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The Least Effective Use of a TA - Teaching by Echo Part One

We asked for a guest blog from SEND and safeguarding specialist Sara Alston. This is part one of her thoughts about getting the best out of the Teaching Assistants in our classrooms.

The role of the Teaching Assistant is among the most controversial in schools. However, much of the debate focuses on costs and returns, and not really on what TAs do.

Or what they should and should not be doing.

Yet TAs undertake a vital role in ensuring the inclusion of pupils with special needs and disabilities but only when used well. The trouble is I have seen too much of a focus on TAs supporting learning through ‘teaching by echo’ – the class teacher says it first, the child hears the echo from the TA sitting next to them. In this way we miss an opportunity to genuinely prepare children for learning so they can engage with it first-hand, not through a well-meaning intermediary.

Can we agree initially, though, that all children are entitled to quality first teaching. This means that they are entitled to be taught by the most expert and best qualified person in the room. Echo teaching robs then of this, whether that is the TA repeating and reframing what the teachers has said in the classroom or working with the child outside the room on a slightly different version of the learning.

Either way the child is not accessing the quality first teaching first-hand.

This issue is exacerbated in many schools as there is no satisfactory or realistic system for teachers and TAs to share information and planning. The reliance on a ‘quick chat’ before or after the lesson is not good enough and is dependent on both parties having the time, good will, and a good working relationship for this to be standing even a slim chance of being productive.

The result is many TAs are made to ‘wing it’ - picking up the learning alongside the child, then being expected to differentiate it on the spot to those who have the most difficulty accessing it anyway.

What’s more, the more expert professional i.e. the teacher, who is delivering to the majority, has time to prepare while the less expert professional, ie the TA, delivering to those in greatest need of support, does not.

Clearly, this is not a system that leads to all children accessing quality first teaching. So, what needs to change. First off, TAs need time to look at the teacher’s planning and understand what is being taught so they can then better prepare for learning, not simply support it.

Preparation for learning, not support for learning

In response to research that TAs could be a barrier to learning, the 2014 EEF Report on Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants identified seven key recommendations as follows:

  1. TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low attaining pupils Page 13 1
  2. Use TAs to add value to what teachers do, not replace them
  3. Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning
  4. Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom
  5. Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions
  6. Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction
  7. Ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching structured interventions

There are some really useful suggestions here however, my work in a range of schools shows that we are still a long way from achieving them.

To break this cycle, we need to reconsider what we mean by ‘support’ in the class. In particular, we need to move TAs towards the idea of preparing children for learning, so that they are better able to access the teaching first-hand and are less dependent on the TA.

What this means is that, where the TA is in the classroom, the focus needs to move away from ‘echoing’ the learning, which confuses and clouds it, particularly for children with speech and language needs or processing issues. Their difficulties are compounded as they hear the information from the teacher, try to understand it, then they receive it echoed from the TA in slightly different wording, then they have to try and process and compare the different versions.

The Power of Pre-Learning

Much better to use pre-learning to support these children to access learning first-hand.

For children to access what the teacher is saying, they need to have the language and vocabulary to understand it. We all understand the struggles to follow a debate about a topic completely beyond our knowledge or comfort zone, yet this is what many children face every lesson. Most children are able to develop their vocabulary as part of the lesson, but for many, particularly those with SEND, the language and vocabulary need to be learnt beforehand, so that they are tuned in and prepared for the learning.

This means that they know what the teacher is talking about and can follow and join in the learning. They need visuals to remind them about the vocabulary and act as a prompt.

Furthermore, for those with ASD who struggle with change, if they know what they are going to be taught before the lesson, it reduces their anxiety and increases their ability to access the learning. Pre-learning reduces the dependence of the pupil on the TA in the lesson and supports them to learn from the teacher directly. [ITL]

This is part one of three-part piece. You can contact our guest-blogger Sara Alston about her work in SEND, inclusion and safeguarding at

About the author


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