Linda Evans suggests how SENCOs can plan and deliver training on subjects which feature prominently in the role of most teaching assistants (TAs)

Whether involved with one-to-one or small group work, or delivering general ‘whole-class’ support, it’s important that TAs have a sound understanding of the processes involved in learning to read. The outline below provides ideas for two sessions of professional development for SENCOs to use with their TA colleagues.

Session 1: Foundations

Most adults take reading skills very much for granted, so it can be useful (and fun!) to demonstrate to TAs what it is like to be faced with squiggles on a page that have no obvious meaning.


Use the Wingdings font in word and have a group of students work out what it means. If you supply a picture, this will help enormously – providing a context and ‘cueing in’ the readers.

This activity serves two purposes – it can make TAs feel anxious about their abilities just as weak readers do, and it demonstrates the value of providing a context and other reading cues. You can extend the learning experience by playing the role of stern teacher: ‘No talking, work this out on your own.’ Then encouraging them to work in pairs and help each other (phew!!!). Then giving them a cue… all of this serves to remind them what it feels like when you can’t do what is asked of you – an important factor in supporting pupils with learning difficulties. Try this one too:


Show this sentence to the group and ask someone to read it aloud.
.noitaerc wolley eht no gnidiced yllanif erofeb eulb eht neht sserd der eht no deirt ehS

Your TAs will soon work out that they have to read backwards (there is a clue in the capital letter and full stop positions). Ask the reader if s/he can remember what they have read? What was the choice of dresses? In concentrating on the decoding, the reader may well have ‘lost the gist’ of the sentence, something that happens a lot to developing readers when a book is too difficult for them. When a reader has had to work hard with text always give him/her a chance to re-read; once the process is less fraught, s/he can begin to relax, understand the passage and even enjoy it.

What do readers need to do?


Ask TAs to brainstorm all the things that a good reader has to be able to do: check off their ideas against the list below.


Readers need to:

  • see the print
  • sit still and concentrate
  • understand language
  • discriminate between words and letters (you may be surprised at how many young children don’t really
    know the difference!); know that print carries meaning
  • understand one-to-one correspondence
  • discriminate between sounds and match sounds to letter shapes
  • match and generalise
  • know how books work (back/front; top/bottom; left/right; first/last page; author, title, illustrator; turning pages, one at a time) and be able to use contents pages, index, glossary
  • be able to ‘guess and check’ – using the full range of strategies to work out unfamiliar words
  • have an interest in books (willing, motivated, participating, enjoying).


How do we check/ensure that these abilities are developed/ being developed?

Session 2: Strategies

What are the strategies that learners can use to work out an unfamiliar word? Use the activity below to help TAs explore the possibilities.

  • What makes sense – in terms of meaning and grammar?
  • Is there a picture/diagram to give me a cue?
  • What is the first letter sound?
  • Can I build up the word from its onset and rime/letter sounds?
  • Shall I miss it out, read on and come back to it?
  • Now… what could it be – have a guess, then check – does it make sense?

Give the reader enough time to work it out – encourage him/her to use different strategies (what can we do to work it out? What about…) but supply the right word when it’s appropriate, eg when:

  • it’s a new word that the child has never seen (or even heard)
  • it’s a name of a person or place
  • it cannot be worked out by building up sounds (eg enough, though, once).

Context and vocabulary
Context is very important for developing readers. You can use the activity at the top of the next page to demonstrate this point.

S/he will undoubtedly ‘read’ it well – and answer the questions – but what does it mean? As pupils become more experienced in recognising words and using phonics, they may read aloud very well, but not understand very much at all about what they are reading. It’s important to remember that some readers will have limited experience (of books, and the world in general) and a limited vocabulary, and this will impact on their ability to ‘guess and check’ when they meet unfamiliar words in their books.

So… introduce the book before asking the pupil to begin reading. Look at the title, ‘what do we think it’s about?’ Look at the pictures – sometimes you can quickly skim through the book to get the gist of the story and highlight any tricky words: ‘Look, Fred is on his skateboard here’. Once the word ‘skateboard’ has been introduced, it’s less likely that the reader will stumble when he comes to read it.


Ask one of the TAs to read out this passage and answer the ‘comprehension’ questions. The little blumblegat was very froded. It wanted to chitter and devose, but the tranlots were coming. They would ganter the frep if they could. Q. How was the blumblegat feeling?

Q. What did the blunblegat want to do?

Starting from a solid foundation

Once you have a baseline for a child (key word recognition, phonic knowledge, book handling skills) you can consolidate the knowledge s/he has and slowly build up from there, making sure that s/he experiences success in every session. A common mistake in working with developing readers, is to try to do too much too quickly, causing frustration to the child and disappointment for the teacher/TA.

In the early stages, making a book with the child can be a good starting point. Use a digital camera to photograph the child in different areas of the school – even if s/he can recognise only his/her name, you can make a simple story with clear cues provided by the pictures: Kylie is in the playground; Kylie is on the slide, etc. This will help the child to recognise and remember some key words in a meaningful way (and they love reading about themselves). Print the phrases out in sentence strips and cut them up into individual words for them to practise re-making the sentences.

Alongside this, you will be doing some phonics practice – following whatever scheme the school uses. Just one word of caution here: phonics is about hearing a sound and matching it to a letter/cluster of letters. Paper and pencil exercises may not be useful, if the child doesn’t actually link the sound with the appropriate letter. There is an endless variety of good-quality, multi-sensory games and software to support phonics work, including home-made versions of Lotto, Snap etc. (Make sure you provide parents and carers with appropriate support in this area – they often want to help but are just not sure how.)

Most important, is remembering that reading is all about enjoying books and stories and being able to find out information. Always include in any small group work the reading of a good story, rhyme or poem that you know the children will enjoy. And be sure to link any work on letter sounds or key words to a meaningful piece of text.

Listening to readers

  • Keep the sessions regular and short.
  • Establish a comfortable and relaxed environment.
  • Let him/her hold the book.
  • Use plenty of praise.
  • Keep up the pace by reading alternate sentences or pages. 
  • Be patient – allow time for the reader to think.
  • Encourage the reader to ‘guess and check’.
  • Help out with tricky words – remind the reader about different cues (first letter sound, picture, read on, come back, etc) but provide the word when necessary – don’t make an issue of it.  
    Try: Pause (5 seconds), prompt (remind them of strategies) and praise (be specific – ‘I like the way you worked that out’; ‘well done – you remembered that word from yesterday’).

Paired reading: two voices read together – yours and the pupil’s – keep up good expression and a good pace; the pupil taps you when s/he feels confident enough to ‘go it alone’. (Good for anxious/slow readers. If the pace of reading is very slow, it’s difficult to follow what is going on – the reader loses the thread of the story)

Pupils in KS2/3

When pupils reach KS2/3 and have difficulties with reading, the main issue can be one of motivation. They have experienced a lot of failure with reading and may have low self-esteem. It’s important to have good quality, age-appropriate books to work with, and newspapers and magazines. Short stories and plays are popular for reading aloud; consider reading silently together, then talking about the passage/chapter to check understanding – highlight and explain tricky words before they start reading. (Look at the Download series from Rising Stars, and the Rex Jones stories from Badger Publishing.) Remember that reading ‘on screen’ can be considered less onerous, and the huge amount of software for supporting literacy development can be used to good effect with older learners (

Subject support

When supporting pupils in lessons, consider the following strategies to help them cope with subject-specific text:

  • ‘cue them in’ to what the passage is about, remind them of relevant previous learning
  • write out any new and/or difficult words, pronouncing syllable by syllable and explaining their meaning
  • ask pupils to identify phrases/sentences which give a particular piece of information (help them to see through the ‘padding’): if the text is on a handout, they can use a highlighter pen to identify main points
  • if they are going to be required to read aloud to the class, help them rehearse.


Ask TAs to:

  • demonstrate to the group one software programme they find useful for developing reading – and explain why it is effective
  • recommend three books for use with older pupils – and explain why they are useful.

Check that TAs:

  • have a copy of the phonics progression scheme, lists of key words (for year groups/subject departments)
  • understand how the reading scheme works, and know about the ‘peripherals’
  • can use appropriate software
  • have effective ways of monitoring and recording pupils’ progress
  • are familiar with ‘quick’ reads and can select/recommend appropriate books.


The New NASEN A-Z of Reading Resources, Suzanne Baker, David Fulton Publishers

Working with Words, Rosemary Hawker, Questions Publishing