Understanding accommodations for children with learning difficulties

When it comes to learning difficulties, there has been a shift away from the medical model where a learning difficulty was viewed as a deficit (or something wrong with the child) to focusing on a more collaborative approach whereby professionals are seeking support from all systems within the child’s environment, be it from the family, the school, the community or the government.

The current schooling reform taking place in the South African education system promises to significantly change the nature of teaching and learning so that all learners have equal educational opportunities. When it comes to learning difficulties, there has been a shift away from the medical model where a learning difficulty was viewed as a deficit (or something wrong with the child) to focusing on a more collaborative approach whereby professionals are seeking support from all systems within the child’s environment, be it from the family, the school, the community or the government.

In 2014, the Minister of Basic Education published the Policy on Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (known as SIAS). The SIAS policy is applicable to all mainstream schools, as well as full service and special needs schools. The purpose of the policy is, “to provide a policy framework for the standardisation of the procedures to identify, assess and provide programmes for all learners who require additional support to enhance their participation and inclusion in school.”

One of the major barriers experienced by those with learning difficulties has been the assessment process, often resulting in the learner dropping out (or more insidiously, being ‘pushed out’).  There has been a shift away from formal, standardised tests which were created for a norm group of typically developing individuals, to more informal evaluation procedures used in the classroom. However, even with this shift, a learner still needs to be able to complete final matric examinations – formal assessments – therefore it is imperative that children with complex learning needs be afforded multiple pathways for both learning and assessment. When accommodations are put into place during the daily functioning in the classroom, the learners should be able to transfer these accommodations naturally across into an assessment situation.

What is an accommodation?

Essentially, an accommodation is a modification made to tests or testing conditions that allow a student to demonstrate his or her true ability without changing the construct of the assessment itself.  Accommodations are aimed at helping move inclusion from just a theory into reality.

In general, candidates may apply for an accommodation if he/she has a permanent or temporary physical difficulty or an intrinsic specific learning barrier. In other words, those who experience barriers to learning arising from a disability, learning difficulty, learning disability, behavioural or psycho-social disorder which prevents them from achieving according to their potential during assessments.

The various types of accommodations available in South Africa

Adaptation of Paper / Rephrased Examination Paper

The paper is adapted depending on the needs of the candidate or specifically where the language has been rephrased for candidates who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Additional Time

A certain amount of additional time is allocated per hour of examination, based on the severity of needs. This can be from 5mins per hour up to 20 minutes per hour. Additional time applies to all subjects the learner is writing.


The candidate is assigned a reader and scribe for assessments.


Exam papers can be offered in the appropriate Braille code.


This is used in the case where a candidate needs a computer to type his / her answers.

Enlarged print

Visually impaired candidates make use of a paper with enlarged print.


An exemption from a candidate’s first additional language and mathematics/mathematic literacy is offered if a candidate

  • experiences severe and intrinsic barriers in Maths/Maths Literacy;
  • or perhaps the learner experiences an intrinsic barrier to learning which manifests as dysphasia (a language disorder marked by deficiency in the generation of speech, and sometimes also in its comprehension)
  • or if the candidate has a specific hearing impediment.


Where a candidate’s handwriting is difficult to decipher, a sticker is placed on their answer booklet in order for the marker to be aware that the handwriting must be accommodated.

Medication/food intake

Learners may require an opportunity to take medication during an examination and/or have access to food and beverages used to maintain sugar levels and treat low blood sugars.

Personal or Practical assistant

Some examining boards will allow a practical or personal assistant to accommodate a candidate’s specific needs (such as turning of pages or holding a beaker in a science examination).


Some candidates may need refocusing either with a verbal or physical cue.

(Electronic/Human) reader

A reader refers to a person who reads all text in an examination paper to a learner. Certain examining boards are more willing to allow a candidate to make use of an electronic reader such as a C-Pen, which is a portable, pocket-sized device that reads exam texts out loud in an English, human-sounding, digital voice.

Rest breaks

A rest break is a period of time when the learner is not required to be at his/her desk but must remain in the examination venue. Rest break time does not count as extra writing time.


This is someone who records verbatim what the candidate dictates or expresses through a sign language interpreter. This will happen in cases where the learner’s writing ability or physical disability prevents him or her from giving a true account of his or her knowledge and competence.  

Separate venue

Is a quiet venue away from main examination room and many of the accommodations already mentioned require a separate venue.  

Specific equipment

This is specific to each candidate’s needs- such as special reading equipment for the visually impaired learners.


This accommodation is given to those children who have a significant difficulty with spelling shown in standardised scores and written samples. A spelling sticker is usually placed on the candidate’s examination script to indicate the accommodation in order for the examiner to ignore spelling as long as it can be deciphered phonetically. This does not include language papers where spelling or textual editing is being examined 

What is your role as a parent?

If you are a parent of a child needing an accommodation, then you need to be your child’s biggest advocate. It is vital that you keep records of any intervention that has been put in place – be it remedial therapy in Grade Two, Occupational Therapy sessions in nursery school, or consultations with Medical Professionals regarding suspected difficulties. The more historical evidence you are able to submit, the greater the chances your child has of receiving the necessary accommodations. It is important to note that the school submits the documents to the examining board on your child’s behalf, so speak to the Head of Learning Support and ensure that they have all additional documentation from you that is relevant to the application process. Some information that is relevant to document and submit may be:

  • a recent psycho-educational assessment report
  • any medical evidence such as prescribed medication or reports from professionals
  • reports of support received by the candidate (such as Occupational Therapy / Speech Therapy)
  • Report comments from the candidate’s current teachers is important
  • Samples of schoolwork in the area needing support – be it examples of unfinished work, spelling difficulties, written expression, or poor handwriting

All of these make for a stronger case and will be well received by the examining boards in order to make it easier for them to grant the candidate the applicable accommodation/s.

For further information on inclusion and accommodations visit

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