Improving the Practice of Teaching Assistants

Julie Radfordpost by JULIE RADFORD

Institute of Education, University of London.

Teaching assistants (TAs) are supporting our most disadvantaged children in almost every classroom in the UK. Despite our inclusive education system, these young people can be segregated because they spend more time talking with a TA than with the teacher. Of major concern is that, unlike the teacher, TAs often have limited training or preparation to do this very important job.

Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, TAs can have unintended negative effects on the learner (Radford, Blatchford and Webster, 2011; Blatchford, Russell and Webster, 2012). For example, when talking about a maths problem, they may give misleading information; or they might tell children the answers rather than getting them to think about the learning task. It is vital, therefore, that TAs receive relevant training before they enter a school and are given suitable advice from the teacher before each lesson.

So what should this training include? It is widely known that high quality classroom talk is at the heart of successful learning (Mercer and Littleton, 2007). TAs work mainly with groups of children or support learners on a one-to-one basis. As a result, the language that they use is different from the language used by the teacher when talking to the whole class.

Our work shows that TAs are most effective when their talk ‘scaffolds’ children’s learning (Radford et al, 2014). Scaffolding involves some important rules: first the language must be sensitively pitched at a level that the child currently understands or at a slightly higher level; next, the adult must fade their support over time to increase the child’s responsibility. This is very important because parents want their children to grow up to be independent learners. An unintended consequence of the ‘velcro’ model of TA support is that learners become dependent on adult help, the effects of which can last throughout their school career.

We have found evidence of three kinds of scaffolding in the talk of TAs (Radford et al., forthcoming). First, when they use ‘supportive’ scaffolding, they are very good at keeping children well behaved, motivated and listening to the teacher. Secondly, through ‘repair’ scaffolding, they help children to think for themselves when they make an error or are stuck in a lesson. Finally, ‘heuristic’ scaffolding involves getting children to use learning strategies independently. Our research shows that this is particularly important in maths and literacy lessons.

There are crucial implications of our work for policy makers and those who train TAs, including special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs). If we expect TAs to deliver these scaffolding roles effectively, schools must rethink TA recruitment to ensure appropriate levels of subject knowledge (e.g. a maths GCSE to support maths). There needs to be a national, quality assured training programme that includes how to talk with children effectively. Teachers also need, through pre- and in-service training, to consider how to advise the TA on various aspects of instruction. These recommendations would go a long way to ensuring that TAs can be effective in supporting the needs of our most vulnerable youngsters.


Blatchford, P., Russell, A. & Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the impact of teaching assistants: How research challenges practice and policy, Oxon: Routledge.

Mercer, N. & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the development of children’s thinking: a sociocultural approach. Abingdon: Routledge.

Radford, J., Blatchford, P. & Webster, R. (2011). Opening up and closing down: how teachers and TAs manage turn-taking, topic and repair in mathematics lessons.  Learning and Instruction, 21, 625-635.

Radford, J., Bosanquet, P., Webster, R., Blatchford, P.,& Rubie-Davies, C. (2014). Fostering learner independence through heuristic scaffolding: a valuable role for teaching assistants.  International Journal of Educational Research, 63, 116-126.

Radford, J., Bosanquet, P., Blatchford, P., Webster, R. (forthcoming) Scaffolding instruction for children with special educational needs: clarifying teacher and TA roles in the classroom. Learning and Instruction.