Teaching Assistants: The Dangers of teaching by echo

The role of the TA is among the most controversial in schools. However, much of the debate focuses on numbers, not what TAs do. TAs undertake a vital role to ensure inclusion of pupils with special needs and disability. However, there is too much concentration on TA supporting learning which all too often ends up as ‘teaching by echo’, rather than preparing children for learning, so they can engage with the teaching first hand.

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. However, for many children with SEND they are being taught by the TA who acts as an intermediator, ‘an echo’, between the child and the teacher; repeating and reframing what they teachers says. Sometimes this is working with the child outside the room on a slightly different version of the learning. Sometimes this is a reiteration of what the teacher is saying in the classroom. Either way the child is not accessing the quality first teaching first hand.

The issue is exacerbated in many schools where there is no satisfactory or realistic system for teachers and TAs to share information and planning. The reliance on the ‘quick chat’ before or after the lesson is not good enough and is dependent on both parties having the time, good will and relationship for this to be productive. The result is many TAs are ‘winging it’; picking up the learning alongside the child, then being expected to differentiate effectively to deliver the learning to those who have the most difficulty accessing it. The more expert person, the teacher, delivering to the majority has time to prepare while the less expert, the TA, delivering to in greatest need of support does not. This is not a system that leads to all children accessing quality first teaching. As a bottom line, to support learning in the classroom TAs need time to look at planning and understand what is being taught.

Preparing for learning, not support for learning

Even when TAs are prepared and understand the learning, if they are delivering the teaching rather than the teacher it is still an ‘echo’. Logic and experience tells us that ‘echo teaching’ leads to distortions and misunderstandings. Yet this is the version of education we are choosing for many of our most vulnerable pupils. This makes no sense, so we need to reconsider how TAs support children, so TAs enable the child to access the teaching first hand rather than delivering the teaching second hand. 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 7 key recommendations. 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 supporting in the class. We need to move to TAs preparing children for learning, so that the children are more able to access the teaching first hand and are less dependent on the TA. Where the TA is in the classroom, the focus needs to move from ‘echoing’ the learning which confuses and clouds it, particularly for children with speech and language needs or processing issues. This compounds their difficulties as they hear the information from the teacher, try to understand it, then they receive it echoed from the TA in slightly different wording. They then have to try and process and compare the different versions. 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 needs 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.
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.

Accessing instructions, not learning

TAs need to support access to the instructions: what to do with the learning and how to demonstrate it, rather than the learning itself. Using task management boards to act as visual reminders and check lists to support a child through the task, now and next cards, visual timetables and worked examples, TA can provide strategies to support access to learning. By making the support visual, and not dependent on the TA at the child’s side, they reduce the endless repetition of information and instructions which leads to confusion, dependence and inhibits learning. Further, removing the pressure to access the instructions can enable the child to focus on what is being taught.

Use the technology

TAs can also find themselves acting as an intermediator between the child and teacher when it comes to children demonstrating their understanding. All too often, oddly more in secondary than primary schools, I see TAs acting as scribes, recording the children’s learning. This is not preparation for adulthood and is depriving children of the opportunity to develop their skills for effective communication. Moreover, it is nonsense in an age of growing technology. As adults, the children will use computers, in fact many of them do already at home, to record ideas and thinking. Yet in schools, IT is seen as too expensive, too complicated and too difficult. It is all these things because we are focused on the immediacy of the lesson and not giving time to preparing children to learn.

No-one would give a learner driver a car and let them go off and try it without supervision, support and lessons. Apart from being dangerous, it would lead to frustration and the learner would give up as they don’t know how to drive effectively. Nonetheless, this is often the approach to using technology to support learning. For children to make effective use of technology to support their learning they need to know how. Children need training. As with the learner driver, this takes time and effort. Further, as when we get a new car, it takes time to get used to it and learn about the new gadgets, so it does with new IT equipment. TAs need to be given the time and training to work with children to develop their effective use of the technology, so they can develop independence in recording. This requires a change of mind set where we look beyond the one lesson to developing life skills and independence. This may mean work outside, as well as in the classroom.

Evidence in the classroom

Effective use of technology, pre-learning and over-learning (where the learning is reinforced, re-visited and misconceptions are challenged) are key to effective support for learning, but they are not necessarily evident in the classroom in the form of the TA sat beside the child. One of the challenges to a move to preparation for learning, rather than echo teaching is that too few people at all levels in schools- headteachers, teachers and TAs themselves- understand what is meant by ‘supporting’ in class. There has been a move away from the Velcro TA; stuck to the child at all times. But this is not based in a secure understanding of the alternatives. I still meet heads, parents and SENCo who say, ‘they have 25 hours support’ and at some level believe that this should be one to one. All the evidence is that this is not what 25 hours of support means, except in some special cases of physical or safeguarding needs, yet this belief continues. This leads TAs and teachers to believe that the TA should be with ‘their child’ and this restricts how teachers feel able to deploy the TA in the classrooms. Even if the child does need one to one support that doesn’t mean they don’t need or are not entitled to teacher time. One use of the TA would be for them to work with others, so that the teacher can work with ‘their child’.

We need to change our model of TA support from Velcro to ‘helicopter’. ‘The helicopter TA’ prepares the child for learning ‘dropping down’ the strategies and resources needed for learning. Then they ‘hover’ and can drop in when the support is needed to re-focus, reminding the child to use the strategies and resources available and leave again, so the child can develop independence and true learning.

Preparation for adulthood

There is an ongoing mantra in SEND about preparation for adulthood. Few people are going to go into adulthood with another adult glued to their shoulder. If we perpetuate dependence on a TA for children with SEND by continually supporting their learning, we are not preparing them to be independent adults. This is not fair. They need preparation for independence that means that in school we need to prepare them for learning independently, enabling them to practice tackling tasks on their own and experiencing success.

We need to move away from ‘echo teaching’. TAs need to be given permission to leave ‘their child’. But to be confident to do this, they need to be given the time, resources and skills to prepare the children so that they can access the learning first hand. If support to access learning is going to be effective, it requires preparation and planning, including time for TAs to read and understand teachers’ plan This will often mean that TAs (under the teacher’s direction) will be preparing resources, providing pre- and over-learning and supporting the development of IT skills and therefore are not so visible in the classroom, but have greater impact. If we are to improve outcomes for SEND children, we need to focus on and understand how best to support these children in class by building independence, not dependence on adults. This means we must reconsider how best use TAs and give them and teachers the confidence that children with SEND can access learning without a constant TA presence.

Further information

I have written a number of online course for TAs including

  • Pre- and over learning
  • Supporting learning throughout the lesson

which are available via Inclusion Expert

I have experience of  TA audits looking at deployment, organisation and use of Teaching Assistants in school. My feedback has been very good. All the school have found having an ‘outside pair of eyes’ look at their practice very useful. If you would like me to support your school in this way, please contact me at seainclusion@btinternet.com

One thought on “Teaching Assistants: The Dangers of teaching by echo

  1. Meg says:

    I couldn’t agree more Sara.
    The school I’m a governor at have mercifully just realised this and are using the teacher more. Alice’s school make a maths and literacy mini movie online so children know what’s coming up the following week.

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