The Association for Science Education

P1.4 SEN and Science


Learning science can be a positive experience for children with special educational needs and this article aims to help teachers ensure that this is the case. If the curriculum is inaccessible or boring for 'ordinary' pupils the management and engagement problems are likely to be magnified with SEN pupils. Stress is placed on the provision of an active, stimulating learning environment; use of step by step activities; relevant mulit-sensory activities; effective communication; science equipment; legal and safety considerations and the support that can be offered by other adults and organisations. Particular emphasis is given to the needs of pupils whose first language is not English. In general it is expected that effective provision for SEN pupils will enhance the experience of other pupils who will share the practical work and teacher demonstrations and will work together with them in groups. A download of background material and useful references are provided.

The standards approached in this section are: Q1-13 and 22-33 but wirh particular emphasis on Q18, 19, 20 & 21.

Key words: Special Educational Needs, SEN, Bilingual, Active learning, Support.


1.0 Introduction
2.0 Science for pupils with Special Educational Needs 
2.1 An active stimulating learning environment
2.2 Step-by-step activities
2.3 Active, relevant multi-sensory activities
2.4 Effective teachers' communication
2.5 Equipment
2.6 Safety
2.7 Support of other adults and organisations
3.0 Optimising access to science for bilingual children 
3.1 The value of practical activities for bilingual pupils
3.2 Identifying science language needed
3.3 Time for internalising new science language
3.4 Importance of oral work
3.5 Using Reading Material
3.6 Written Science

1.0 Introduction

Trainees are required to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of pupils, including those with special educational needs and those who are learning English as an additional language. They may have guidance from an experienced teacher where appropriate.

While having English as an additional language (EAL) is not a special educational need, many of the language strategies for supporting EAL learners are useful for pupils with language learning difficulties. There is also an IPRN (Initial Teacher Training Professional Resource Network) relating to EAL, which covers issues more generally. NALDIC is the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum - working for pupils with English as an Additional Language. Brief mention of EAL has been made in the unit Ethnicity, under Professional Issues.

Trainees will need to be aware of their responsibilities, the legislative requirements relating to SEN and disability, and the rationale for the inclusion of those with special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream education. This section does not attempt to cover all these issues, rather it aims to provide a start for tutors who wish to give their trainees guidance on improving SEN and bilingual pupils’ access to science during their science activities. For more general support please use the IPRN behaviour4learning, which, although it has a focus on challenging behaviour, does also address the issue of identifying and supporting pupils who are exceeding, or working below, their potential. It is also useful to note that there is also a dedicated SEN portal on the TTRB.

2.0 Science for pupils with Special Educational Needs

Pupils with special educational needs can excel in science because it is a potentially practical subject where pupils work in groups. Equally if a science curriculum is provided that more able and ‘ordinary’ pupils find inaccessible or boring management and engagement problems are likely to be magnified with SEN pupils. To optimise pupils’ potential, trainees need to think about the science environment, activities and how they communicate to pupils. They also have to consider safety issues and how to enable pupils with physical disabilities to participate in practical work using manipulatively difficult equipment. The first part of this section covers the following topics:

  • An active stimulating learning environment
  • Step-by-step activities
  • Active, relevant multi-sensory activities
  • Effective teachers’ communication
  • Equipment
  • Safety
  • Support of other adults and organisations
  • General background material about pupils with SEN

2.1 An active stimulating learning environment

The classroom environment should help to make learning exciting. It should arouse pupils' interest and whet their curiosity. Most of all it should help those who need extra stimulus and encouragement to overcome their learning difficulties. Science is an ideal subject to achieve this.

An atmosphere of encouragement, acceptance, respect for achievements and sensitivity to individual needs, in which all pupils can thrive is important. Pupils need to feel valued and able to risk making mistakes as they learn, without fear of criticism.

Co-operative learning among pupils needs to be encouraged. Group activities stimulate discussion and generate questions and ideas. They often enable pupils to work independently of adults, giving each other help and a sense of being a valued member of the team. Pupils should be encouraged to support and enjoy the progress of their peers.

Pupils of SEN should be encouraged to become active independent learners, helping to plan, build and evaluate their own learning programmes wherever possible. This may take time initially but it is in the long term interest of the pupils and teacher. For example, the teacher could read worksheets and instructions into a tape recorder for pupils with limited attention span so that they can remind themselves what they have to do whenever they want. This strategy releases the teacher to focus help on moving pupils on in their understanding rather than repeating instructions. It also helps the pupils’ reading ability if they are required to read the instructions to the teacher at the end of the whole activity as part of the assessment.

2.2 Step-by-step activities

A clearly defined, step-by-step approach that promotes a gradual development of concepts and skills is important. There also needs to be sufficient repetition to consolidate skills and allowing time for pupils to reflect on their work.

From summer 2005 the DFES invites schools to report the attainment of any child with special educational needs working below national curriculum level 1 as a P level. A 2007 report on P level attainment targets can be found here. P level work for pupils with severe learning difficulties involves specially designed schemes of work which break down the elements of programmes of study into series of finely graded, age-appropriate and achievable steps. A CPD unit to help teachers and trainees become familiar with the P levels can be found by clicking here. In addition this unit helps the trainees make assessments using P levels by watching short video clips. There is also support for planning based on assessment as well as questioning with audio clips. A variety of topics are covered including forces, separating materials, plants, body pats, humans and other animals and the senses.

2.3 Active, relevant multi-sensory activities

Active learning strategies giving pupils first hand experience selected from or reinforced by everyday examples help to motivate pupils who might be struggling.
A range of activities will needed to be provided to ensure the participation of all pupils (differentiated by task) and/or providing similar work for the whole group but allowing different out­comes for different individuals (differentiation by outcome).

Activities should be matched to pupils' differing paces and styles of learning, interests, capabilities and previous experience. This might include giving more time to pupils with SEN and ordering tasks from the easiest to more complicated activities with less able pupils not being required to complete all tasks. Pupils’ strengths should be used to build their confidence and maintain motivation, such as involving a tetraplegic pupil in observation and recording of results while others carry out manipulation of equipment.

It is also important to consider whether the activities stretch pupils of whom too little may have been expected in the past. These pupils are likely to include some with physical, sensory or other impairment who are high attainers.

A multi-sensory approach will give pupils more opportunity to learn effectively in a way suited to their abilities. Pupils should be encouraged to use all their senses, not only visual observations. For example, when pupils measure the rate of production of carbon dioxide gas by observing the bubbles, if the reaction is carried out in a sealed plastic bag or by fixing a balloon over the neck of the test tube, they will be able to feel the action of the gas. Therefore, pupils with some sensory loss are more included.

Pupils can communicate their ideas and findings in a variety of ways. It is not always necessary to write down results. Ideas can be communicated through discussion, drawing, model making, drama, video, tape recording, photographs and on computers. Aspects of language and science are covered in greater depth in the section on bilingual pupils. Similar strategies are effective for pupils with special education needs.

2.4 Effective teachers’ communication

Whatever the scientific activity, it is important to communicate effectively. Sentences (written or spoken) should be:

  • Straightforward precise language that avoids vague terms
  • Active rather than passive
  • Positive rather than negative

For example, the sentence ‘Without water plants are unable to survive’ could be simplified to ‘Plants need water to grow.’

The text given to the pupils should have a clear layout and large enough print size.

The instructions should be well within the pupils' reading capacity. Pupils’ science learning should not be hindered by reading difficulties. A pupil with partial sight, or one with learning difficulties, may need material that has been edited, clarified, enlarged and supplemented.

New science language should be introduced in a staged way. Pupils can learn and use science technical words but these need to be introduced one at a time in a practical context. For example, when investigating electrical conductivity the word conductor and non-conductor can be used in several activities. Then the word ‘insulator’ can be introduced once the concept of conductor is established.

Diagrams may be better than words. Pupils with hearing impairment may need alternative texts to their peers, giving greater emphasis on visual presentation to bypass language difficulties. For a visually impaired pupil the lines can be indented in the paper with pressure from a ball pen or a spur wheel available from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). This creates an embossed shape on the reverse side of the paper which they can feel.

It is useful to ask the pupils and/or their parent for advice if they struggle with text or diagrams. For example, some pupils with spina bifida have difficulties with three dimensional diagrams which they can not always perceive clearly.

The position in front of the class needs consideration. Standing in front of a bright light puts the teachers’ face in shadow making it difficult for the hearing impaired pupil to lip-read and the visually impaired pupil to locate the teacher.

2.5 Equipment

Pupils should be encouraged to handle apparatus and equipment. If at all possible pupils with special educational needs should have access to the same equipment as other pupils. This will make the programmes of study more accessible to them and acknowledges the level of maturity a pupil with SEN may achieve in scientific study.

Special apparatus may be needed. Planning for individual pupils should therefore be responsive to any additional needs, which may, for instance, include special apparatus. When modification of equipment is necessary the teacher's creative mind can be turned to selecting or adapting apparatus for particular needs. For example, a robust and stable measuring jug can replace a fragile and unstable measuring cylinder for pupils who are not able to control their hands easily.

Some measuring equipment may be a problem so it may be inappropriate for some pupils to use the same equipment as their peers. As long as these pupils feel they are in charge of their work, they may be willing to ask for sighted help when, for example, an ammeter reading needs to be taken. However there are often alternatives. For example if the conventional ammeter is difficult to use, there are various alternatives: large scale meters, large display digital meters and demonstration meters, including those with a light box which allow a reading to be taken, using a light probe. A light beam galvanometer with a tactile scale can be read clearly with a light probe. Some schools may use meters with speech synthesisers attached or ones which combine with a microcomputer to give an audible output.

Some parts of programmes of study will need to be carefully considered if success is to be possible. For example, ideas about light and colour will have problems for visually impaired pupils. However, even those with no perception of light, concepts of light and dark are likely to be relevant when linked to night and day and to shadow and sunshine. In order to explore shadows, a card can be placed so that a lamp casts a shadow on a screen. The shape of the shadow can be examined with a light probe which gives an audible signal. The shadow can be discussed in terms of light and dark, black and white (introducing the concept of colour) and the outline drawn by the pupil on embossing film.

2.6 Safety

Safety is an important issue for pupils with SEN as it is for all pupils, but it need not necessarily be a barrier to practical science activities.

With practical experience and training, pupils with visual impairment can safely use much of the same equipment that is used by their peers. They can learn how to handle a Bunsen burner skilfully and safely. The roaring flames give an audible warning and a tripod surrounding the burner enables it to be located safely. With practice other items like electrical equipment, a scalpel and fragile glassware can also be handled safely.

Pupils need to understand safety procedures so that they can work confidently. Teachers must pay particular attention to safety matters, for example by looking at the fabric of the room in relation to fire precautions and cut-offs points for gas and electricity.

General information about school safety issues can be found at Teachernet.

CLEAPSS services to Secondary Schools and Colleges gives advice about safety in laboratories.

2.7 Support of other adults and organisations

Support from SEN support staff, classroom assistants, parents and volunteers are important. They should have a clear definition of roles and use of room management, one-to-one tutoring and other strategies. These people may not be confident in science ideas so may well have typical science misconceptions that many adults hold. Therefore some (tactful) briefing material may need to be provided.

Good communication with parents should promote mutual parent-teacher support. For example, parents can give valuable advice on what disabled pupils are physically able to do in practical activities.

It is important to identify how to get specialist advice through SEN advisory and support services, school psychological services, speech therapy, health and social services and other sources such as RNIB. These bodies will be able to give advice on appropriate teaching approaches and adapting equipment.

The ISSEN - Inclusive Science and Special Educational Needs is a collaboration project between the ASE and NASEN. Joint ISSEN and ASE material has a website to facilitate the sharing of good practice and ideas relating science education for students with special educational needs. They display some of the findings from the research and networking that has been undertaken to support teachers.

Further web based and published support is given in Download P1.4_2.7a 'Background Material for SEN and Science'

3.0 Optimising access to science for bilingual children

Practical science is equally valuable for bilingual pupils who are not confident in communicating in English. Practical work and language development are mutually supportive as new words are learnt in a meaningful context. As science learning involves understanding unfamiliar words which may not be in the pupils’ home language it is important for trainees to use a range of strategies that consider

  • The value of practical activities for bilingual pupils
  • Identifying science language needed
  • Science and the home language
  • Time for internalising new science language
  • Importance of oral work
  • Using reading material
  • Written science

3.1 The value of practical activities for bilingual pupils

Science activities can be at an appropriate level for the children. Some bilingual children understand science concepts but may not be able to verbalise them. Many think in their home language. As they learn new concepts they learn the appropriate words in English and often not in their home language. This does make thinking and subsequent articulation in English difficult. Ideally if bilingual support is available the children can have help to express the concept in two languages. Practical work enables them to succeed at a high level in science without having to wait for comparative competence in English.

There are of course many bilingual pupils who use English very effectively, particularly in secondary schools. The points given below are most pertinent for the young pupil still learning English and those recently arrived in England.

Practical activities are very motivating. The children will have to concentrate hard to understand and become very tired quickly. If they are not highly involved they will just stop listening and effectively opt out.

Practical activity and language development are mutually supportive. If the science is very cooperative with oral work encouraged, the learning of English is helped enormously. Basic sentence structure can be practiced and repeated in a meaningful way and not as an 'exercise'.

Children will learn the meanings of words when they hear them used in a meaningful context. The children will often need to touch the objects they are sorting for a property or material. Pictures are not adequate to make clear words such as rough, hard, damp, greater than, elastic or insulating. Such style of teaching is advantageous to both the monolingual and bilingual child as it is motivating.

Assessment is easier. As long as the activities are practically based the teacher will have a better opportunity to see by the child's actions whether or not they understand. On one occasion a group of 7 year olds were taken outside to identify examples of the effect of wind action. One of the children who had just newly arrived from Pakistan excitedly pointed to the swaying long grass and began to move his whole body from side to side. It was obvious to the teacher that he understood the object of the activity and the concept; and she was able to supply him with the words he needed.

3.2 Identifying science language needed

Comprehension is improved by simple language being used; by controlling the introduction of a limited number of new concepts at any one time; and by giving the children the opportunity to reflect and consolidate, with the teacher checking on progress to ensure the pupils are keeping up. The first step is to find out about the pupils’ home languages and whether there are likely to be problems in science as well as to identify what science language that will be needed in a science topic.

The teacher needs to find out more about the children's home languages. This is not a simple matter, as in many schools there are children with a wide variety of languages and dialects. There may be children who speak an English based dialect eg West Indians; children who speak with an amalgam of English and another language, eg families from the Punjab who have been living in England for some time speak an anglicised Punjabi; children who are born in Britain and have had some experience of English but have no need to speak it until they come to school, as their first language is spoken at home; and children who have recently arrived in England with very limited experience of the English language or culture eg Bosnians.

None of these children comes to school with "no language" as is often said. They do have a language but it is not English. It may be Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic, Gujerati, Vietnamese, Greek etc. There are also dialects. There are over 100 in India alone. The children are often expected to learn a third language. For example a Punjabi speaker may start to read and write their own language at about 6 or 7. The children also learn Urdu which is a slightly different spoken language because it is a higher status language. In addition Muslims are expected to learn Arabic, as written by the Koran. Both Urdu and Arabic are read from right to left, with the book starting where English books normally finish. Urdu and Arabic have different written scripts. This may create problems when the children set out tables and/or use two or more figure numbers.

The skills of the bilingual or multilingual child should be admired rather than be the cause for regret.

In order to discover more about the children's home languages the best people are parents and members of the local community, who are usually more than willing to help staff to understand and appreciate their languages.

L. Cook and P. Vernon (2000) Science and Literacy Leicester: SCIcentre has an appendix of the all QCA Science Vocabulary from the QCA Scheme of Work from Year 1-Year 6 translated into Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati. The words are printed in a phonetic way so that an English speaker can say them as well as in the normal print of the language so that labels can be written. These lists were initially produced by teachers in Leicester City and then checked by LEA specialists. Other science lists could be produced in the same way.

Before starting a topic the science vocabulary needed should be identified. New and potentially problematic words can then planned for.

The number of new words being added to the child's repertoire should be kept to a minimum, handling one concept at a time. There is then less danger of muddling the child when teaching contrasting concepts. For example, it is better to use the term concave (and not concave) only at first, rather than two new science words, concave and convex together.

Once the words have been introduced the children need plenty of opportunity to practice them to ensure they are well established.
Words which are not used in frequent social use are those which cause most difficulty. Words such as less, fewer and narrow, need special attention because the children do not have much opportunity to hear them in context.

Words and phrases that cannot be directly translated from English into the home language need special attention. For example the phrases 'less than' and 'greater than' do not have a simple equivalent in Punjabi and the words soft and smooth are both translated into the same word. In cases like these the children usually need extra practical activities. To help the children realise the different ways soft and smooth are used in English, they can be given bags of different materials, such as smooth stones, lumps of foam and dried peas and asked which they would use as a soft pillow. It usually becomes clear that smooth stones are not suitable.

It helps to explain, to the children, that some problems are related to differences in languages as bilingual children are very aware and interested in languages in general.

3.3 Time for internalising new science language

Thinking time is needed Second language learners need to do two things at once: to understand the subject and acquire the second language. In order to give them the opportunity to actively participate in discussions they need plenty of thinking time. When the teacher asks a question the children may have to mentally translate it into their home language in order to understand it, think of the answer and then translate back to English before answering. This process is complicated by the fact the sequence and pattern of the two languages are unlikely to be the same; and that some of the new ideas which are not common in everyday language will not have been learnt in the home language. Because of the additional effort required second language learners have more need of regular intervals of rest than do native speakers.

Discussion of work in the home language can reduce the problem of having to think in two languages at once. It can be helpful to allow pupils to discuss activities and ideas with each other in their home language. However they should be required to report their findings in English. Pupils who can use all the language skills available to them are more likely to understand the science concepts.

Use of other bilingual speakers. This points to the advantage of having teachers or support staff capable of explaining the subject matter in the pupils' mother tongue. Such support enables the child to grasp and use the scientific ideas more rapidly. Ideally this should be a qualified teacher, but very effective support can be found in the community around the school, parents being ideal as they speak the appropriate dialect. Some helpers may feel able to talk to the whole class in conjunction with the teacher so that explanations and discussions can be provided in two languages. Other helpers might be happier to make tapes of instructions in English and the home language.

Even in a school with many support staff and interested parents there are usually a few children whose language is not represented by an adult speaker. These children need special attention so that they do not think that they and their language is not valued.

3.4 Importance of oral work

Oral competence normally precedes proficiency in reading and writing and needs to be given a high priority. Fortunately, cooperative group work and speaking and listening is an important part of the Science National Curriculum.

Open-ended science activities can involve the children in the high level language skills of questioning, negotiating, predicting and analysing.

If the practical science is carried out in pairs or groups, oral skills should be improved.

Reporting orally in English. In some groups the children may only use their home language but they are still fully exploring the science concepts and as they will be keen to tell their class about their discoveries, they try very hard to articulate what they have done in English later. Preparing to report and demonstrate their work orally to the rest of the class means they have to clarify both their English and science concepts.

Mixed ability grouping with regard to spoken English has proved to be especially valuable where one or two children who speak English well can act as translators for the others.

The use of talk partners has been explored in the Active Learning section of this website (under professional issues: teaching). If there are two pupils who both speak the same non-English mother language, they can be encouraged to explain what is happening, to each other, in this language. Even with only one native speaker in a class, asking them to explain it in their own language (to the mystification and admiration of the class and the teacher) can be useful. It gives the pupil a sense of pride in their own language, and shows they are fluent speakers. It also embeds the scientific ideas into their understanding.

For more ideas about words and the development of scientific vocabulary see chapter 4: Language and Learning and chapter 8: learning through talking of Ross et al (2004).

3.5 Using Reading Material

Key words can be introduced orally and in writing at the same time. Reading and speaking English have a closer development for the bilingual than for the monolingual child. Bilingual children often learn to say words at the same time as they start to read them. Written work appears to be improved if, as key words are introduced, they are also printed and displayed with appropriate set of objects, attached to pictures, or on annotated photographs of the children carrying out the relevant science activities. Although many of the children can not read their home language these labels can be given in more than one language to indicate to the children that their home language is valued.

Group work can also be used to develop the reading skills necessary to use science books, charts and other printed material. Group or paired reading provides the children with a situation for mutual support and enables them to clarify the meaning by discussion.

Written material usually needs to be prepared by the teacher. The young bilingual child's ability to read English is likely to be behind that of the monolingual child. As the children should not be held back from progressing in science by an inability to read English, many published worksheets or schemes with a requirement for a lot of reading are unlikely to be appropriate. Consequently, written material may need to be prepared by teachers.

Taped instructions assist. In the case of children whose reading level is not good enough, even with simplified written instructions, to allow independent work, taped instruction are useful. This support helps both children whose command of English was poor and monolingual children with learning difficulties. When the books or instructions have been taped the child is able repeat the instructions as many times as they feel necessary without the teacher having to be with them all the time. Ideally the instructions should be given in English and the home languages. If the children are expected to read both the instructions and their work to the teacher as part of the final assessment they are more likely to use the tape frequently.

3.6 Written Science

Use of a variety of different forms of communication to build into formal writing. Children should use a range methods to communicate their scientific information, either orally or in a written form. These can include drawing, painting, model-making, pictograms, bar-charts, tables, graphs, zigzag books, diaries, reports, poetry, using tape recorders, computers, photographs and dance. This imaginative range enables the teacher or children to choose an appropriate method to suit them. Consequently the children can express their scientific findings in an acceptable way and the teacher is given time to introduce the more concise, technical and impersonal style of traditional science reporting that will be met in the secondary school. Bilingual children need to master many different registers of English of which scientific language is one of the less common.

Sequencing the processes or activities that are carried out can help to develop formal scientific accounts. A set of photographs, pictures drawn by the teacher or children, can be discussed, sequenced and used to facilitate this writing.

Repetition of a basic sentence structure. Writing about science activities can be used to provide the opportunity for the same language structure to be repeated in an interesting way. Children will not enthuse about repeating the same sentence structure if there is no obvious purpose, even if it is essential to their grasp of English. Science can provide this motivation. For example, after measuring members of their group 6 year old children wrote: I am taller than a; I am taller than b; I am smaller than c; and so on. The science information varies but the children are able to repeat the same sentence.

On another occasion when the children were investigating and recording ways of making sounds from different musical instruments, the teacher provided labelled pictures of each instrument and the children used the words ‘tap’, ‘shake’, ‘pluck’ and ‘blow’ to first complete a matrix table and then to make simple books in which they had to complete the phrases like 'I can tap a ...'; 'I can shake a ...'. The more fluent wrote about their findings in other ways of their own choosing.

References for this section

  • Ditchfield, C. (Compiler) (1987) Secondary Science Curriculum Review Better Science: Working for a Multicultural Society, Heinemann
  • Jarvis J. (1991) ‘Science and Bilingual Children: Realising the Opportunities’ Education 3-13 19(1) 41-48.
  • National Curriculum Council (1989) A Curriculum for All York: NCC
  • National Curriculum Council (1992) Teaching Science to Pupils with Special Educational Needs York: NCC
  • Rutten, E. (1983), 'The role of language in intercultural education', in Batelaan, P. (Ed) The Practice of Intercultural Education, Commission for Racial Equality
  • Ross, K., Lakin, E. and Callaghan, P. (2004) Teaching Secondary Science. (Second edition) London: David Fulton (esp. chapters 4, 8 and 25)

This Section prepared by: Tina Jarvis, University of LeicesterMar 2005

Published: 23 Mar 2005, Last Updated: 24 Mar 2008