaningful experience, it's not a de-contextualized type of old tool, and by the way, you need to remember to use this tool when you're using this and apply it to a situation, that's a lot to demand of a student to remember. And so we're working with kids who are trying to remember all these different types of supports and strategies.
You have to give them a chance to practice it in context. So switching to more of an accessibility-type of approach, you're giving a chance to say, "Oh, yeah, I remember I used it with this type experience. I used it here. I used it in this other type of experience, and I remember using it with my friends, and oh, yeah, we talked about it, and if you use these line guides, it's so much easier. And at the end of the test, I am so tired." I have to tell you, my own daughter was telling me she gets so tired — she's in fourth grade.
She gets tired during testing, and she's a native speaker. She was telling me she just — sometimes she wants to fall asleep, and she did that the other day. But the challenges, you know, if native speakers are getting exhausted, you need to think about how you can support kids in, you know, these tests where you're giving them tools to stay focused, to keep, you know, your eye on what you're doing and to be able to look at what you're doing and monitor and self-check.
Like, kids have a lot more to recall upon than they realize, and if you're empowering them to go and look at how you can participate in a test, it's not as scary of an experience.
Part II: Instruction for Dually-Identified Students
Building upon student strengths
I've had the experience where I've been in RTI meetings, and I've been — I've participated in IEP meetings, and the temptation is to spend the first 10 to 15 minutes saying, "Here are all the things that the student can't do."
And I have to say — I come in, and I wanna know, "Do you have a portrait of what the student can do? Can you tell me the different resources they can call upon? What's their background? What connections are they making? What do they bring from their home language?" So if you can point out all these different parts, and you have an idea of what they can do, then as a teacher and as an assessor and thinking about formative assessment, you can build on what they know and take them to the next step.
"Here's the resource that I can provide to you so that you can go and move on to be an independent learner. You can be an independent thinker." But it's really thinking about how to frame that and to move beyond, "Here's the standard and here's your distance from the standard." We're not about focusing on the gap because a lot of times the way that the tests are designed or the way that we're monitoring students is normed on students who, for example, are native speakers of English.
We might be testing them on their cultural distance or their linguistic distance from that test. So it's just entirely important to focus on what they can do, spend the first ten minutes of your RTI meeting and your IEP meeting looking at the portrait of what they can do.
Adjusting instruction for ELLs with disabilities: Auditory Processing Disorder
So when you're thinking about how you might adjust instruction for a language learner who has been identified as having a disability, think about it, again, how you're approaching this from an accessibility point of view. How can we go and embed what these different supports are that we might provide, these different resources embedded into instruction? So if a student has an auditory processing disorder, they're having trouble pulling apart the different sounds and processing those different sounds.
But a lot of times, it's happening at the discourse level. So they're having trouble following the extended directions, following and participating in those extended types of deeper discourse in the classroom. So we're looking at how we can go and provide them with access as we're going and providing general ed instruction. Can we go and have our speech in a much more rhythmic way so that they can go and attend to the different ways that the sounds are being produced? They can latch onto that with the memory support?
And — you know, in the ESOL field, we talk a lot about rhyme, rhythm, and chant, and this is the irony where you have some — you know, there's supports that are good practice for students who are learning language, but sometimes that's also a good practice for a student who has a disability, and I think that's the tricky part of — people have always been trying to pull that apart as to, "Should I be doing more of a language support or a disability support?" But you wanna think of — I think we need to move beyond that and think about how these supports work together and improve the accessibility that's being provided to all students.
So just like we're looking at the curb cuts on the street, that may have been designed originally for folks who are in wheelchairs, but then there are all these other purposes and other folks who have benefitted for the — from those types of approaches.
Adjusting instruction for ELLs with disabilities: Dyslexia
Another way if you're thinking about adjusting instruction for a student who has dyslexia, for example, so they're looking at text and the text is going together. So you can definitely adjust the text. There are a lot of technology tools where you can go and make the — change the font size. You can adjust the layout on the page. You can look for an alternate path where you're using screen readers. They might want to listen to stories. And it's not can a student participate, but how will they participate?
That's what we're starting from the outset. I have a colleague at work, Mira Monroe. She's always talking to me about this. "Not can, but how." We really assume that everyone's gonna be able to do this, and it's whether we're attacking the problem head-on, or we're looking for that alternate path, but there are a lot of different ways that kids can participate. In some ways, it's just broadening what we're providing, but other ways, we're giving them that type of strategy or ways that they can independently start asking for this and knowing as they get older, they need to attend to what they're doing.
Adjusting instruction for ELLs with disabilities: Dysgraphia
With a student who has difficulty with dysgraphia, so they're having difficulty writing, but it's not just the physical act of writing. It's processing what you're writing and how do you organize your thoughts, how do you keep everything in your mind to go and get it down on paper? And sometimes they need alternate ways to go and plan their writing. Sometimes they need tools on the side, graphic organizers, thinking maps to go and write down what they're doing, but it's giving them a lot of different tools and resources that they can rely on as they're going and writing.
Helping them to look independently and as I'm writing, and matching — you know, they sometimes get caught up in the spelling of words and having that difficulty. When is it appropriate in the process to be checking how you're writing, and how can you go and self-monitor as you're working through?
Giving students strategies to overcome difficulties
One of the things they say, for example, if a student has a disability, you really wanna break things down into explicit steps. It gets misused because then it moves into this de-contextualized, "Let's do some drills and get you — the steps of how to remember this."
What happens is it gets taken out of context, and we have students off on the side, and they're doing drills that are not related or not tied into the context or the different topics that are being taught in the classroom, and so these kids are getting confused because they're off in this decontextualized practice.
But if you can look at how, when you break down an activity and you've broken it down into the different steps, at which step in the process of unpacking this activity, at which step are they running into difficulty? And how, with that step, is there a resource, a particular resource that helps them to untangle it? And usually by finding the resource that helps a student untangle it, you can see, well, this is more of a language acquisition. This is just normal language acquisition, as opposed to this is something where the student is gonna need to be able to understand that, "I'm having trouble. I have something going on with how I'm processing sound, and I know I just need to go and apply this strategy."
So for example, for me, I find that I have trouble remembering things all the time, so I tend to write things down, have them on the side, have them ready to go, but I've developed a lot of workaround strategies to be able to participate and do things.
And I think as adults, we have — we all have our strategies, but with kids, sometimes you have to break that down, and you have to explicitly show them the different steps but also show them the strategies that they can apply.
Part III: Opportunities and Challenges in Special Education Identification with ELLs
Problems with special education identification rates for ELLs
In terms of identification around the country, you know, we've had places in the country where there's a history of over-identification. You look at what's been going on in the southwest. I mean, there are states where you can have — the highest rate is up to a third of English learners are identified as having a disability. And then you have other states where you have one percent or two percent of the students who are English learners are identified as having a disability.
If you're seeing up to a third of your students being identified as having a disability, something's going on where you're missing something. You're — there are students who are struggling, but it may be that they're just not getting the type of instruction that they need.
I think we're seeing an issue where students who are working through the normal process of acquiring language, but they're struggling, and so we need to find a way to help teachers who are working with those students, to think about how they can provide more accessible support to these students.
Some clues to the difference between "Difference" and "Disability"
Typically if you see a student is struggling, you want to see is it an issue of having access to instruction. So have they had that — the opportunity to learn that concept or those, that particular type of language, the structures and the features and the use of language? After you've given them the opportunity to learn that, you've provided them with the instruction, then you see if there are students who are still having trouble with a particular skill set or aspect of that type of instruction, then you can start looking at do I provide them with an alternate pathway? Am I gonna give them a tool or a resource that helps them to still be able to participate, or do I need to provide them with additional guidance?
If you can see that a student is able to progress in some areas but there's an area where something is happening that is preventing them from doing so, or there's a barrier that they keep running into under certain situations, that can help a lot.
So if — say for example a student has an auditory processing disability, and they're having — they just continually have trouble hearing directions in large group, especially if there's background noise. They can hear the directions if you move closer. You know, you're doing it in a very non-threatening way, and you're giving them additional directions, and you're providing the directions in a way that the sound is easier to process and to understand, that helps you untangle that there might be something with processing of sound as opposed to just understanding, like, these are new words and new structures and new ways of thinking about language and use in English, or in a target language, if they're in a Spanish immersion class or another language immersion-type of situation.
If you're looking whether a student has trouble reading English because they haven't been exposed to the word, they're just not familiar with that structure, and so you're providing them with those structures, and you can see that after you've gone and shown them these types of strategies for reading, or thinking about word choices that they're gonna be applying with this particular topic or this particular type of text, and you see — still see that they're having trouble, but kids who are coming from similar backgrounds and similar experiences and levels of language, they're able to retain that and to apply it and use it in context, if they're having trouble, you wanna go back to, "Okay, here's what they can do. But then when I get to the reading part, it's just when I get to this part and it's on the screen, and they're just having trouble unpacking that text because it's right on the screen. So you're really trying to narrow down to that particular step."
There is no magic bullet
When I was teaching, one of the things I found, there were days where, like, "Well, if we just had them identified as having a disability, there's gonna be a magic bullet, and somehow we're gonna get them to that, you know, special ed classroom on the side, and we're gonna solve the problem." And then the sp-ed teacher was saying, "You think I have the magic bullet? I'm not a language specialist. So suddenly you're asking me to solve this problem, and, you know, I'm looking at how do I go and help a student who's still learning English?"
And I think rather than waiting for after the fact to solve the problem or solve it on the side, we have to look at how can we integrate more support from the outset for all kids rather than expecting that suddenly by referring the student and identifying as having — them as having a disability, it's gonna solve our problems. I think it's more about how can we build more accessibility into our instruction.
And there's an oxymoron here because you think if I'm doing universal design, there's that world universal, and it sounds like then it's just one thing that I need to do that's gonna help everyone. So it's not, because the oxymoron is that you're providing more specific support embedded into your instruction for all students, which provides more universal support for all those students.
So at the beginning of planning your lessons, you're going and you're identifying what the kids with the greatest needs and the very specific needs, what do they need? And that's how you're going and adjusting your instruction, and then low and behold, it's benefitting all these other kids who are saying, "Oh, you know, this is — I did need the directions done as — with gestures. I did need to go and say things with actions, because now I know that I'm unpacking the directions using total physical response. I need to do my description of what's going on and say one, two, three, four."
But you have these different actions that you're doing. So I think it's — it goes back to just the whole curb cut, these curb cuts are designed specifically to help someone in a wheelchair, but then it benefits us all, whether we have a stroller, a suitcase, all these different types of needs. To support all, you need to do a better job of supporting those with those most needs. It's tricky to wrap your head around when — you know, when you're doing your planning. It's a change.
Lynn Shafer Willner conducts research and development on areas related to ELD Standards and Accessibility for the WIDA Consortium. She supports WIDA’s development of ELD standards-related materials and with research, materials, and guidance for educators who work with ELLs with disabilities. She is a member of the WIDA Standards Team and works closely with the WIDA Assessment and Professional Learning departments.
Previously, Lynn worked at WestEd, supporting the development and implementation of state and national English Language Development standards and conducting Common Core State Standards alignment studies. In addition, she supported the development of the PARCC K–2 Model Content Framework for English language arts and mathematics. She also worked at George Washington University, where she helped SEAs refine their ELL accommodation policies and guideline and created online trainings to support their implementation. Lynn has a Ph.D. from George Mason University in education, a master’s from the University at Buffalo in elementary education, and a bachelor’s in history and political science from the University of Rochester.
This video interview was made possible by a generous grant from the National Education Association.