English learners often struggle in school, and school districts frequently don’t have enough teachers qualified to offer supplementary education to students who face language difficulties. Financial constraints mean that schools often have to make difficult choices about what programs to fund, and attracting qualified teachers to work with these student populations can be difficult.
In the face of these challenges, a school district in Orange County, California, decided to help its English learner students by hiring 25 part-time paraprofessionals whose job it was to support first-grade teachers.
Unlike full-time teachers, paraprofessionals typically aren’t licensed to teach but are able to assist teachers in instruction. These paraprofessionals chosen were what’s called “biliterate,” meaning they could read and write in both English and Spanish.
The paraprofessionals worked on phonics lessons with students, complementing the lessons their teachers gave them. This included reviewing sounds, letters and word families — all with the intention of increasing students’ reading comprehension and fluency.
Melina Pinales, an educational researcher, studied the intervention by examining how it improved reading test scores and by interviewing school staff. Her study noted that there has been little research on using paraprofessionals to support English learner students in particular.
Pinelas found that the paraprofessionals significantly improved student reading fluency in schools.
NewsNation interviewed Pinelas about the study and the potential of using biliterate paraprofessionals to help improve education for English learners. The interview has been edited and paraphrased for length and clarity.
NewsNation: Why did the district decide to hire these paraprofessionals?
Pinelas: The district was grappling with this choice of reducing classroom sizes by hiring more first-grade teachers or using this alternative strategy, where it was sort of still thinking of the budget, right? They tried it this way by hiring paraprofessionals.
NewsNation: How were the paraprofessionals placed throughout the schools?
Pinelas: There was variation even within the school and from teacher to teacher as to how the teachers were utilizing that extra support that they had. And so, for example, there was variation in terms of some working with larger groups of students. So maybe the teacher already had a three-group rotation and so a paraprofessional that they had would take on one of those groups, which would be a larger group of students. Or some of the teachers had them really working more individually or with pairs of students.
NewsNation: Beyond seeing the increase in reading fluency scores, you also did interviews with people working in the schools. What did you find out in those?
Pinelas: The paraprofessionals would say, the students feel like they can communicate to me. And even teachers were saying even the kids that wouldn’t ordinarily be as comfortable being as engaged in the learning environment, they do feel comfortable now because they know there’s this Spanish-speaking adult they can turn to.
NewsNation: Why was it important to have biliterate staff supporting these students?
Pinelas: It was important because the students are predominantly coming from Spanish-speaking homes. So they’re still building their English fluency. And research has shown it can take anywhere between three to seven years to build full proficiency, and so when we’re thinking of academic English proficiency it’s important to have an educator who can also communicate with you in the language that you feel most comfortable with.
It also gave students an opportunity to engage in the learning environment a lot more than they would have without that person who could speak their home language.
NewsNation: What are some of the limitations of using paraprofessionals?
Pinelas: The limitation would be that paraprofessionals since they’re not certified teachers then it can get tricky. Because you don’t want to simply have these paraprofessionals only work with students who need targeted support because sometimes the teacher should be the one to work with those students.