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Students’ diverse learning needs

“… take the time to know your pupils as individuals, understand their needs, plan and teach lessons that will enhance their geographical understanding; pupils should be treated as individuals with their own talents, hopes and aspirations.”

Biddulph et al (2021) 

Topics on this page:

What are ‘special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)’? | Finding out about SEND | Understanding the needs of individual students | Finding out about the needs of the students you teach | Bilingual learners | Disadvantage and underachievement | Gender | How do gender differences influence learning in geography? | Higher achieving students | Reading and references


In your lessons you will have students with a diverse range of learning needs. You need to find out about different students’ needs and consider how you can take into account any potential barriers to learning.

Ofsted refers to these ‘different groups’ of learners:

  • Girls and boys
  • Minority ethnic and faith groups, travellers, asylum seekers and refugees
  • Students who need support to learn English as an additional language (EAL)
  • Students with special educational needs
  • Gifted and talented students
  • Children ‘looked after’ by the local authority
  • Other children, such as sick children; young carers; those children from families under stress; pregnant school girls and teenage mothers
  • Any students who are at risk of disaffection and exclusion.

Source: Ofsted, Evaluating Educational Inclusion (2000)

As Temo (2018) points out, these groups are not necessarily homogenous and students may have more than one need. When you spend time in different schools during your training, use the opportunity to find out as much as you can about the specific needs of different students and how this impacts on their geographical learning.

Key Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021), Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 132-145.

What are ‘special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)’?

SEND is described by the DfE in the Special educational needs and disability Code of Practice (2015) as follows:

‘A young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions.’

There is a very wide range of SEND and students have different needs and starting points. Some pupils have severe, complex or profound needs that have a significant impact on their cognitive development. Others may have a disability such as hearing or visual impairment and have cognitive starting points at least as high as other pupils of their age.

Statutory guidance that must be followed by all schools is SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years.  

When you are in school find out about SEND by:

  • reading the school’s inclusion policy
  • finding out about the SEND Code of Practice
  • meeting with the SENCO (the coordinator for SEND or equivalent) to discuss:
    • EHC plans for students with special educational needs
    • the needs of specific SEND students and how they affect their geographical learning
  • look at some school-based plans (these may be referred to as IEP (Individual Education Plans) or EHC (Education, Health and Care plans)) for students in your classes

  • talking to any learning support assistants (teaching assistants) working with students in your classes and discussing the specific learning problems of the students they support.

Mulholland (2018) points out that there are more than 57 varieties of SEND so you cannot expect to be aware of everything from the start. She recommends that you take time to observe learners, not teachers, to increase your understanding of them and their needs.

You may be told that some students you teach have specific and identified learning needs, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. What is important is that you gain an understanding of your students’ needs. Research about particular student needs as appropriate for your teaching. Talk to the experts on SEND in your school. Organisations and associations, such as for dyslexia, can also be a good source of information.

To understand the nature of specific needs you will find it very informative to undertake some in-depth studies of specific students so that you can begin to consider the nature of support that specific students require. It is also important to identify not only their barriers to learning but also what they enjoy so that you can better plan their engagement in lessons.

  • Make an in-depth study of a specific student as outlined in Task 5.1 on page 136 of Biddulph et al (2021).
  • Discuss your findings with your geography mentor.
  • Consider how you can meet this student’s specific needs in your geography lessons.

Avoid labelling students with specific needs. Each should be treated as an individual and you must remember that SEND does not necessarily mean that students are low achievers. Students with dyslexia, autism or a physical disability, for instance, may be academically very able. 

You should also be aware that there are other common problems, such as colour blindness. This affects around 1 in 12 boys, with a far lower incidence in girls, and can present particular challenges in geography when analysing multi-coloured resources such as maps.

  • Refer to publications such Swift (2015) to find out more.

Finding out about the needs of the students you teach

Your school will hold information on all students and will have data on previous performance, attendance etc and details of SEND. This can provide some background information but it does not explain why the data is as it is and you should not draw hasty conclusions. Retain high expectations of all.

Ask teachers who know the class or tutor group well. They can explain what barriers to learning specific students face. Their previous geography teacher can help you to understand their levels of prior knowledge.

Look through student work books to find out about their previous work and the standards individuals are achieving in comparison to their peers. You could to use a diagnostic assessment task in your early lessons to obtain some further evidence.

Remember that some students’ experiences of school and their readiness to learn can also be negatively influenced by their home circumstances, particularly those living in poverty and those who are young carers.

Pook (2017) recommends talking to individual students to find out from them what the learning experience feels like for them so you can recognise their needs. She suggests you ask these questions:

  • What is their sensory experience?
  • What do they feel confident to tackle?
  • What tasks worry them?
  • What tasks cause them difficulty?
  • How would they like to be supported to try the tasks that they find challenging?

Bilingual learners

Many students in English schools speak a language other than English at home. They are ‘bilingual learners’; they are also described as students with English as an additional language (EAL).

They may be newly arrived migrants or refugees in the early stages of learning English; or be part of well-established migrant families who speak and write English well. It is important to understand their varied needs so you can develop teaching strategies to meet them. In particular, remember that a lack of competence in English is not a learning ‘difficulty’.

In the early stages of learning English many students are quiet in class, even if they understand some of what is said. Students may need to think or speak in their first language to access new ideas and it can take many years for students to acquire the confidence and more advanced literacy skills to engage effectively with technical geographical vocabulary.

Even students who are quite fluent in spoken English may have difficulty with reading and writing using geographical vocabulary. For many migrants, cultural differences can make the context of the geography topic unfamiliar, and this can present more of a conceptual barrier than language.

  • For information on students from the Asian sub-continent refer to Balderstone et al (2006). There are, of course, many students from European countries and elsewhere who also do not speak English as their first language.
  • See Biddulph et al (2021) pp 137-140 and Ferretti (2017) p 169.

Arrange to meet any teachers who have responsibilities for EAL in your school (or through a visit to another school) and:

  • discuss the different stages in learning English and how to structure the development of language
  • spend time supporting students and observe any learning difficulties they face 
  • seek advice on teaching approaches, classroom management strategies, teaching activities and resources to maximise students’ access to the geography curriculum.

Disadvantage and underachievement

You will have noted in Creating an inclusive geography classroom that social deprivation inhibits educational success. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2007) identified from research that children growing up in poverty and disadvantage are less likely to do well at school. They found that:

  • Low income is a strong predictor of low educational performance
  • White children in poverty have on average lower educational achievement and are more likely to continue to under-achieve
  • Boys are more likely to have low results than girls, especially those of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black African origin.

Other research also draws attention to disadvantaged groups and a report by the House of Commons Education Committee (2015) noted:

White working class underachievement in education is real and persistent. White children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group in the country, and the difference between their educational performance and that of their less deprived white peers is larger than for any other ethnic group. The gap exists at age five and widens as children get older.

The Committee noted the continuing problem in a further report in 2021.

“White working class” groups have been the focus of recent education attention but the data shows that all disadvantaged groups fall behind their peers at every stage of education; for some this is compounded by racism. In 2019 the Education Policy Institute noted that the gap in GCSE attainment between disadvantaged pupils and non-disadvantaged pupils had stopped closing.

From a number of research projects, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified that students from less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to feel a lack involvement in learning and they feel under pressure to perform tasks in which they were not confident. Therefore, they can display negative attitudes and achieve disappointing educational results.

There is widespread agreement amongst educationalists that a culture of low expectations is damaging for these disadvantaged students and high quality teaching is particularly transformative for them.


Educational research has also highlighted differences between the genders. The achievement gap between boys and girls has been shown to increase between primary and secondary school and females are three times more likely to go to university. The Joseph Rowntree trust found that half of all students underachieving are white working class boys.

There has been little specific research about differences between boys and girls in geography. Boardman and Towner (1979) reported that boys obtained higher scores than girls in map reading, and indicated that girls enjoyed map reading less than boys. 

Lynch (1977) reported that girls’ maps of local areas focused on their homes and they showed a more detailed knowledge of local shops, while boys knew about street names and were able to locate places on a map more accurately. Therefore, it would seem that boys come to the geography classroom with some advantages over girls, being better at map reading and with a more substantial knowledge of their local area.

Since the mid-1990s concern has been expressed about the underachievement of boys in geography; it is a concern in other subjects too, notably English. While examination performance improved overall, girls’ results improved faster. Teachers often observe that written assessments, especially where longer responses are required, discriminate in favour of girls, while boys appear to enjoy using computers and discussing geography more than writing about it.

Girls tend to plan and organise their work more effectively than boys and are also more able to apply their skills to different learning contexts. Teachers also comment that boys interrupt more frequently in class and answer more often, even when they do not know the answer; while girls talk less in class and in groups and are more likely to ask for help.

An NFER report by MacDonald et al (1999) noted that girls place a high value on the presentation of their work and they spend more time trying to improve what they produce. Girls tend to do more homework than boys as reported in the Families and Children Survey (FACS, 2003). 

It is generally believed that boys tend to over-estimate their academic abilities, while girls generally underestimate their abilities and work harder to compensate. Boys tend to act first and think later. Also, that girls like to think before they act and they are slower at becoming involved in practical activities than boys.

Ofsted have reported about gender and geography:

Survey evidence suggests that the gender gap is, in part, attributable to boys’ poorer attitudes to learning, but there are also problems associated with boys’ writing and literacy skills, especially the extended writing required for some assessments. In discussion, boys are frequently able to outline and recall the work covered and speak about the main issues far better than they can record them in writing. In particular, with some notable exceptions, boys’ coursework is of a poorer quality than girls. They are especially poorer than girls at articulating explanations and developing reasoned argument in writing. Frequently, boys will spend more time on describing processes and graphing and mapping data but they appear less interested in interpreting and analysing this in depth. This often inhibits them from attaining the higher levels.

Extract from Geography in Schools: Changing Practice, Ofsted Jan 2008

Of course, although all of these differences have been observed by teachers and others, not all girls and boys conform to stereotypical behaviours!

Explore gender differences in your school by using some of these activities.

Gender differences in geography lessons

  • For some of your observations of geography lessons, focus on identifying any differences between boy and girl learners. Do you observe any of the differences described above?
  • Look at a sample of boys’ and girls’ written work in one class. Can you identify any common patterns that reflect gender differences?

Gender differences in GCSE geography

  • Read Butt (2001), then find out the GCSE results for boys and girls in your school in the last three years, and the national figures.
  • Is there a difference between the proportion of girls and boys opting to take geography at GCSE?
  • Compare the GCSE attainment of boys and girls, and compare these with national averages.
  • Discuss with your mentor whether different approaches to assessment, such as continuous assessment v terminal exams, make any difference to boys’ and girls’ performance?

‘Invisible girls’ in geography lessons

  • Read Bradley-Smith (2002)
  • Observe other teachers’ geography lessons. Is there a difference in the way teachers interact with girls and boys and how they respond to the teacher?
  • Spend some time during the lesson focusing on the quiet girls – what are they doing? How do they respond to the activities and tasks in the lesson?
  • Interview some of the girls and discuss their preferred learning styles. How does this compare with the findings in the article?

Higher achieving students

The terms used to describe these students have changed in recent years. Students used to be described as ‘gifted and talented’, but they are now usually referred to as ‘more able’ or ‘higher achievers’. Schools often use baseline data to identify ‘gifted’ students. This usually picks up the good ‘all-rounders’ but not necessarily good ‘geographers’.

  • Look at Table 5.2 in Biddulph et al (2021) pp 148 which shows possible characteristics of high levels of ability or potential in geography.

1. Meet with your geography mentor and discuss:

  • How do they identify students who are very able in geography?
  • Do they recognise the same characteristics as those indicated in Table 5.1?
  • Which specific students in the classes you teach would they describe as ‘very able geographers’. What characteristics do they display?

2. Identify one of these students and make an in-depth study of them.

  • Find out as much contextual information as you can.
  • Work with the student in a geography lesson and observe how they respond to the lesson, to both the geographical content and the tasks they are required to complete. Consider:
    • Is the student cognitively challenged by the work? What kind of progress do they make in their geographical understanding?
    • How does this student go about the required tasks – alone, in discussion with other students, with support from the teacher?
  • What kinds of task is this student asked to complete – is there scope for him/her to work independently in the lesson? Are tasks open-ended enough?
  • Talk to the student after the lesson and try to get some sense of his/her perception of his/her learning in geography.

Discuss with your mentor what you have found out about the student and how you can ‘stretch’ them in your geography lessons.


  • Balderstone, D., Dow, M. and Henn, V. (2006) ‘Geography and Students with EAL’, in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 27.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 132-145.
  • Boardman, D. and Towner, E. (1979) Reading Ordnance Survey maps: Some problems of graphicacy, Teaching Research Unit, University of Birmingham.
  • Bradley-Smith, P. (2002) ‘Closing the gender gap in geography: Update 2 – “invisible” girls’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Butt, G. (2001) ‘Closing the gender gap in geography’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Butt, G. Bradley-Smith, P and Wood, P. (2006) ‘Gender issues in geography why do girls perform better than boys?, in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Ferretti, J. (2007) Meeting the Needs of Your Most Able Students: Geography, Routledge: London.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’, in Jones, M. (ed) ,The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical AssociationChapter 13.
  • International Dyslexia Association (2017) Dyslexia in the Classroom: What Every Teacher Needs to know.
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2007) Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage.
  • Mulholland, M. (2018) ‘SEND and the art of detection: An evidence based approach to supporting learners’, The profession (Chartered College of Teaching), June.
  • Swift, D. (2005) Meeting Special Educational Needs in the Classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Temo, M. (2018) ‘Supporting the diverse needs of learners’, The profession (Chartered College of Teaching), June.


  • Department for Education and Department of Health and Social Care SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years Statutory guidance 2020.
  • House of Commons Education Committee (2015) ‘Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children’.
  • House of Commons Education Committee (2021),‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’.
  • Ofsted (2013) Unseen Children: Access an Achievement 20 Years On, London: Ofsted.
  • MacDonald, A., Saunders, L. and Benefield, P. (1999) ‘Boys Achievement, Progress, Motivation and Participation: Issues Raised by the Recent Literature’, Slough: NFER.
  • Boardman, D. and Towner, E. (1979) Reading Ordnance Survey maps: Some problems of graphicacy, Teaching Research Unit, University of Birmingham.
  • Lynch, K. (1977) Growing up in cities, MIT Press.