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Exam Accommodation

Image of scantron sheet with pencil on topWriting and reading in a second language can take considerably longer than writing and reading in one’s native language. As exams aim to evaluate student learning of course content, this can, at times, be a barrier. As such, faculty can make exam accommodations for multilingual students. The English Support Program (and second language acquisition specialists, generally) recommend several forms of language support including exam accommodations.

Why should I consider exam accommodations for multilingual students?

1. Even fluent bilinguals rely on their knowledge of both languages when reading in one. This often results in slower text-processing, to a lesser or greater degree for different students (Carlo and Sylvester, National Center on Adult Literacy Technical Report TR96-08).
2. The Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Statement on Second Language Writers and Writing states that “second language writers are still in the process of acquiring syntactic and lexical competence – a process that will take a lifetime.” As such, exam accommodation allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of course content without unnecessary limitation based on acquiring language conventions that take a lifetime.

How do I make exam accommodations?

  • Allow nonnative English speakers some extended exam time. 20-30 minutes for every hour that the test is normally scheduled is usually enough, although it can take some students significantly longer than that.
  • Arrange a different room for testing. Allow nonnative English speakers to take exams in a separate room. Some students find it helpful to read questions and multiple-choice options aloud as a way of processing the language.
  • Bilingual dictionaries can also be a helpful accommodation. Most students recognize that using such dictionaries too much during their testing cuts their test time short. It is helpful for them, however, to quickly remind themselves of the meanings of crucial non-specialist vocabulary like “exception” or “model” or “demographic.”
  • In writing intensive courses, we do not encourage the use of translation software, since it can radically alter the meaning, and a person with limited fluency in English would not only not catch the difference but also not be challenged to use his or her language knowledge to come up with a creative solution to expressing the meaning they want.

How can exam accommodations be included in my course design?

  • One option for time accommodation is to ask a smaller number of questions per exam. This may allow a native speaker of English might finish in a fraction of the allotted time but allow a nonnative speaker of English to complete the exam without additional time.
  • Create take-home exams or group exams for all students. With the latter, students collaborate as teams, with each member of the team responsible for a different set of material.


To learn more about multilingual students’ language use and how that impacts assessment, read Tony Silva’s 1993 article “Towards an Understanding of the Distinct Nature of ESL Writers.” If you have further questions or would like to consult with the English Language Support Program, please follow this link to get in contact with us.