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Teaching challenge

Ms Garcia feels increasingly confident at identifying key content and presenting it effectively, building on pupil prior knowledge. However, she notices that sometimes pupils grasp key ideas quickly, while at other times pupils struggle to do so at all. Sometimes it is individuals or groups of pupils that struggle, at other times the whole class. How can she adapt her teaching to better meet the needs of all pupils?

Key idea

Adapting teaching requires assessment of pupil needs and appropriate teacher responses, before the lesson and within it, to enable a high pupil success rate.

Evidence summary

Adapting teaching aims to support all pupils to be successful

Effective teachers adapt their teaching to respond to the needs of the class and individual pupils (OECD, 2015). This doesn’t mean adapting lessons to different ‘learning styles’ such as ‘visual’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ as the evidence is unambiguous: while pupils have different learning preferences, they do not have distinct learning styles (Coe, 2013).

When pupils are introduced to new ideas, explicit guided teaching is more effective than pupils discovering new ideas without teacher support (Coe et al., 2014). However, pupils learn at different rates and have different levels of prior knowledge. Effective approaches to establishing pupils needs and adapting teaching are available. Teachers can check pupils’ needs through gathering information on what pupils do and don’t understand yet. Once they have, adaptations they could make include:

  • New information broken down into smaller steps.
  • Additional explanations and examples.
  • Additional forms of teacher support (Gathercole et al., 2006)
  • Additional stretch, for example through questions which extend pupil thinking, or removal of unnecessary support.

This is responsive teaching: using evidence of what pupils have understood to allow us to adapt our teaching to better meet pupils’ needs (Wiliam, in Christodoulou, 2017).

Responsive teaching does not mean creating distinct tasks for different groups of pupils or setting lower expectations for some (Pashler et al. 2007). Instead it entails identifying key content pupils might struggle with and options to support or stretch them, to make sure all pupils are successful. To make the workload of adapting teaching manageable, teachers should focus on a few key barriers and key adaptations.

Find out what pupils know, and teach them accordingly

Responsive teaching requires effective ways to monitor pupils’ learning (Deunk et al., 2018). If what pupils learnt was the same as what they were taught, there would be no need for assessment at all; however, we know that what pupils remember from a lesson can vary enormously (Wiliam, 2010).

Ms Garcia needs to collect and use assessment information to inform her key instructional decisions (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015). She can either use information to decide whether to adapt teaching between lessons, or within a lesson. To adapt effectively, she needs to prepare assessments based on key information she needs pupils to understand, to show her which pupils lack key knowledge or hold misconceptions and which pupils have a firm grasp of key material (Christodoulou, 2017). For example, teachers can use a sequence of carefully crafted questions and collect whole class responses to detect misconceptions and so more precisely target their teaching (Christodoulou, 2017).

Adapting teaching before the lesson

Some adaptations can be planned before the lesson or unit begins. It is good practice for teachers to seek support and information in advance about specific barriers to learning and specific solutions to these for individual pupils, particularly for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. A conversation with the SENCo or parents or referring to the SEND code of practice may help. For example, a teacher may find out that a pupil’s ability to write is impaired and print resources for them. Teachers can also draw on formative assessment data collected in a previous lesson to adapt teaching to either stretch or support pupils.

Adapting teaching within the lesson: worked examples and groups

Pre-lesson preparation can also support responsive teaching within the lesson, guided by the I-We-You instructional approach to get the right balance of stretch and support (Lemov, 2015). Teachers can prepare adaptations in advance and deploy them responsively if assessment reveals pupils need them.

If in-lesson assessment reveals the majority of pupils have struggled with a specific idea or question, teachers can use worked examples to illustrate correct solutions. Worked examples reduce the cognitive burden that pupils feel when learning a new skill by breaking it down into smaller sections, allowing pupils to master the foundations before moving onto more complex parts (Deans for Impact, 2015). Ms Garcia may choose to use an additional worked example with pupils who have not yet grasped a particular skill; or break down a worked example even further for certain pupils while ensuring all work towards the same endpoint. Pupils benefit from explicit teaching and hearing many examples and questions (Rosenshine, 2012) so, if in doubt, giving a further example will often be helpful, even if assessment suggests some pupils have understood the idea.

Ms Garcia may also want to consider how to adapt groupings within her classroom to ensure that she can best tailor support to individuals’ needs. Grouping pupils within a class based on their current level of understanding could help Ms Garcia more precisely target support. Doing so relies on assessing pupils’ needs accurately, providing all groups with sufficient support and maintaining high expectations for everyone (Coe et al., 2014). For example, assessment may reveal most pupils are ready for independent practice, but a few still need teacher support, in which case Ms Garcia may create a small focus group to support once the class is practising independently – though she must be careful to make clear that this group is based on attainment and change it regularly. However, this may be tricky to achieve without embedded routines and behaviour expectations (IES, 2008).

Nuances and caveats

Grouping pupils by ability has a limited impact on pupil outcomes (Coe et al., 2014) so care should be taken to monitor the impact of groupings on pupil attainment, behaviour and motivation.

The aim of responsive teaching is to support pupil success. If pupils are practising independently and struggling, Ms Garcia should still stop the class (or intervene with particular pupils) to provide further support. Similarly, if Ms Garcia’s assessment suggests pupils need stretching, she can let pupils move on to more challenging work, while monitoring carefully to ensure they are successful, in case support is needed.

Teaching assistants can adapt teaching for assigned pupils, for example pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. However, they need to be prepared for the lesson by the teacher, and supplement not replace teacher support (EEF, 2018). For example, providing they can further break down tasks during guided practice.

Key takeaways

Ms Garcia can effectively adapt her teaching if she understands that:

  • adapting teaching means identifying key adaptations and deploying them responsively to ensure pupils experience a high success rate
  • whole class questioning can expose what pupils understand to inform responsive teaching
  • teachers need to understand key pupil differences and potential barriers to learning, especially for pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, and prepare solutions before the lesson
  • worked examples and careful grouping can support pupils to fill knowledge gaps or correct misconceptions

Further reading

Deunk, M. I., Smale-Jacobse, A. E., de Boer, H., Doolaard, S., & Bosker, R. J. (2018). Effective differentiation practices: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review, 24, 31–54.


Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.

Deunk, M. I., Smale-Jacobse, A. E., de Boer, H., Doolaard, S., & Bosker, R. J. (2018). Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review, 24, 31–54.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Teaching and learning toolkit.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom in Pickering, S. (Ed.) Educational Psychology, Working memory and education, 219-240.

IES. (2008). Reducing behavior problems in the elementary school classroom.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

OECD (2015). Pisa 2015 Result: Policies and Practices for Successful Schools.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36, 12–20.

Wiliam, D. (2010). What Counts as Evidence of Educational Achievement? The Role of Constructs in the Pursuit of Equity in Assessment. _Review of Research in Education, 3_4, 254-284.

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S., (2015). Embedding Formative Assessment. Florida: Learning Sciences International.