At the 2016 CSTA Annual Conference in San Diego, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation titled, “Bringing CS to Students with Learning Differences.” Moderated by Sarah Wille, Erica Roberts, and Steve Svetlik, the team at Outlier Research and Evaluation at CEMSE, University of Chicago, and the Wolcott School (an independent college-preparatory high school in Chicago for students with learning differences) examined the challenge faced by students with the AP CSP curriculum.

This presentation was fascinating for me, not only because I was a pilot instructor for the new AP CSP curriculum but also because I have been a licensed special education teacher for the past nine years. During my teaching career, I have been fortunate to co-teach a great variety of courses at my high school. This has given me an opportunity to apply a number of strategies for students that struggle with a wide range of disabilities. It should be noted that special education strategies are not only important for children that have learning issues, but they can also promote the learning of all students in your classroom.

Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning

Perhaps the most central guiding principle is that of differentiated instruction. It simply means that your teaching practice should be customized to meet the learning needs of each student. Achieving this goal, however, can be seen as daunting and time-consuming. But with some specific strategies and objectives, your classroom can become more inclusive and your students will show higher levels of achievement.

To this day, I can clearly remember my professor Dr. Maria Paiewonsky telling me that we should provide “multiple means of instruction and multiple means of assessment” whenever we deliver instruction. I remember being shown this cartoon during one of my courses in special education.

Universal design for learning (UDL) is an outgrowth of universal design for living. Imagine that there is a building with a flight of stairs in front of you. If you have a mobility issue, you would not be able to get in. If the stairs were instead replaced with a ramp, anyone could gain access. Instructional practice should be similarly constructed. Build differentiation into all of your lessons from the ground up and virtually every student can be accommodated.

Read the IEP

Every child with a diagnosed learning disability should have an Individualized Education Plan (or IEP). The IEP will describe the type of disability and list specific accommodations and modifications that the student will require to address the curriculum and make progress academically. This is a legal document and requires that you follow it carefully, Remember, these are not “suggestions” but learning strategies that are there to help the child.

Having read and written hundreds of IEPs during my career, I am the first to admit that they are not perfect. Guidelines are sometimes not very specific and teachers can find it difficult to understand them. First, make time to communicate with your school’s special education teachers. They may likely have worked with your students before and have a great deal of information on how a particular student learns.

Reach out to the guidance department and learn if any social and emotional challenges are impacting a student. Examine the student’s’ transcript and see what academic strengths and weaknesses they have. Listen to what previous teachers discovered about their learning styles. You will always be a better teacher if you are adequately prepared to meet the needs of your students.

Introduce yourself to the child’s parents or guardians early in the school year. Find out if they have the supports at home to help you teach the student. In many cases, parents can be your greatest allies. When they see that your concern for their child is genuine, they will often do what they can to support your teaching efforts.

Accommodation versus Modification

At a parent meeting several years ago, I was asked to describe exactly what special education services are. I used the analogy of a step stool and how it allows someone with minimal stature to reach a higher shelf. Teachers have to discover along with their students, the exact type of stool they need to learn to their potential.

Generally speaking, accommodations on an IEP should indicate what changes need to be made to how instruction is given. Some students struggle with reading disabilities. Can you introduce vocabulary prior to assigning printed materials to boost comprehension? Do you have a screen reader so students can listen and focus on the information? How about paired reading strategies so one student can help another?

Modifications typically vary the complexity or level of work you expect a student to complete an assignment. Perhaps you can give an assignment that requires fewer web pages or reduces the number of variables in a programming task. You can distribute code fragments and direct some students to finish the statements.

Collaboration is a key skill that I emphasize in my classroom. Look for tasks that can be equitably distributed among your students. Some will excel at presentations. Have those students be responsible for showing group work during a gallery walk. Remember that software development has many steps and a diversity of people working together to make a product.


You should certainly have rigorous standards for all and hope that every student who desires the challenge will sit for the AP examination. Do not consider it a failure if a child struggles with material or does not earn a score of 3 or higher. Students will take four years of math in high school. Most will not become engineers or accountants. Four years of English and few students enter careers as journalists or editors. Many of your students will not work as programmers but all of them can benefit from exposure to computational thinking, algorithms, and problem solving. Value learning and the knowledge that each student in your class achieves to the level at which they are capable.

Case Study

The lesson described below was one that I first used with my ECS class several years ago. It illustrates some of the ideas of how different levels of student ability can be handled if the teacher uses UDL principles when creating the assignment.

Students were placed in small groups of two or three. Each group had to write a program that would accept input from the keyboard and accurately calculate and display the results. I used the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) formula sheets for 10th grade mathematics and physics.

The group on the left wrote a program to determine the total surface area of a right rectangular prism. The poster on the far right used a much simpler formula to determine the area of a square. One group decided to tackle Ohm’s law with their code. While the complexity of the programs created varied, every group was expected to make a poster and present their finished products to the rest of the class. This also afforded the opportunity for students to teach others about what they had learned when writing their code.


Cast: Located a short distance north of Boston, CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning.

National Center for Universal Design for Learning: Founded in 2009, the National UDL Center supports the effective implementation of UDL by connecting stakeholders in the field and providing resources and information.

Goalbook: Great collection of instructional methods and tools used by teachers to ensure that students have an equal opportunity to learn.

How have you managed to work with the diversity of learners in your classroom? Please send me your comments and best practices to share with others!


Neil Plotnick works at Everett High School, an urban district located just north of Boston. He has taught both Exploring Computer Science and Computer Science Principles courses developed by Neil is a 2015 national winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) for Secondary Mathematics. Neil has a keen interest in Open Source software, especially Linux operating systems and how they can be used in the CS classroom. He welcomes your comments at



Sarah Wille's picture

Posted: 11/30/16 - 12:19pm ET by Sarah Wille

Thanks for sharing your expertise on this really important topic, Neil! And for describing the difference between an accommodation vs. a modification - a really important distinction to make as we talk about making CS more accessible for students with all types of disabilities. Hoping to see more posts from you about welcoming students with disabilities into our CS classrooms.