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Meet the presenter

Hi, I’m Alice. I’m one of the people who got teacher aide support at school. I have a degree in education, and I hope to be a teacher one day. I have worked as a volunteer teacher aide in several schools. I’m also a competitive sailor and a sea scout leader.
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M11 Teacher aide interaction that supports student learning

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Interaction strategies to encourage thinking and learning

Why this module?

Students learn through purposeful talk with others about new ideas and interesting problems. However, research has found that often, adults’ interactions with students work to shut down contributions to class talk. The research also shows that in many interactions between students and their teachers or teacher aides, the adult does most of the talking. Often the intention of these interactions is to help students by reducing the mental effort it takes to complete the task. Unfortunately, making the task easier can reduce the opportunity for students to learn.

Module 10: Supporting student learning in the whole class explains that it is preferable that a teacher aide's presence is treated as an opportunity to free up teachers so they can spend more time with students who need extra help. However, research has also found that generally teacher aides have more interactions with these students and spend more time talking with them. Therefore, it's important that teacher aides learn to talk with students in ways that open up the possibilities for learning.

This module presents some simple but effective strategies teacher aides can use to generate purposeful classroom talk that supports student learning.

Developing purposeful classroom talk

Purposeful classroom talk focuses on learning, not student behaviour. Too often, teacher aides can fall into the habit of noticing and responding to student behaviour, managing this with comments such as, “Come on. You need to stay on task.” While these kinds of comments might help redirect students’ attention or behaviour, they do little to help them to learn and think. Learning-focused talk has the double benefit of redirecting students’ behaviour to the task and helping them to learn. For example, “What is your next step?” and “What other information do you need?"

Talk about new concepts is a natural part of learning. In most classrooms, the teacher will have planned for some structured talk to enhance the learning.

In a genuine learning conversation, the talk is focused on the learning goals and intended content and the students do most of the talking. Where appropriate, the teacher or teacher aide will interject with a question or comment that keeps the learning focus at the heart of the conversation and helps students think more deeply.

Good planning is essential for teacher aides to be effective in supporting classroom learning talk. Teacher aides need to understand the intended learning and have time to think about how to structure the talk so that it enhances the learning opportunities for students. For this to happen, they need the teacher to share the plan for the day.

The Learning through Talk series (Ministry of Education, 2009) explains how instructional strategies such as questioning and prompting help students focus on the learning rather than just getting the right answer. It is intended primarily for teachers, but many teacher aides would also find it useful.

Using questions purposefully

One way that a teacher aide can support student thinking and learning is by asking the right questions at the right time. Carefully directed questions can help deepen students’ understandings.

Students will often ask for help from the teacher or teacher aide when they strike challenges in their learning. The research shows that teachers and teacher aides often respond with a question that contains the answer. This means that the students can guess at the answer without having to think through the challenge or problem. They may have the satisfaction of ‘getting it right’, but they haven't had the satisfaction of finding the solution for themselves.

The ‘right questions’ are asked purposefully, with the intent of helping students achieve their learning goal. They encourage students to think about what they are learning and to use what they already know and understand to accomplish the new task or work through the problem.

Never say anything a kid can say! This one goal keeps me focused. … Every time I am tempted to tell students something, I try to ask a question instead.”
— Reinhart, 2000, p. 480

Questions can be used in discussions with individuals and to promote group or classroom talk about the learning. Where appropriate, follow-up questions can be used to draw out and extend thinking.

It is important not to ask too many questions. This can make students feel they are being tested and need to get the ‘right answer’. Active learners don’t always know the answers, but they are good at asking questions for themselves.

There are different types of questions, each of which can be more appropriate at the beginning, middle or end of a lesson. Planning should include identifying some key questions and when it might be best to ask them. For example:

  • at the start of a lesson, recall questions can help students connect to previous learning (for example, “What did we learn about this character yesterday?”)
  • during a lesson, questions that require students to explain their reasoning or that of another student can generate critical thinking (“Do you agree with, X? Why, or why not?”)
  • at the end of a lesson, reflective questions can help students evaluate what they learned, how well they have learned it and where their learning might take them next (“Do you know enough now to move on to the next step? What else do you need to learn before moving on?”).

You can find out more about effective questioning in the Learning through Talk series (Ministry of Education, 2009.

Wait time

The term ‘wait time’ refers to the period that elapses from when students are asked a question to when they are expected to respond to it. It is a period of silence during which students can reflect on the question and work through their thinking. 

Students learn most effectively when they develop the ability to stand back from the information or ideas that they have engaged with and think about these objectively.
Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 34

Typically, more students respond and students’ responses are longer and more accurate when they are allowed at least three seconds of wait time. For some students this will be long enough, while other students will need longer. It’s important to use the right amount of wait time for each student, depending on their needs.

Research shows that teachers and teacher aides usually allow less than 1.7 seconds for students to respond. They allow even less time for students who require extra support. Three seconds can feel like a long time, and people are often surprised when a video recording reveals they do not wait this long. Instead, they tend to fill in the silence by asking another question or selecting another student to respond.

Increasing wait time is a simple strategy for supporting students to become more independent as learners. It tells students that they are expected to participate and gives them time to think about their learning.

Working together

Teachers and teacher aides need to work together to promote purposeful classroom talk. This means they can communicate shared expectations about how the students should engage with class talk and respond to questions. It also means they can be consistent in their use of the instructional strategies that support purposeful learning conversations.

Teachers can help teacher aides use these strategies by modelling their use of specific ‘talk moves’ with the whole class, in group situations and with individual students. Before the lesson, teachers can help teacher aides identify key questions that can be used at different times during the lesson to help keep the intended learning in focus.

References and further reading

Anthony, G., & Walshaw, M. (2009). Effective pedagogy in mathematics (Educational practices series 19). International Academy of Education, International Bureau of Education & UNESCO.
Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.
Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning through talk: Oral language in years 1 to 3. Wellington: Learning Media.
Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning through talk: Oral language in years 4 to 8. Wellington: Learning Media.
New Zealand Curriculum Online: Learning conversations and key competencies.
Reinhart, S. D. (2000). Never say anything a kid can say. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 5(8) 478–483.
Sinnema, C., & Aitken, G. Effective pedagogy in social sciences (Educational practices series 23). International Academy of Education, International Bureau of Education & UNESCO.
Webster, R., Blatchford, P., & Anthony R. (2013). Challenging and changing how schools use teaching assistants: Findings from the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants Project. School Leadership & Management. 33(1) 78–96.