Meeting 7 of the Inclusive Science Education Group (systemic instruction for learners with SEND)


The inclusive science group is made of interested educators from all phases and sectors who have an interest in teaching students who have additional support needs or special educational needs. It is organised by Rob Butler from the ASE and Jane Essex (ASE and RSC member), who both have an interest in this area of science education. Membership of this group is open to anyone, and attendance at the meetings is optional. Notes taken during the discussion will be shared with the whole group. You can join by filling in the form at

We were fortunate to be joined by Magdalena Apanasionok, a research fellow from the University of Warwick who investigated teaching numeracy and science to children with developmental disabilities for her PhD.  Magda has kindly shared the presentation she shared with the groups and the papers she wrote to help share her findings.

The research is built on the fact we know that attainment of students with SEN in science is of concern and yet there was very little research into using systematic instruction in the United Kingdom. 

Systematic instruction is a teaching method based on behavioural principles focused on breaking down complex skills into smaller steps and promoting generalisation. The curriculum used in the research was evidence informed and designed for learners with learning disabilities. The active components used

  • Guided inquiry – explicitly teaching enquiry skills
  • Teacher scripts
  • Stories to support each lesson
  • Explicit instruction – an active teaching method involving time delay prompting and examples/non-example procedure
  • Task analysis – breaking complex stills into smaller steps
  • Special accommodations – amending tasks to suit the learners

The research focused on a class of nine students with learning disabilities and/or autism and looked at ‘the Five senses’ unit.

Repetition featured heavily in the strategies. Students engaged well and many could remember key concepts several weeks later. 

Teachers found the following useful:

  • Pairing symbols with objects to enhance students’ understanding
  • Using the time-delay strategy (prompt/help for the pupil is delivered following a specific amount of time after the instruction)
  • Using an example/non-example procedure (‘this is…’ or ‘this is not…’)
  • Predictable structure to lessons

It was suggestions that technicians could support this approach by developing activities that can’t fail, that can support this teaching approach.

Evidence to support the approach is limited to smaller scale studies but there is lots of evidence to support the effectiveness of key teaching strategies which include repetition, carefully structed development of concepts, and frequent formative feedback e.g. Essex, 2020; Villanueva, et al., 2012).

Jane offered to link together schools who had an interest in trying out some of the resources should we be able to get hold of them (as many are physical resources) We can link schools who are interested in this.

The group was asked if they had tried any of the strategies mentioned by Magda

Linking pictures/objects to a term was a good strategy and could engage learners. If there is consistency in symbols/pictures used it can be of great benefit to learners. Symbols for prediction (before) and conclusion (after) worked well. Dominoes are one strategy that can work with these learners.

Some of the group said their learners responded to the same structured lesson format, used in across all science lessons. Whilst not all teachers found this strategy useful, the majority of teachers found a predictable approach beneficial. Jane suggested this could also help reduce cognitive load associated with the lesson structure, and teachers saw reduced anxiety when using this approach as there were no surprises to catch learners out.

Some learners didn’t engage in lessons which they felt were the same as previous lessons – this means the teacher has to make the lessons feel noticeably different. Learners at one setting would switch off if they felt they had covered the content before so their teacher has to make sure that whilst lessons are structured, they don’t feel like the same lesson over and over.

Responsive teaching is good, combined with a reflective approach, so the teacher responds to what the learner actually does (or doesn’t do) 

Some students struggle with the application, and need to see the point of what they are learning. Approaches like the Science Capital approach (Aspires project) might be of interest with these learners.

Stories were mentioned as an effective tool for learners (especially ones with no text) and these are available online. One attendee used these successfully during lockdown. Jane spoke of a storytelling approach used with learners in Scotland, which engaged the learners but also helped with assessment of what had been learned. Stories are good safe ways of exploring as they aren’t about if you are right, but you are talking about a character instead.

Concept cartoons are another way of talking about science where you talk about what the person in the cartoon is thinking rather than what you are thinking.

Links from the chat

Commercial scheme of work used in the research

What is systematic instruction

Domino generator

Texts for science

Books without words

Links to research

  • Apanasionok, M. M., Neil, J., Watkins, R. C., Grindle, C. F., & Hastings, R. P. (2020). Teaching Science to Students with Developmental Disabilities Using the Early Science Curriculum. Support for Learning.
  • Essex, J. (2020). Towards truly inclusive science education: A case study of successful curriculum innovation in a special school, Support for Learning, available at:
  • Villanueva, M.G,  Taylor, J.C., Therrien, W. J. and Hand, B. (2012) Science education for students with special needs. Studies in Science Education, 48 (2), 187-215. DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2012.737117
  • Watkins, R. M., Apanasionok, M. M., & Neil, J. (2020). Teaching science to pupils with SEND: using an evidence-based approach. Primary Science, 165.

Published by Rob Butler

Ex-science teacher, ex-school leader and full-time geek.