Do pupils with learning difficulties need teaching strategies that are different from those used with other pupils?

Do pupils with learning difficulties

What the resource is:
This is a summary of conclusions reached by Ann Lewis and Brahm Norwich in their review of published research evidence  carried out in 1999-2000 in primary, secondary and special education concerning whether pupils with learning difficulties require teaching strategies that are qualitatively different from approaches used with other children. It was published by the NFER.  Learning Difficulties encompassed pupils with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia), general low attainment and children with profound or multiple learning difficulties.
They conclude that the evidence suggests that teaching strategies which differ along a continuum are needed, particularly for children with more severe learning difficulties but that this difference is of degree not kind.

The aims of the resource:
The review focused on two questions:

  1. Can differences between learners (by particular SEN group) be identified and systematically linked to distinct teaching strategies
  2. What are the key criteria for identifying pedagogically useful learner groups?


Key findings or focus:
1.  Can differences between learners (by particular SEN group) be identified and systematically  linked to distinct teaching strategies

  • Pupils with low attainment need common teaching strategies applied in a more focused and intensive way
  • Pupils with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) need more intense and explicit teaching which requires greater planning and structure reinforcement and continuous assessment.
  • The authors acknowledge a lack of evidence for defining characteristics of learners with ‘moderate learning difficulties' (MLD) but some evidence that children with Down syndrome need error free (not trial and error) learning and the use of novelty to counter a tendency to persistently repeat a response.
  • There is some evidence that pupils with severe, profound or multiple learning difficulties need a pedagogical approach with different emphases e.g. the importance of checking pupils' state of readiness for learning although Lewis and Norwich argue that this is a difference of degree not kind in that teachers need to check that pupils in a mainstream class are paying attention before instructions are given.

2. What are the key criteria for identifying pedagogically useful learner groups?
This review uses a conceptual framework, based on Norwich 1996 which focused on the commonality/differentiation of teaching strategies. Three broad kinds of pedagogic need are identified:

  1. pedagogic needs common to all learners
  2. pedagogic needs specific to groups of learners
  3. pedagogic needs unique to individual learners
     Using this framework, Lewis and Norwich conclude that:
  • common teaching principles and strategies are relevant to all subgroups
  • more intensive and explicit teaching is relevant to pupils with different patterns and degrees of difficulty in learning
  • it is more helpful to identify learning needs in terms of a continua of teaching or pedagogic approaches to match continuum of SEN and provision rather than subgroups
  • a continua of teaching approaches more easily distinguishes adaptations in class teaching for most pupils and adaptations required for those with more severe difficulties in learning
  • tensions between teaching routines geared for the majority and adaptations required for those with more severe difficulties in learning can be addressed by regular monitoring of learning progress for all children (curriculum based measurement) which alerts teachers to diversity of needs and consideration and expansion of range of teaching adaptations that can be made in mainstream classes

Continua of Teaching Approaches (illustration)
Lewis and Norwich identify key aspects of common teaching approaches which may require more emphasis to meet the individual needs of children with learning difficulties but state that more classroom based research is needed to clarify their validity:

  • More experience in generalising knowledge learnt in one context to other contexts
  • More examples to learn concepts
  • More explicit teaching of learning strategies & reinforcement of them
  • More frequent and more specific assessment of learning
  • More time to solve problems
  • More careful checking for preparedness for next stage of learning
  • More practice to achieve mastery

Implications for Inclusion
The authors note the historical separation of pupils into separate settings and schools and parental and professional interests for supporting the splitting of teaching strategies for pupils at ends of continua of attainment into distinctive types, but argue against the representation of teaching approaches as typologies.

Lewis and Norwich advocate a continua of common pedagogy based on unique individual differences acknowledging that teaching strategies geared to pupils with learning difficulties may not be appropriate for average or high attaining pupils.
They further argue that teaching involves groups of learners and therefore involves balancing learning together (valuing inclusion) and meeting individual needs (valuing the individual). Quality mainstream teaching involves adapting for individual variation so that meeting the needs of SEN is one of expanding the range of adaptation required. This does not mean that adaptation to common teaching approaches can always be accommodated in mainstream class ‘as we know it' which highlights the need for good quality flexible teaching approaches for all pupils and may require additional staff with specialised  knowledge and skills to make adaptations to common teaching approaches.

They also note that poor quality, less flexible mainstream teaching generates as well as fails to provide for those with learning difficulties.
Any justification for separate teaching settings for SEN should be on the basis that this provides the better opportunity to provide the appropriate adaptation to common teaching strategies to meet unusual individual needs. They recognise that there may be distinctive teaching approaches to some areas of SEN outside the scope of this review, eg, sensory and motor difficulties.

The authors report a case for the concept of a continuum of teaching approaches which provides a common framework of teaching skills that is inclusive but which can accommodate the different degrees of intensiveness and explicitness required by pupils with learning difficulties. They state the work required to develop this approach requires the;

  • identification of different strands/dimensions along which teaching is more explicit and intensive e.g. training for transfer/generalisation of learning
  • analysis of established and dependable teaching practices with pupils experiencing different degrees of difficulties in learning across various settings in terms of these strands


The quality, authority and credibility of the resource:
This is an important and highly relevant paper in a continuing debate with regard to the teaching of learners with disabilities which has added relevance in relation to the current personalised learning agenda. It  should be examined in the context of :

  • the statutory requirement for mainstream schools to provide ‘effective learning opportunities for all pupils' following the three ‘key principles for inclusion': setting suitable learning challenges, responding to pupils' diverse learning needs, and overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of learners (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), 2000).
  • The personalised learning agenda articulated by Milliband (2004) as ‘High expectation of every child, given practical form by high quality teaching based on a sound knowledge and understanding of each child's needs.' Teaching and learning are viewed as an integrated process combining awareness of contextual issues and the needs of the learners. Two of the five key components, assessment for learning and teaching and learning strategies, aim to identify every pupil's learning needs and develop their competence and confidence by actively engaging and stretching them.
  • Additional research which supports and builds on these findings, for example, Davis and Florian (2004) who found that many of the teaching approaches & strategies cut across areas of need as well as type of SEN & that a framework which organises strategies according to what they do rather than who they are for more helpful. They concluded that knowledge of special education needs is a key element of pedagogy rather than pedagogy in itself. They also supported further research in understanding teaching and learning in real settings. Nind and Wearmouth (2006) attempted a systematic literature review of the ways in which teachers are effectively including children with SEN. It is important to note that the authors encountered difficulties in the conceptualisation of ‘inclusion' and in identifying relevant research. What they did find was that effective teaching approaches emphasised engaging and empowering pupils in meaningful real-world learning in a social context (social constructivism) rather than the individualised programmes focused on isolated skill development often associated with the teaching of pupils with SEN. See also Kavale and Mostert (2004).
  • The more recent paper published by Norwich and Lewis (2007) in which they conceptualise teaching as the interaction of teachers' knowledge, curriculum and pedagogic strategies and propose a commonality-specialisation continuum with differentiation or specialisation as a process of intensification rather than as something different.


The implications for ITE tutors/mentors:
This paper could provide a framework for discussion, debate and reflection on how we conceptualise teaching and the implications for all learners. This is particularly pertinent in the context of the personalised and ECM learning agendas . The paper could also contribute to the current debate on the theory and practice of learning styles (Coffield et al , 2004; Burton, 2007)


The relevance to ITE students:
This paper has general relevance for all teachers who will work with learners with SEN whether it is in mainstream or separate settings.  It challenges the perception of some students and teachers in mainstream schools that the education of learners with SEN necessarily requires knowledge, curriculum and teaching skills that can only be provided by a specialist teacher in a special setting.

This summary touches on a vital issue in relation to the emerging and enduring issues of personalisation and inclusion, that of classroom or school routine. The capacity or indeed potential flexibility of teaching and learning routines employed in schools to respond to different learning needs. The authors conclude that in teaching a common topic or subject area to pupils with or without a range of learning difficulties there are no qualitative differences in principles of pedagogy.

This is important as justifications for the exclusion and separation of children identified as having special educational needs have sometimes been based on the suggested need for  qualitatively different teaching that it was argued could not occur in the mainstream. By arguing for a continuum of one pedagogy rather than discrete sets of pedagogy, the authors are perhaps suggesting that mainstream schools may be able to accommodate a wider range of pupils with learning difficulties. This relates back to the issue of school and classroom routines and the degree to which they can be flexible enough to accommodate different learning needs. This is also central to the every child matters and personalisation agendas. The re-emergent engagement with creativity in the classroom may be a means to consider the flexibility of teaching methods and organisation provided it is based on assessments of pupils existing and potential achievements. As the paper suggests "One solution to this problem in mainstream class teaching is to emphasise the role of ongoing assessment to support teaching adaptations." P3 ......This can alert teachers to the diversity of needs and consider systematically other more appropriate teaching adaptations for the full class" This then can be a method to increase the range and  ability of teaching routines to accommodate different learning needs.


Follow up activities:

View the TTV review and programme on multisensory teaching. Locate one or more principles that could be applied within your own teaching and what advantage it would have.

Identify what aspects of an increased pedagogical emphasis are in place.

More experience in generalising knowledge learnt in one context to other contexts

More examples to learn concepts

More explicit teaching of learning strategies & reinforcement of them

More frequent and more specific assessment of learning

More time to solve problems

More careful checking for preparedness for next stage of learning

More practice to achieve mastery

Reviewed by:
Mary Doveston


Burton, D. (2007) Psycho-pedagogy and personalised learning. Journal of Education for Teaching. 33 (1) pp. 5-17

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004)  Learning Styles and pedagogy in post 16 learning: a systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Kavale, and Mostert (2004) The Positive Side of Special Education: minimising fads, Fancies and Follies. Lanham, MD : Scarecrow Education

Pollard, A and James, M. (Eds) (2004) Personalised Learning: a commentary by The Teaching and Learning Research Programme. (link below)


Related Resources:
Lewis, A and Norwich, B (2001) A critical review of systematic evidence concerning distinctive pedagogies for pupils with difficulties in learning Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs

Nind, M. and Wearmouth, J. (2006) Including children with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms: implications for pedagogy from a systematic review. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs

Norwich, B. and Lewis, A. (2007) How specialised is teaching children with disabilities and difficulties? Journal of Curriculum Studies 39 (2) pp. 127-150



learning difficulties; teaching strategies; pedagogy; mainstream; inclusion; special educational needs (SEN)

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Research, Research Reviews

Authors :

Lewis, A. and Norwich, B

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