Improving the language and communication of secondary school children with language difficulties

A research report published in the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders investigates the effectiveness of teaching assistant (TA)-delivered narrative and vocabulary interventions to secondary school children with language difficulties.

Researchers at City University of London and University of Oxford conducted a randomised controlled trial in two outer London boroughs. Across 21 schools, 358 Year 7 underperforming pupils (mean age = 12.8 years) were recruited, and randomised to four groups within each school: vocabulary intervention, narrative intervention, combined narrative and vocabulary intervention, and delayed waiting control group. The narrative programme focused on the understanding and telling of stories, using a story structure to support story generation. Pupils were introduced to different types of stories (fictional, non‐fictional, scripts) and narrative genres. The vocabulary programme focused on developing key concepts and vocabulary items relevant to the curriculum (eg, nutrition) and age-appropriate (eg, careers). A variety of tasks including word associations, categorisation, mind‐mapping and word‐building were used to reinforce word learning.

The language and communication programmes (narrative, vocabulary, and combined narrative and vocabulary) were delivered by TAs in the classroom, three times per week, for 45–60 min each, over six weeks, totalling 18 sessions. Assessments were conducted pre- and post-intervention.

Overall, pupils in the intervention groups made greater improvements on standardised measures of narrative (effect size = +0.296), but not vocabulary skills, compared with control group children.

Source: Improving storytelling and vocabulary in secondary school students with language disorder: a randomized controlled trial (March 2019), International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 54:4

Teaching assistants make a positive difference on pupil outcomes

A working paper from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research finds evidence that teaching assistants can have positive effects on pupil outcomes.

Charles T. Clotfelter and colleagues examined the role of teaching assistants and other non-teaching staff in elementary (primary) schools in North Carolina to identify causal effects on pupils’ test scores in maths and reading.

Positive effects were identified on test scores in reading, but for maths, positive effects were only found for minority pupils’ test scores. For both reading and maths, the effects on minority pupils’ test scores were larger than the effects on the test scores for white pupils.

The report also found that more teachers (and therefore smaller class sizes) had a number of positive effects on test scores, particularly for minority pupils, and were also associated with lower absentee rates and a lower probability of high rates of in-school suspension.  

Source: Teaching assistants and nonteaching staff: Do they improve student outcomes? (2016) National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER)

Using teaching assistants to improve language skills and reading

Two new evaluations from the Education Endowment Foundation in England have found that two interventions using teaching assistants (TAs) have positive effects.

REACH is a targeted reading support programme designed to improve the reading accuracy and comprehension of students with reading difficulties in Years 7 and 8. It is delivered by specially trained TAs. The evaluation tested two interventions – one based on the original Reading Intervention developed by the University of York, and the other with supplementary material on language comprehension. The evaluation was carried out in 21 schools around Leeds, with 202 students (70 and 69 receiving each intervention; 63 control). Results showed a positive effect on reading skills for both the Reading Intervention (+0.33) and the Reading Intervention with additional material on language comprehension (+0.51). The evaluations did not provide evidence that the interventions improved reading comprehension in particular, as opposed to other skills such as word recognition.

The Nuffield Early Language Intervention is designed to improve the spoken language ability of children during the transition between nursery and primary school. It is targeted at children with poor language skills, who receive 20 or 30 weeks of sessions focused on listening, narrative, and vocabulary skills. The evaluation is delivered by TAs and nursery staff. The evaluation was carried out in 34 schools with attached nursery schools or nursery classes in Yorkshire and the South-East, with 350 children participating (114 received the 30-week treatment, 121 the 20-week treatment, and 115 in the control group). Both interventions had a positive effect on language skills (+0.27 for the 30-week and +0.16 for the 20-week). However, there was no reliable evidence that it had a positive effect on children’s word-literacy skills.

Source: REACH and Nuffield Early Language Intervention (2016), Education Endowment Foundation.

Best uses of TA time

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published a guidance report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants.

The report makes recommendations on the use of teaching assistants (TAs) in everyday classroom contexts, TAs delivering structured interventions out of class, and recommendations on linking learning from work led by teachers and TAs.

The main recommendations are:

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

Source: Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants (2015), Education Endowment Foundation