EEF Blog: Assess, adjust, adapt – what does adaptive teaching mean to you?

EEF Learning Behaviours specialist and secondary school SENCo, Kirsten Mould, explores the concept of adaptive teaching.

We know that pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in mainstream schools have the greatest need for high-quality teaching and this requires daily decisions regarding the school learning environment and classroom management. Such high-quality teaching – adjusting, adapting and assessing in the classroom – is of course crucial for the progress of all pupils.

Differentiation is an important factor to consider when adapting teaching, but in practice, its definition is unclear1. It is helpful to draw a distinction between differentiating by outcomes and differentiated support2. Whilst providing focused support to children who are not making progress is recommended, creating a multitude of differentiated resources is not.

The Early Career Framework, which entitles new teachers to continued training following their Initial Teacher Training, references “adaptive teaching”, moving away from the term “differentiation” altogether, which is an important distinction to explore further. Having a full understanding of every child is extremely important in adaptive teaching. Time needs to be diverted to identifying reasons for learning struggles, not just the struggles themselves3. As such, pupils’ physical, social, and emotional well-being, including their relationships with peers and trusted adults, are fundamental . Schools need systems that ensure regular communication between teachers, families and the young people themselves to understand barriers and to share effective strategies.

The success of adapting teaching also lies in careful diagnostic assessment, in order to avoid prescriptive and inflexible delivery4.


Five high – quality, impactful teaching strategies are identified in the EEF’s guidance for special educational needs in mainstream schools. At first glance, these strategies may seem commonplace. However, effective implementation, developing a shared understanding of what they look like in practice across a school, is a challenge.


Scaffolding aims to provide students with temporary supports that are gradually removed or ‘faded out’ as they become increasingly independent. It is a common component of guided practice within instruction. Teachers are used to the idea of first, now, next- building the bigger picture and making connections for learning. 

Scaffolding can also be used to reinforce consistent expectations for behaviour - for example, what equipment is needed for each lesson, classroom routines within the school day and communicating any changes to these routines.

It is important to monitor task, effort required and independent working time given as these can impact pupil effort, attention and persistence in the classroom5.

Worked examplesVisual representationsThink alouds
A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem – which can be particularly useful in maths and science lessons. This guidance can be gradually removed in subsequent problems so that pupils are required to complete more of the steps independently [6].Providing visual representations alongside verbal descriptions can help pupils focus on key information, as long as they are informational (rather than decorative) and do not increase cognitive load. When visual representations are used in written handouts, they should include brief captions that label unfamiliar objects and describe steps in the process. These descriptions should be positioned as close as possible to the parts of the representation being described and help pupils identify what specifically they should be looking at. Physical objects can also be used.When pupils think aloud, their explanations can go beyond the taught material by making links to personal knowledge and experiences. We can support pupils to talk through explanations – perhaps by providing key vocabulary or sentence stems as scaffolds, whilst planning to move towards pupils creating their own prompts.
The amount of guidance and annotation that should be included in worked examples varies depending on the situation and the pupil. As pupils develop greater expertise, reduce the number of worked examples provided and increase the number of problems that they solve independently [7]. For example, in maths homework provide a worked example for every other problem on the list.Another technique involves connecting or “anchoring” new ideas in stories or problem scenarios that are interesting and familiar to pupils [8].It is important to give pupils enough time to think and prepare responses: questioning, prompting and clueing before correcting them. After modelling the “think aloud” process during classroom instruction, pupils should be encouraged to use this technique independently [9].
Using incorrect examples and asking pupils to identify problems can have a positive impact.

Research shows that sharing scaffolding strategies with parents and carers is associated with improved self-regulated learning5.


High quality teaching is crucial to the progress of pupils with SEND and teachers are vital orchestrators of ‘assess, plan, do, review’ – the graduated response process detailed within the SEND Code of Practice10. This is the first step in identifying barriers and developing strategies to support all pupil, including those with SEND.

Adaptive teaching strategies sit firmly at the heart of this: adapting planning prior to the lesson and adjusting practice during the lesson.

There is still lots to explore around adaptive teaching: what it means for our pupils and teachers in school and what we share with parents and carers to support home learning. A shared language and understanding of what works in each context is vital. 

Questions for reflection

Are adaptive teaching strategies within the toolkit of every teacher in your school?

Is there a shared understanding and shared language for adapting teaching?

Is teaching adapted before and during a lesson?

What diagnostic assessment procedures are commonly used in your school?

Are there ways to communicate and celebrate successful strategies across classes and with families at home?


  1. Deunk et al (2018) Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and metaanalysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review 24, pp31-54.Davis et al, (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: a scoping study. London DfES.
  2. TES (2019) Does Ofsted’s use of research require improvement? | Tes News Kevan Collins
  3. Lake, R., Olson, L. (2020) Learning as We Go: Principles for Effective Assessment During the Covid-19 Pandemic. CRPE.
  4. Davis et al, (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: a scoping study. London DfES.
  5. Van de Pol et al (2015) The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Instructional Science, 43, pp615-641.
  6. Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning.
  7. Pashler et al (2007) Organising Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, NCER.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. SEND Code of Practice (2015) – particularly chapter 6.