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Teaching students with different learning needs

‘It will always be a challenge for teachers to help all their students to learn and make progress, given the fact that most classes have students of a wide range of ability. However, this is what you must try to do.’

Jane Ferretti (2017) p.181  

Topics on this page:

Teaching lower attainers including students with SEND | Teaching students who are disadvantaged, underachievers or disaffected | Girls and boys | Challenging more able students | Teaching bilingual students | Reading


The curriculum should be designed, adapted or developed to be meet the needs of all students so they develop their knowledge, skills and abilities in geography. Geography teachers are fortunate because there is the potential for using a wide range of learning approaches in the subject to increase the possibility of matching different learning needs.

The diagram from the DfE shows how the three essential principles for inclusive teaching overlap: setting suitable learning challenges; responding to students’ diverse needs; and overcoming potential barriers to learning.

The circles of inclusion

Key readings

  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’ in Jones, M. (ed), The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Associationchapter 13.
  • 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, chapter 5 Inclusion.

Teaching lower attainers including students with SEND

A challenge for all teachers is to have sufficiently high expectations for all learners. You may need to adapt tasks and resources to support students to make progress. But the Ofsted Research Review (2021) noted:

‘There is a need for all pupils to share the same curriculum, with the same level of ambition and expectation of the geographical knowledge that pupils should know. In the case of pupils with the most complex learning needs, there may be occasions when it is appropriate to modify the curriculum. However, this will be the exception.’

As explained in Students’ diverse learning needs, Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) is not one homogenous group. You need to be clear about the specific needs you are catering for. However, there are some overarching principles that apply generally for low achieving students and those with special needs that we discuss here.

For SEND students, seek specialist advice from those in your school. They will guide you on planning to support specific students and make effective use of teaching assistants and other adults in the classroom, when they are available. Find out what learning strategies and approaches they use regularly with SEND students so that you can include familiar approaches for them in your lesson planning.

You may find that a teaching assistant is available for one or more of your students. Discuss this with the SEND department.

Teaching assistants are deployed to support individual students, but since it is quite unlikely that they will have specialist geography expertise, you will need to brief them about the content of your lessons if they are to support students effectively.

You should use a wide variety of teaching strategies to encourage all pupils to actively participate, regardless of their needs. In the past it has been suggested that you should adopt different strategies to match different students’ learning styles, but research has shown this to be ineffective. Encourage all students to ask questions and contribute ideas to lessons – and listen to them.

While all students have different working memory capacities, those with SEND may have more limited working memory capacity than their peers without SEND. It is important to avoid presenting students with SEND with an oversimplified and dull geography. As with all students, they deserve a rich geography curriculum. Plan exciting geography in the same way as you do for all students. Engage them in the geography content of lessons and, wherever possible, link it to their personal experience to make it more meaningful for them.

Grab their interest with an exciting start to a lesson and check they understand what they are being asked to do. Remember that visual resources are often more accessible for students with SEND and they may be able to achieve more verbally than in written form, so involve them fully in discussions, drama and role plays; their achievements may then surprise you. It is important to praise their successes to raise their self-esteem.

As we have shown, it is essential that you do not set your expectations too low for these students. It is wrong to give them tasks that do not stimulate their interest, although tasks must be selected carefully to avoid any potential barriers or that could frustrate students trying to complete them. But this does not mean you should confine what you ask of them to the mundane; you should provide appropriate challenges and the SEND staff can advise on this.

  • Refer to Pook (2017) p. 59 for some ways to support students with complex learning needs in geography.
  • Refer to Freeman and Warner James (2023) who describe making geography accessible for students with visual impairments and provide guidance on inclusive teaching and adapting resources.

Some lower attaining students may be easily confused, and therefore be excluded, by unnecessarily complex teacher language. Keep it simple – for example, do not ask them to ‘compare and contrast’ but ask ‘what are the things that are different between …’. It is a myth to assume that lower attaining students will work more slowly than more able students; the reverse is often true because they do not tackle tasks in as much depth. 

However, accept that students work at different paces, and you may have to curb your desire to make all finish together. Structure the work so that it still makes sense even if some students do not finish it completely.

Take particular care when you are teaching controversial topics or those with complex geographies. Lower achievers may find it difficult to cope with higher level conceptual understanding and, because of this, you may be in danger of reinforcing any stereotypes or prejudices they hold rather than challenging them.

Refer back to the Finding out about SEND task and your study of specific students from the webpage Students’ diverse learning needs. Complete the readings and refresh your memory as to your findings.

  • Find out how the geography department caters for students with SEND.
    • Discuss with geography teachers how they use the school-based SEND plans in geography.
    • Look at any SEND resources developed in the department and explore geography textbooks for appropriate learning activities.
    • Meet with some SEND students and find out what the geography learning experience feels like for them. How would they like to be supported? Find out what being ‘included’ means to them.
  • Meet with a Learning Support Assistant (or Teaching Assistant) and discuss their role in supporting SEND students (in geography if possible).
  • Agree with your geography mentor a particular time when you will specifically focus on planning for students with SEND.
  • Use what you have found out from the in-depth study of individual students to plan specifically for the needs of students with SEND in your lessons, including:
    • planning some non-text resources and activities to integrate or support poor readers
    • designing open-ended tasks so that students with SEND can organise learning in the way it suits them best
    • teaching lessons in which you focus on using teacher interventions to support students with SEND in a class
    • evaluating each of these lessons in detail and discussing your reflections with your geography mentor
    • asking your geography mentor or teacher from the SEND department in the school to observe a lesson and provide you with specific feedback on this focus.

Teaching students who are disadvantaged, underachievers or disaffected

It is wrong to assume that all students who underachieve are educationally disadvantaged or disaffected or have SEND. Both disadvantage and disaffection can be a barrier to students’ learning regardless of ability. Also, some students might attain at what appears to be an academically acceptable level when they have the potential to do much better. 

It can be difficult to identify underachievers, especially if they are quiet and compliant in class. Some students express disaffection more openly through repeated disruptive behaviour, disengagement from learning and absence from school, as well as underachievement.

For students with short attention spans, a 60-minute lesson can seem a lifetime, so set targets for these students that are short enough to maintain pace and motivation. Structure lessons with a variety of activities or use a plenary half way through a lesson to take stock and change activities.

As a trainee teacher, you may be teaching a class for only a short period of time, and it is difficult in these circumstances to identify all the underlying problems that students have. Discuss this with the teacher who knows the students well, and look at Battersby and Hornby (2006) for ideas to inspire them.

The Ofsted (2013) report about ‘unseen children’ is critical of a lack of challenge, low expectations by teachers, lack of or inadequate intervention strategies and inadequate teaching of fundamental skills such as oral and written communication. Therefore, these are priorities to focus on when you are teaching disadvantaged students. If disaffected young people can be made to feel more involved in their learning, it is more effective for them, so discuss with your mentor how you can try to achieve this.

  • Refer to Battersby and Hornby (2006), which discusses ways of re-engaging students in geographical learning.

Girls and boys

From your reading you will identify that boys may underachieve. To ensure their progress in particular you will need to focus on building discussions into your lessons and developing their writing skills. But, in doing so, you must take care that you do not ignore the girls, especially those that are content to be ‘invisible’ in lessons as you may need to draw them into discussions. Consider the interests of both girls and boys and try to achieve a balance in the geographical topics you teach and the exemplars you use.

However, bear in mind that while you will rightly try to cater for multiple aspects of disadvantaged students’ lives, you must also address equality of educational opportunity. This means you must teach everyone well. Tom Sherrington explains this dilemma and makes a persuasive argument in a blog, ‘To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better‘, writing:

Boys are not all the same. If boys underperform compared to girls ‘boy-friendly’ strategies might not work for them all and may benefit the girls even more. Ethnic groups rarely have neatly homogenous learning characteristics that fit with definable interventions and often the group size is so small as to render the data useless. Every SEND student is different. Higher Prior Attainment students are not a distinct group.

He concludes:

At some point ‘intervention’ really has to be simply ‘teaching’. Given all the variables, uncertainties and unknowns, rather than chasing interventions, it is a far far better bet to focus on teaching everyone better.

Challenging more able students

  • Refer to the section on higher achieving students in Students’ diverse learning needs. Complete the readings/activities outlined there, or refresh your memory as to your findings if you have already done this.

Your findings about the characteristics of high achieving students and the study of a specific student should help you to understand that these students show a high level of intellectual and academic ability which may be accompanied by creative thinking. 

At first sight it might seem that these students present few challenges to teach; but this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes more able students are seen as ‘different’ by their peers because they do not have a good rapport with others and fail to co-operate in groups; they may become frustrated through boredom and behave badly in lessons; they can coast through class work, but underperform at GCSE.

Ofsted have repeatedly reported that many more able students are not sufficiently challenged in lessons and underachieve. In 2013 an Ofsted report commented:

Too many of our most able children and young people are underperforming…Many of these able students achieve reasonably well when compared with average standards but, nevertheless, fail to reach their full potential.

Make it clear to the more able students you teach that you have particularly high expectations of them and challenge and extend them by using:

  • Extension material to add depth
  • Enrichment to add breadth
  • Acceleration to add pace.

Extension work must intellectually challenge able students and lead them to think about some of the big geographical ideas. The work should require a greater degree of complexity or abstraction. It is not enough to ‘bolt-on’ activities that are simply ‘more of the same’; you need to do more than simply provide a task sheet that has extra questions for those who finish first. 

It is better to set a research task with an intriguing question or encourage them to develop new skills, e.g. in handling data. When you ask questions orally, never miss an opportunity to push the more able students to give full and clear responses and always expect them to use accurate geographical terminology and articulate their geographical thinking.

  • Refer to Bennett (2014), which outlines strategies to challenge the most able students and give them some autonomy in their learning.

Able students should be given a rich learning experience in geography to go beyond the prescribed curriculum for the year group. They should be encouraged to gain breadth by exploring additional case studies and examples. 

The more confident your learners are and the greater their prior knowledge, the more you can afford to present them with material in bigger chunks without the need for scaffolding and the more quickly you can move them on to independent tasks. Expect them to take on a leadership role in some group activities so they have opportunities to develop leadership skills, to share ideas and to support others.

Do not expect the more able students to work their way through lower-level tasks but, when they show they understanding, move them on to more challenging work. Give attention to their pace of learning, e.g. set time and word limits to provide challenge, and encourage them to produce well-argued, extended writing.

When it is appropriate, encourage more able students to work on independent tasks with increased rigour, but ensure you spend time with them to check they fully understand the more complex ideas they are working with. 

Biddulph et al (2021) remind us that the geography teacher is the best resource for high achieving students because they ask searching questions and provide challenge through directing them to read and review different and more challenging sources of information. You can also provide opportunities for open dialogue with other students and yourself, judge the quality of their geographical understanding, identify misconceptions and guide them forward in their geographical learning.

  • Refer to the writings of Ferretti (2005, 2007, 2017), which provide excellent ideas for challenge for able geographers to help them develop both breadth and depth of understanding.
  • Refer to the article by Ferretti (2005) pp 83/4 and Ferretti’s lecture to PGCE students (click here) at the GA Conference in 2013 which includes slides on questioning, Socratic questions and layers of inference, all designed to challenge more able pupils.
  • Bear in mind the able student you did an in-depth study of earlier. Incorporate some of ideas from your reading to plan how to challenge this able student (and others) in your forthcoming lessons.
  • Biddulph et al (2015), comment that ‘One of the best resources very able students need access to is you, their geography teacher.’ Think about how you can give these students access to your subject expertise as well as other resources during a forthcoming lesson.
  • Discuss your ideas with your mentor

Teaching bilingual students

  • Refer to the section on bi-lingual students in Students’ diverse learning needs. Complete the readings and activities outlined there, or refresh your memory as to your findings if you have already done this.

When you plan geography lessons, carefully consider whether the subject content, language and resources are appropriate for any bilingual students in the class. Take care that you always respect the cultural experiences of students and recognise that students from different countries can be a rich resource in geography lessons. Guard against any ill-informed assumptions you have that might reinforce stereotypes about what these students may understand and can achieve.

  • Refer to Balderstone et al (2006) and Biddulph et al (2021) for helpful strategies for teaching geography to bilingual students, especially for developing communication and literacy skills.
  • Refer to DfES (2002) ‘Access and engagement in geography: Teaching students for whom English is an additional language’. This is a very useful resource written for the key stage 3 National Strategy and distributed to all schools at the time. You might find a published copy in your school. It has practical ideas for geography teachers that are very relevant today.
  • Shadow a teaching assistant who supports bi-lingual students to identify the different strategies they use. Discuss with them the best ways to use an in-class support assistant.
  • Observe an experienced teacher working with bi-lingual students. How do they support learning, structure feedback, introduce concepts and explain processes? How do they ensure that all students are included and challenged?
  • Discuss with the teacher the teaching ideas and strategies that are suggested in the readings on this page. What advice would they give you for teaching bilingual students?

Students of different ethnicities may have a different view of geographical knowledge from their interpretations in geography lessons and informal experiences. Read the article by Kitchen (2018), which explores ethnic minority students’ stories and urges teachers to listen to these students and give them a voice in their classroom.


  • Balderstone, D., Dow, M. and Henn, V. (2006) ‘Geography and Students with EAL’ in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Battersby, J. and Hornby, N. (2006) ‘Inspiring disaffected students’ in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Bennett, V. (2014) ‘Engaging and challenging gifted and talented students’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • DfES (2002) ‘Access and engagement in geography: Teaching students for whom English is an additional language’.
  • Enright, N., Flook, A. and Habgood, C. (2006) ‘Gifted young geographers’ in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Evans, L. and Smith, D. (2006) ‘Inclusive geography’ in Balderstone, D. (ed) (2006), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Ferretti, J. (2007) Meeting the Needs of Your Most Able Students: Geography, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’ in Jones, M. (ed), The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 13.
  • Ferretti, J. (2005) ‘Challenging gifted geographers’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Freeman, D. and Warner James, H. (2023) ‘Lessons learned from adapting teaching for students with visual impairments’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Kitchen, R. (2018) ‘Exploring ethnic minority students’ stories through their representations’ Geography, Spring.
  • Ofsted survey report (2008) Good practice in re-engaging disaffected and reluctant students in secondary schools.
  • Pook, B. (2017) ‘Inclusive geography for students with complex learning needs’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Swift, D. (2005) Meeting Special Educational Needs in the Curriculum: Geography. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Swift, D. (2005b) SEND and Geography. London: David Fulton.
  • TDA (2009) Including students with SEN and/or disabilities in secondary geographyTDA.