Supporting SEND and lower attaining students in Science

When students start secondary school they come with a buzz and innate enthusiasm for science. They are so keen to participate and emerge themselves within the learning of the subject but by the time they embark on key stage 4 this ‘love’ for science seems to dwindle. This has stimulated many a conversation within our science workroom and what we can do to tackle it. This has inspired me to really think about how my department and I can support SEND students who find science really hard.  So here are our ideas…

Barriers that we are currently facing

  • Content- not only has the volume of content increase the level of demand is risen significantly with many concepts from A level transitioning through to GCSE. The amount of content is a completely different matter. We are fortunate that we teach a 3 year KS4 and if I am completely honest I wouldn’t know how you would fit everything in if you didn’t!
  • Linear aspect- This is a difficult one, especially for students who don’t engage with science or find it truly hard as they may not have the motivation to keep on top of their learning and really develop the memory skills pertinent to a linear exam. Retention is also something that we need to incorporate into our planning as students will need to be able to remember a significant amount of knowledge in order to apply it.
  • Lack of resources- experienced teachers usually have an extensive bank of resources ‘up their sleeve’ whenever a new specification change occurs, but the lack of examples especially surrounding assessment and grading is proving that this journey is not going to be an easy one.
  • Grade boundaries- the lack of grade boundaries is stressful and infuriating, and with little guidance from any of the exam boards, teachers and HoD’s are really struggling to determine these. The conversion to numbers has not been as smooth a transition as I think the government had hoped, but the lack of guidance to what a grade 9 or 8 even look like is scary territory as I assume like I am most HoD’s are reluctant to award a 9 as it’s never been seen before. (However there is a fantastic subject leader who had devised an excel spreadsheet to show the normal distribution of your test scores to help construct your grade boundaries- find him on Twitter @Science_HOD known as Bearded HOD)
  • Pre-existing ideas- When students move into GCSE they have preconceived ideas about how difficult science is. This can sometimes be supported by teachers reiterating the fact that yes it is difficult. In some students this can cause a real reluctance into even trying to learn due to a fear a failure.

So what can we do about these main areas to really support our students? It all comes down to what happens in your classroom. So lets start with that.

Classroom environment

My classroom is my sanctuary, it is a place that I love to be and I hope students feel the same. Ensuring that the classroom is tidy and as chaotic free as possible can be a powerful tool.  Displays are a great way to inspire and stimulate students thinking, but I always strive to make sure that the displays that are within my classroom are used within and throughout a lesson.  Celebrating students work is a great thing it develops a sense of pride within the student but also  shows that you recognise the high quality work they are producing. However in some cases this can be distracting for some autistic children who prefer a feature/stimulation free environment so it is key that you know your students are their learning abilities before you go all out in the most stimulating room.

Students really need to be made aware on a regular basis of the GCSE content and criteria so why not place the GCSE criteria on display? This doesn’t need to be an all singing and dancing display, but somewhere useful that you can refer to regularly can be a very powerful tool. I think this is the same for the scientific key words. Literacy and language is a significant barrier when it comes to science and students can find it difficult to apply the key terms in the correct context. The more the students familiarise themselves with the key terms and using them in context the more confident they will become. One superb teacher within my department changes the key terms for every GCSE topic she teaches throughout the year.

I think another point when supporting low attaining students, SEND students etc is to really encourage familiarity with environment and location of equipment. This encourages a safe learning environment and will help develop independent learning skills in it’s infant stages. This can then lead on to developing more complicated independent learning outside of the classroom.

Finally within the classroom seating plans can make or break a lesson.  Many SEND children like stability and dislike change and I find this true of lower attaining students also.  Sitting in same place is also a powerful tool to use with EBD children also. Strategic placement of students also comes down to the knowledge of the class or establishing really early on the combinations of students who can be detrimental to each others learning. Teacher discussion and collaboration can be really useful here…as many SEND students may spend a lot of time in the same classes across the other subjects- so get out there, observe them in other lessons, discuss with other teachers who have successful lessons and look at who they are sat with.


Over the last 3 to 4 years I have really developed an understanding for resources for SEND and lower attaining students. The blank page is a scary thing and they can often put too much pressure on themselves to fill that page with science. Some of the strategies that are working for us at the moment for resources include something as simple as the font. Now I have read numerous journals and books that recommend certain fonts such as comic sans and century gothic as students are able to process these fonts easier, however, we have decided to use the same font that the exam board uses. This is to better prepare the students as to what they will face in the exam. Another font aspect that we consider is using size 14/16 font for our work sheets just to help with the processing of the literacy. Students find this helpful as it makes the words easier to read.

Lengthy documents or texts are not ideal for SEND or lower attaining students. I agree that we need to develop the reading capabilities of our students and where possible we need to encourage and develop this, but when it comes to learning a new scientific concept we need to consider what is the vital information we need to get students to learn and how can we keep the sentences short to maximise uptake. Students need to be able to recall scientific terminology within the right context, so this needs to be within your resources, but keep the surrounding language as simple as you can. Start from the foundations and work up. Word roots are particularly powerful, as it writing the word on the board and saying it out loud to the students rather than it just appearing on a powerpoint. You can also use symbols and pictures to explain concepts as his does really support the learning of most students. Finally I think where possible ensure that the resource you are creating or using is reading age appropriate. Knowing the reading ages of your students is so important as this could be the major barrier that is stopping students from accessing the learning.

Strategies that we apply in the classroom

When discussing strategies with my amazing department these are the ideas that they believe are the most successful with SEND and low attaining students. I believe any of these ideas can be translated into any other subject…

  • Multi sensory activities.  Use sound, text, video, movie clips, pictures, computer simulations, the library, outside etc. Cater for the different learning needs of your students- it doesn’t all have to be about evidence within books.
  • Use of ICT – IWBs, word processing, spreadsheets to analyse/graph results. Modern day students are so ‘tech savvy’ (I know a lot of them could probably out do me in this area), so why not play to their strengths? Students really enjoy making presentations, videos and playing quiz games like Kahoot.
  • Work with words – key words, word walls, definitions, pelmanism cards. All I have found really useful with SEND and lower attaining students. This is a fundamental skill that derrives from their learning in primary school, so why not utilise it?
  • Break instructions down into simple steps. We always try to keep instructions clear and concise. This will make any activity easier to follow and more likely end with a successful outcome for the student.
  • Sequencing activities – writing up experiments, cycles, cut and stick, card sorts. These are always a good way to check whether a student has the correct sequencing. We have found that this works really well with practical activities and for topics such as the menstrual cycle.
  • Writing frames (Scaffolds) – giving a set of headings which students can flesh out with their own writing, or begin each paragraph so the pupil can finish them. Students can get very easily intimidated by a blank page and can be quite reluctant to even start. Sentence starters, connectives, key vocabulary and punctuation are great to have as maybe learning mats, laminated on the desk or even as a display. Including sentence starters within the resource may also alleviate some of the fear of writing down their ideas.
  • Cloze activities and DARTS – fill in the gaps/missing words. This can be so good to develop comprehension skills especially when the task is dedicated to a specific text. Cloze activities provide a real basis of what the students can recall.
  • Paired work – facilitate paired work with a more able pupils. This is where your seating plan can really play to your strengths. Encourage students to discuss and share their ideas with each other. Maybe even starting by sharing a answer to a question with each other, reading their work aloud to their partner. Peer assessment can also be a useful too for both students.

The use of teaching assistants and other adults

Having the luxury of another adult in the room with you is quite rare within our school, but when we do we don’t necessarily have the time in advance to plan and sometimes even discuss with the TA what we will be covering that lesson. But when I have had the opportunity to either sit down with my TA, or even have a 5 minute conversation with them at the beginning of the lesson I make sure that I am clear about what I want them to do. We must remember that TA’s are there to support the learning of others- not do the work for students. Some students have mastered the art of puss in boots eyes and miraculously their work is completed without lifting a finger. Now this is of no criticism of the TA but the teacher must where possible direct the TA to support rather than do. Now please do not confuse this with scribing for students if they need it and actually a TA can do more good if they are noting down a description or explanation a student is giving. This brings me on to possibly one of the most successful strategies I have seen and used which is encouraging students to discuss their ideas before writing them down. This enables students to see any errors or if there is anything they would like to add. It also allows the TA or teacher to address any misconceptions within the learning. I think what I am trying to emphasise is what ever the scientific activity it is important that communication between TA and student is effective. Sentences whether written or spoken, should be straightforward using precise language that avoids vague terms, are active rather than passive and positive rather than negative. The instructions should be well within the pupils’ reading capacity and new scientific language should be introduced in a staged way. We should also encourage students who are struggling to use diagrams initially as this may be a better initial route than words.

Spaced and interleaved learning


This is a great book that has made me think should we be designing a curriculum and teaching sequence around what we know about memory – so that what they are taught, sticks. We have all probably been in this situation where as the teacher we have asked a question, the students write an answer (that they heard 3 minutes ago), we then pat ourselves on the back, congratulate the class on ‘learning it’ and move on.  The bigger question here is – would the students be able to recall the answer in a week or two or three?  Probably not.  So can we confidently say that they have learned it?  Almost certainly not.  So is it safe to move on from that topic and not return to it for a year or so?  Definitely not! This shows that students can perform well in a lesson- but learning that is the long game.


This graph is known as ‘the forgetting curve’ which shows when learning is reviewed, retention increases. What’s interesting is that with regular review, the ‘forgetting time’ gets longer – so going back over the key information will make it easier to remember and develop memory.

Make it Stick: Spaced retrieval practice

  • Study information more than once.
  • Regular low-stakes quizzing (retrieval practice), leaving greater gaps as you go. The scores for these tests are not important.  What’s important is the act or retrieval – that’s what seems to have an impact on retention.
  • “Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory.”
  • Continue to return to important content.
  • Avoid a ‘practice, practice, practice’ regime
  • Retrieval is best when it’s effortful, when some forgetting has set in.
  • Be wary of intuition – it may seem that we are getting better yet we fail to see how quickly these gains fade. (Illusions of fluency)

Every lesson can start with a quick quiz on what students did last lesson, last week and last month.  Similarly, homeworks weren’t just based on what they did that lesson, but again on what they did last week, last month or last term.

This is a fantastic blog that shows the difference between spaced and interleaved practice  Spaced and interleaved class teaching.

Interleaving supports the idea of switching between topics and not spending long amounts of time on said topic. It encourages students to go over ideas again in different orders to strengthen their understanding whilst making links between the topics covered. However while it is good to switch between topics, my advice would be not to switch too often. We need to make sure that they spend enough time to develop the understanding before moving on. Interleaving may actually feel more taxing for the student than studying the same thing for a long time, but I believe it will have a greater impact on the students learning. However, this is a big shift and we must take into account that both learners and teachers often do not feel like it is working. Even after taking part in studies, many say that they prefer massed practice.  (Rohrer, D. (2012). Interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 355-367)

So what can you do to support your SEND and lower attaining students in Science?

Entry level certificate- these have some lovely resources and ideas for lessons. When I have used these students have really made progress.

Build confidence and resilience first then increase the difficulty.

Get students to discuss their ideas using the key words before writing them down.

If you can, give as much feedback as possible whether this is written or verbal.

Lots of practice surrounding the key words- don’t over complicate the sentences and home in on the key scientific term. Practice using this in context of a question if students seem to be understanding it.

Use practical work or demonstrations to really show what you mean.

Quizzes and flashcards- This helps with retrieval practice, but provide intervals between the quizzes. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and use interleaving- especially when it comes to revision. Don’t be afraid to test the students on things that learned 3 weeks ago to really support the development of memory. Remember the more you review the longer the retention!

Use PLC’s to identify areas that you as a teacher need to work on with the students. Then apply the strategies above to address this.

Diagnosis, therapy and testing is such an essential model but make it efficient and effective!

Mrs S


2 thoughts on “Supporting SEND and lower attaining students in Science

  1. Great article, very informative and loads of great ideas.
    I find that introducing and reinforcing elements of growth mindset and Mindset for Success is helpful with all levels in improving achievement and engagement.
    Linking the learning with where there will be able to use it in future careers would increase and maintain enthusiasm for science into key stage 4. Not always the obvious: for example, the film industry.


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