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Adaptive Teaching: How to be responsive to all pupils’ learning in writing

Jan 16th 2024

Adaptive teaching is not differentiation. Over the past few years, ‘differentiation’ has fallen out of favour with the teaching profession as there were many negative connotations surrounding it. Firstly, it lowered expectations – preparing three sets of resources or mini-lessons for three ability groups meant that teachers went into lessons with pre-conceived ideas about what a particular set of pupils could achieve. Secondly, the workload involved in preparing all these resources was immense.

Adaptive teaching versus differentiation

Adaptive teaching is about maintaining high standards for all pupils in your class and providing them with the appropriate challenge to meet expectations. Adaptive teaching is not differentiation. Over the past few years, ‘differentiation’ has fallen out of favour with the teaching profession as there were many negative connotations surrounding it. Firstly, it lowered expectations – preparing three sets of resources or mini-lessons for three ability groups meant that teachers went into lessons with pre-conceived ideas about what a particular set of pupils could achieve. Secondly, the workload involved in preparing all these resources was immense.

So, what is adaptive teaching?

Adaptive teaching is a much more responsive approach. There is still preparation and forward thinking involved; however, formative assessment within lessons plays a vital role as well as having flexible groupings of pupils. It allows teachers to have high expectations for all pupils but to still provide scaffolds based on assessments made; thus supporting pupils with achieving the expectations. The Early Career Framework sets out a series of suggested learning points in Standard 5:

  • Adapting teaching in a responsive way, including by providing targeted support to pupils who are struggling, is likely to increase pupil success.
  • Adaptive teaching is less likely to be valuable if it causes the teacher to artificially create distinct tasks for different groups of pupils or to set lower expectations for particular pupils.


Before we look at how to adapt lessons in English, it is worth exploring the term ‘scaffold’. There are two ways we can provide scaffolds: the first, taking the Vygotsky approach, where learners are supported through social interaction with a skilled partner or a more knowledgeable other (a peer, a teaching assistant or the class teacher) or secondly, the Bruner approach, where learners are supported through tasks being broken down into smaller or more manageable steps (resources, pictures, models, tasks broken into smaller chunks). Both of these are noted in the Early Career Framework, as ways for teachers to ensure pupils experience success and individual needs are met.

Using a person:

Making effective use of teaching assistants

Reframing questions to provide greater scaffolding or greater stretch

Planning to connect new content with pupils’ existing knowledge or providing additional pre-teaching if pupils lack critical knowledge

Using a resource:

Making use of well-designed resources (e.g. textbooks)

Building in additional practice or removing unnecessary expositions

Teaching writing and making adaptations

When supporting all pupils to meet expectations in writing, there is a lot to be considered: the writing outcomes, the writing skills and the features that the writing requires…so what do we adapt and where do we start?

At the start of a new unit of work, there is a fine balance between forward planning for pupil needs and acting responsively to needs as they arise. Teachers need to use their summative assessment and data to plan for pupils who have been assessed at ‘working towards’ and ‘pre-key stage’ standards. However, this should not create a ceiling to learning – formative assessment will inform teachers in each lesson which pupils need further support to achieve outcomes.

Pupils’ barriers to learning should be considered: pupils with SEND needs and pupils who have fallen behind and are working within the lowest 20% of writers in the class. When teaching writing, it is vital to reflect upon ‘The Simple View of Writing’. It is important to note that for some of our pupils, they find it difficult to complete all three writing processes concurrently. Some lesson adaptations should focus on developing, for example, either composition or transcription. As a whole class, you might be focussing on creating a story. The expectation is that all pupils in your class will independently write a story after a series of lessons teaching the skills and features required for this. For some pupils, to develop and secure their transcription skills, the composition may need to become less of a priority – using scaffolds such as vocabulary banks, sentence starters and retelling sections of the main text with picture supports, would support them to achieve the necessary transcription skills to communicate their stories effectively.

A learning sequence and how to adapt

Always start at the end. What is the final writing outcome your pupils are building towards? Consider the purpose of the piece and what form it will take as well as who the writing is for. There are so many engaging and interesting purposes that our pupils write for across their time at primary school, for example, writing engaging narratives, writing to explain processes, writing descriptions of characters, writing informative reports about issues or events in history. Some of these purposes and forms can be difficult to maintain for pupils who are struggling with writing skills. The final outcome could be adapted to support some pupils in improving their writing skills. Taking one example, from our Y6 Pathways to Write unit based on the text ‘The Place for Me: Stories about the Windrush Generation’, the expectation is that pupils write a report about Windrush and the people who made the journey from the Caribbean to settle in Britain. The form this report takes is a hybrid of recount, explanation and information. It should be taken into consideration, that some pupils may find this outcome a challenge so an adapted, similar outcome should be planned for. Keeping the content and many of the features of the writing the same, a more straightforward recount of a Windrusher’s journey or an information report about life in 1950’s London may be a suitable outcome.

Once adaptations have been considered for the final outcome, consider the writing features of the form: the structure, tense, person, formality. An appropriate scaffold for some pupils may be spending time practising and developing the key features, for example, writing consistently in third person or past tense – not being expected to dip into other outcomes with different features e.g. present tense or writing in first person. Make adaptations to units of work to ensure all the short incidental writing or grammar practice tasks have the same writing features as the final outcomes that the class are building towards.

In any learning sequence for writing, there are writing skills to be mastered: using ‘and’ between two clauses, how to use paragraphs, writing appropriate fronted adverbials, where to add a comma for clarity in a multi-clause sentence etc. For pupils to master these essential writing skills, teachers should understand that each grammar skill builds upon a previously taught skill. Without strong foundations, the new learning becomes insecure and over time gaps start to appear. It is well-known that Y5 and Y6 teachers often find pupils struggling to know where to add a full stop! Therefore, adaptive teaching needs to focus in on the progression of the skills being taught, whether smaller steps are required or whether revisiting prior learning through scaffolds or support from a teaching assistant or peer who is confident in the skills is needed.

Looking at sentence structure for example, a year five teacher may be teaching relative clauses to the whole class. All pupils in the class should be taught relative clauses – it’s the statutory requirement and pupils shouldn’t be limited. However, the teacher or teaching assistant may follow up with a group of pupils identified through assessment within the lesson to recap a previously taught clause structure, provide concrete scaffolds, use sentence strips or sentence stems to ensure prior knowledge is secure. The teacher should consider the progression:

Y1Combine words to make sentences

Use and between clauses
Y2Use co-ordination (and/but/or)

Use subordination (because/when/if/that)
Y3Express time place and cause using conjunctions
Y4Use fronted adverbials
Y5Use relative clauses

Through formative assessment within the lesson, a group could be targeted to secure subordination in their independent writing, having opportunities for practising and applying, ahead of writing relative clauses in their independent writing. There may be a need to repeat this several times until mastered. When teaching these grammar skills, they should be taught in the context of the class text. Remember also, they should be taught in line with the features of the final outcome, for example, in past tense and third person. This makes the whole learning journey towards the final outcome smooth for those learners we are adapting for.

The adaptations suggested are not to be seen as limitations for pupils but instead to consider, that by streamlining or making the process involved in writing more straightforward, that they will ensure greater success in the overall writing skills and final outcomes. All pupils in writing lessons should access quality first teaching and be part of discussions around texts pitched at their age-group. Encourage mixed-ability seating arrangements and flexible groupings to provide the social support of a more skilled partner, and through formative assessment identify when breaking the learning into smaller steps is required. Feel confident to use concrete supports: sentence strips, cloze procedures, sentence stems, pictures and vocabulary banks to support your pupils to achieve the final writing outcomes you know they can achieve.

What’s next?

Are you looking for ways to close gaps in learning? Why not come to our next webinar ‘Closing Gaps in Basic Skills Using a Structured and Progression-Based Approach’ here.

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DfE (2019) – Early Career Framework

Education Endowment Foundation (2021) – Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2

Mcleod, S PhD (2023) Simple Psychology – Jerome Bruner’s Theory of Learning and Cognitive Development

Mcleod, S PhD (2023) Simple Psychology – Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding theory

The Literacy Company (2024) – Pathways to Write