While teaching assistants were originally introduced into the classroom to support the teacher, with the appropriate training and support, their role within the school can move beyond this.
The 2009 government report, Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties, outlined the need for schools and staff to have access to this specialist expertise, and expressed the importance for all teachers to have the skills needed to include pupils with dyslexia in their lessons, including the ability to provide appropriate literacy interventions.
Hiring specialist teachers places greater strain on tight school budgets, so it makes financial and practical sense to give teaching assistants the training they need to become specialised, as they are often already delivering literacy interventions in the classroom.
Taking TAs to the next level
A number of specialist training courses are now available for teaching assistants involved in delivering such support, ranging from short courses to longer, accredited and university-based courses, and more and more teaching assistants are accessing these opportunities.
However, while this training might well have a positive impact upon the progress of an individual pupil’s literacy skills, along with my colleague, Dr Kath Kelly, we wanted to find out more about the impact of specialist training for teaching assistants.
We set out to interview 23 teaching assistants in both primary and secondary settings who had undertaken a nine-month long dyslexia teaching certificate in two local authorities in the North of England. The courses were delivered at local authority teachers’ centres by dyslexia-qualified local authority staff who led the training input over the first six months of the course then subsequently supervised the teaching assistants’ teaching practice and mentored them through the process.
First, we asked the teaching assistants about their experiences of the specialist training course itself and its impact upon their learning and professional practice. The majority said that although it had been a steep learning curve, the support of the tutor developed their confidence and they had enjoyed the course; it had successfully developed their practice and increased their skill level in assessment, planning, teaching and evaluation of pupil progress.
In terms of impact upon their attitudes and perceptions, many teaching assistants expressed how they had developed more patience and empathy with children with dyslexia and now had a better understanding of how presenting poor pupil behaviour might well be an expression of frustration. Additionally, the teaching assistants all grasped how and why the dyslexia-friendly, multi-sensory, teaching methodology is effective.
But what of the wider impact in the school of having specialist trained teaching assistants on the staff?
The wider impact
In terms of wider changes to the schools’ thinking and practice, many teaching assistants explained that because they were recognised as a specialist member of staff, teachers began asking them for best practice advice and, as such, developed a school-wide awareness and understanding of dyslexia; and they had a more positive approach towards pupils with dyslexia.
In addition, some teaching assistants were also asked to plan and lead whole-school staff INSET, develop a school provision map with their SENCO, train new staff, produce induction booklets on dyslexia, and also give their input into their school’s dyslexia policy document.
A few teaching assistants even reported that their schools had now decided to apply for the British Dyslexia Association’s Dyslexia-friendly Quality Mark.
A number of teaching assistants also reported an increased participation in liaison with parents of children with dyslexic type difficulties, explaining the content of their literacy support programmes and discussing how parents could help support these at home.
They noted that this also had the effect of facilitating a dialogue with parents about their child’s difficulties and their learning needs and preferences, with any useful information being relayed to colleagues.
Enablers and blockers
Dr Kelly and I also wanted to research how “enablers” and “blockers”, in terms of contextual factors in schools, enhanced or limited the wider impact of the specialist training for the teaching assistants.
In terms of enablers, teaching assistants noted that there were several key considerations that helped ensure their training was having a positive impact for the entire school. First, it is important that teaching assistants aren’t asked to provide cover for lessons if they are timetabled in to provide a specialist teaching session, as this can have a detrimental effect on the pupil. Likewise, they should be given the autonomy to decide what support pupils with dyslexia require, and the time and budget to prepare for their needs and buy the teaching resources required to help in delivering this provision.
In secondary schools, dyslexia-trained teaching assistants explained that working closely with the English department can help them plan appropriate lessons for mainstream English classes, thereby helping to support students with dyslexia in these lessons.
It is well-known that SENCOs need to liaise regularly with their local authority advisory staff, but teaching assistants outlined that they too need to make these links – and their SENCO was the best person to facilitate this introduction.
There were also a number of blockers reported by the teaching assistants, although these were reported by a minority of our sample, further showing how training teaching assistants in specialised areas is of great benefit to schools. The main blockers noted by the teaching assistants were:
- Insufficient access to the children who needed specialist teaching.
- Being asked to cover for staff absences.
- Lack of resources.
- Not having the time to pass on their skills and knowledge to other staff members. This was expressed as a huge frustration by secondary teaching assistants, as it meant that some teaching continued to be to be inappropriate for dyslexic learners.
So what can we learn from the reported experiences of the specialist-trained teaching assistants?
How schools can help
Training courses need to match the academic abilities and ambitions of their staff and should preferably offer on-going mentoring support. Likewise, schools should acknowledge that CPD is not just a “one-off”, but a career-long enterprise, and therefore should offer regular CPD opportunities and, while on the course, give teaching assistants the time they need to study for their course.
Peer support can also be beneficial, giving teaching assistants the chance to discuss what they have learned and share their best practice, so schools can help facilitate this through online networks, for example, and by also encouraging the development of strong links between specialist-trained teaching assistants and mainstream teachers, so that they can collaborate on lessons and enable all learners to be supported.
When school staff work together, it greatly impacts the teaching and learning in the school, so the specialist teaching assistant must be embedded in the practice of the school and be approachable and flexible, having the ability to share their ideas and knowledge and help develop provisions that support all students.
Teaching assistants have the ability and capability to become more than just “cover lesson” teachers or support for mainstream teachers. Schools need to recognise this and give them the opportunity to access CPD opportunities, as it will not only benefit the teaching assistant, but the entire school too.
- Dr Dominic Griffiths is a senior lecturer in inclusive education and SEN at Manchester Metropolitan University, with 30 years’ experience teaching in primary, secondary and special schools. He is also a member of special needs association Nasen.