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How to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of all students

Updated: Mar 12

I loved the targeted usefulness of this paper by Dr Dinu and Dr Chian.

With their permission, and with Dr Dinu’s final edit, we have used AI to generate an easy-read summary.


Uncovering Principles for Curriculum Adaptation:

A Practitioner and Researcher (Co)reflexive Analysis

Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research

2023, Vol. 17, 16–38 ISSN: 1935-3308


Carmen Carola Dinu is an EdD graduate of The University of Hong Kong

Monaliza Maximo Chian, Ph.D., is a Post-doctoral Fellow of Education at The University of Hong Kong


Teachers have a difficult task trying to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of all students. It's a challenging balance because it's not easy to change the curriculum while also following given guidelines. Teachers struggle with deciding whether to focus on academic standards for everyone, especially for the required tests, or to cater to the different ways students learn. Various studies have looked into these challenges (Westwood, 2018; Kim et al., 2017; Leko et al., 2015; Quinn & Kim, 2017; Chapman & Elbaum, 2021; Dunn & Darlington, 2016; Yazıcılar & Bümen, 2019).

Adapting the curriculum has been a well-used strategy for making classrooms more diverse and inclusive. We see it as a lively process where the content and how teachers bring it to life all mix together. According to Sawyer (2000), it's like a dynamic interaction dance involving teachers, students, the subject matter, and the different places where learning happens. So, adapting the curriculum isn't just about modifying what's taught; it's about considering the diverse backgrounds, values, and beliefs of students while teaching and learning. This perspective highlights the need to bring in and respect the cultural identities of students during the adaptation process.


In this article, we share our experience adapting an English as a Second Language reading curriculum for primary students in Hong Kong during the COVID-19 pandemic. We, a teacher-researcher and an outside researcher, used interactional ethnography to dive into the actions, considerations, and challenges of making five adaptations to the curriculum over an academic period. Our ongoing conversation led to a reflective analysis in two phases. First, we aimed to understand the reading program, and in the second phase, we unpacked the five adaptations throughout the academic year. What we found was that these adaptations were shaped by data, instructional time, and different teaching styles. From our discoveries, we derived three principles for curriculum adaptations: focusing on personalized learning, organizing learning activities systematically, and purposefully blending theory and practice.


Personalized Learning

The first principle for adapting the curriculum is all about focusing on personalized learning. This involves a problem-solving approach taken by the instruction team across various adaptations. They emphasize humanizing pedagogy, which means making students the focus of teaching and learning. This student-centered approach, rooted in differentiated instruction, empowers students to take charge of their learning and growth. The key is to consider students' readiness, interests, and learning profile, using data collection and analysis to understand individual differences and preferences.


The study highlights the importance of knowing how each student learns, what motivates them, and at what level they can effectively learn. This knowledge guides strategic planning for adapting content and curriculum enactment. Aligning tasks, activities, and materials with students' reading abilities is crucial. The study indicated that using pre and post-diagnostic assessments at the beginning and the end of the academic year and conducting student pre and post-interviews to tailor the curriculum to their abilities, interests and preferred learning activities led to enhancements in reading competency.

You need to co-ordinate

The second principle for adapting the curriculum is about having a well-organized and coordinated approach to learning activities. This means aligning teaching methods and activities, which requires teachers to have a deep understanding of their students. This understanding includes knowing students' interests, cultural backgrounds, motivations, learning preferences, academic abilities, and language proficiency levels. Throughout various adaptations, the instruction team used different teaching methods like whole-class interactive instruction, group work, guided learning, and individual activities in face-to-face settings. In the virtual learning space, they facilitated student interactions and extended conversations through online platforms.


Expanding on the idea of orchestration in learning, the study emphasizes the collaborative and individual efforts of the instruction team. They drew from their expertise, background knowledge, and personal experiences to navigate the challenges of curriculum adaptation. The researchers' diverse backgrounds and different fields of expertise, along with their shared experiences as program coordinators and teachers of English as a Second Language, enriched the analysis. Their ongoing conversation, built on mutual trust and respect, was crucial for sustaining the partnership and making the research more rigorous. Despite differences in language, upbringing, and teaching locations, these variations contributed to a more comprehensive understanding of the curriculum adaptation process.

There is beauty in balance

The third principle for adapting the curriculum is about blending theory and practice in a purposeful way. During five curriculum adaptations, the instruction team tried to keep a good balance between the parts of the school's reading program. They based their approach on the social constructivist theory of learning and the ideas behind differentiated instruction. Their adaptations, both in content and teaching process, were generated by ongoing assessments through observations, reflections, and students' products. Keeping an eye on student progress helped teachers understand each student's interests in learning and use the right support at the right time.


The study stresses the importance of using the More Knowledgeable Other strategy, where students with better reading skills team up with those who need a bit more help. This strategy, mixed with student interactions and performance, is crucial to the process of adjusting the curriculum. Throughout the adaptations, the instruction team's reflection-adaptation-refinement cycle showed how committed they were to meeting the different needs of their students. They adjusted their approaches on the spot, mixing in social-emotional learning and creating spaces for students to share based on what the students indicated.


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