Sharing lesson planning with your teaching assistant

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Good lesson outcomes can be supported by teachers sharing their planning with teaching assistants. Sara Alston offers three key questions to help facilitate this important process

None of us do our best work when we are not sure what we are doing. Yet, despite years of work by the MITA project (see further information) and the Education Endowment Foundation highlighting the key issues of teaching assistant deployment (Sharples et al, 2018), practice and preparedness, this is the position we put teaching assistants in on a daily basis.

Many teaching assistants enter the classroom with the children and have no time to liaise with the class teacher or read and understand the planning – when they are lucky enough to get a copy of it at all. Basically they are winging it which means they are not able to provide the best support for children.
Communication about planning is vital if we are going to support children’s learning effectively.

Why we need to share planning

  • To support and promote children’s independence and give them opportunities to take risks with their learning.
  • To provide children with appropriate visuals and other prompts to support their understanding and vocabulary. Staff need to know both what is coming up and what is the key vocabulary in order to create effective and appropriate visual prompts.
  • To ensure a teaching assistant can support children to focus on the learning.
  • To enable teaching assistants to support children with clear instructions.
  • To support teaching assistants to use effective questioning to promote learning and extend thinking.

What happens if we don’t

  • Teaching assistants tend to fall back on over-prompting and spoon-feeding children the answers.
  • The visuals and other prompts are often haphazard, inappropriate, or introduced at the wrong time, so inhibit rather than promote learning.
  • If a teaching assistant is not confident with the focus of the learning, it can be difficult for them to separate it from the administration. Then they may focus on that and task completion, rather than learning.
  • If teaching assistants are not sure what is happening in a lesson, they tend to engage in stereo teaching – repeating the teacher’s instructions and often adding to children’s confusion rather than prompting them for learning, independence or engagement.
  • Teaching assistants tend to use questions just to check the recall of facts. This also leads to an over-reliance on closed questions.

Three key questions

There are no simple answers to the problems of sharing planning and feedback effectively and the reality that there is insufficient time to do so.

School budgets are stretched to breaking point. There is no money to allow more liaison time between teachers and teaching assistants. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that there are quick, easy and consistent ways for teachers to share their planning so teaching assistants can provide better and more focused support to children.

Many schools say that planning is available for all staff. But there is a difference between planning being available and staff having the time and opportunity to read and understand it. There are issues about the expectations for staff to do this.

Often planning is on “the system” and teaching assistants “just need to log in”. This is easier said than done. Few teaching assistants have the time during the school day to log onto the school server, find the planning, read, process and absorb it. In addition to the implicit and unfair expectation that they should log in outside their working hours, some teaching assistants struggle with the technical skills and device access to do this at home.

Where teachers do their planning through their teaching slides, it is then helpful for teaching assistants to see the slides in advance. It is even more helpful if the slides are annotated with what the teacher wants the teaching assistant to know about the learning and the practical aspects of the lesson, e.g. which groups/individuals they should work with and how.
Sharing planning effectively takes time. When time is scarce, we need to reduce the communication about planning down to a useful minimum. To do this I focus on three key questions.

What is the learning intention? Different schools describe these differently, but it is about identifying the key focus of the learning. This needs to include enough information to be useful, not just “addition”, but “addition with exchange using formal methods with three digit numbers”.

What is the key vocabulary? By this I mean the new, technical, or unusual vocabulary that children will need to access learning. This can be highlighted on the planning and/or slides or simply listed with an explanation of the language where necessary. It should include common and pre-taught vocabulary that children may not know or remember but will need to access the learning. Teaching assistants can use these words as prompts with the children or as part of pre-teaching.

What is the outcome? This is what the children are expected to produce by the end of the lesson. There should be sufficient flexibility in this so that tasks can be adapted and differentiated to meet children’s needs and allow them different ways of demonstrating their learning. This should support a focus on learning, not just task completion.

The purpose of the learning

The responses to these questions need to be really focused and thought about so that they support teaching assistants to understand what is meant by the key learning intention and outcome.

For example, is the key purpose of the learning to draw a graph, enter data onto a graph or to interpret data from the graph? Teaching assistant support needs to be focused on supporting the identified key learning, while reducing any administrative burdens (e.g. if the key learning is interpreting the data, it might be appropriate for the teaching assistant to draw the graph and/or record the data) so the child can focus on and access the learning.

Through understanding the link between the learning and the outcome the teaching assistant may be able to adapt a task to allow a child to better meet the learning intentions and outcomes. For example, if the task is to write a poem about autumn, then the teacher needs to make it clear for the teaching assistant if the key learning is to write a poem or understand about autumn.

This should be reflected in the key vocabulary. If the task is to write a poem, a particular child might be able to meet the learning intention while writing a poem about a subject that is more motivating for them.

Alternatively, if the key learning is to understand about autumn, a child could still meet the learning intention while recording their understanding of autumn in a different way (a piece of factual writing, PowerPoint, drawing or verbal explanation) which they might find easier to access while still demonstrating their understanding of the key learning. Of course, these kinds of adjustments should be agreed with the teacher, not just be decisions for the teaching assistant.

Identifying the focus vocabulary is key. Without the appropriate vocabulary, children are not able to access, understand or express their learning. This means that the teaching assistants supporting them, need to have a full and effective understanding of this vocabulary and how it is going to be used in this context themselves.

Any form of pre-learning, when children are introduced to vocabulary to support their access to learning, will only be effective if the teaching assistant knows what vocabulary to use, can use it appropriately themselves, and are given time to prepare.

Tip of the iceberg

We need to be aware that these three questions cover only the tip of the iceberg of the information included in teachers’ planning. For most teachers, their planning is a multi-layer document, including long, medium and short-term planning.

Where planning is shared with teaching assistants, it is often only the short-term. If the other layers of planning are shared, they are rarely explained. However, the long and medium-term planning are part of the big picture of what is being taught and why. This can be one of the classic occasions when teachers assume understanding.

If schools share the long and medium-term planning, they support teaching assistants to understand what is coming up – what is happening next and how it fits with what they are teaching now and taught in the past.

We need to appreciate that teaching assistants will almost always lack the same understanding of the planning as the teachers who actually put it together.

Moreover their involvement with the planning tends to be reactive rather than proactive – commenting on and asking questions about planning, rather than creating it, if it is shared at all. The lack of understanding of the lesson planning reduces the impact of the support they can offer children for their learning.

However, we need also to remember that planning is only one element of the information that needs to be shared between teachers and teaching assistants. Information about the children, their needs and barriers to learning as well as their strengths and motivators, also needs to be shared.

Our communication with teaching assistants needs to move beyond the delivery of instructions. We need to ensure the communication about learning is effective and relevant to the children in the class. A fundamental starting point for this is the effective sharing of planning.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Sara’s book Working Effectively With Your Teaching Assistant will be published in February 2023. Visit, follow her on Twitter @seainclusion, or read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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