Paraprofessional Practice in ESOL Programmes:

Part 1: Description and evaluation of paraprofessional practices in supporting initial reading programmes

Publication Details

This document reports on the first part of a two year study on the practices of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) paraprofessionals working with ELL (English Language Learner) migrant students in initial reading programmes.

Author(s): Dr Sharon Harvey, Heather Richards and Karen Stacey, AUT University. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: April 2009

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Chapter 1: Introduction

This document reports on the first part of a two year study on the practices of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) paraprofessionals working with ELL (English Language Learner) migrant students in initial reading programmes. Since the late 1990s, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has increasingly been involved in developing comprehensive language support programmes in schools for migrant students. The current research is part of these developments and was commissioned by the Ministry of Education in order to build an evidence base from which to determine how best to address the professional development needs of paraprofessionals in their work with ESOL students, particularly in initial reading programmes. Initial reading programmes refer to reading programmes in schools aimed at improving the English language reading proficiency of ELL students. They are targeted to those students who attract ESOL funding because their scores fall at or below 112 points on the Ministry of Education ESOL Assessment Form. While structured reading programmes are a feature for all students in New Zealand schools in Years 1-4, the picture is not so consistent for students after year four. 

Evidence suggests that in New Zealand more than in other western jurisdictions (but on a par with the United States), having a home language different from the school language is a significant risk factor for achieving lower levels of literacy as well as for lower school achievement in general (Wylie, Thompson & Lythe, 2001; OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), 2001). Drawing on information presented in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 2001), Franken and McComish (2003, p.15) state: 'The PISA study found that minority language students in New Zealand are more than twice as likely as majority language students to be in the bottom quarter of performance in reading literacy'. Importantly, the 2003 PISA study (OECD, 2006) observed that well established language support programmes were a significant predictor of migrant student's academic achievement:

…it appears that in some countries with relatively small achievement gaps between immigrant and native students, or smaller gaps for second generation students compared to first generation students, long-standing language support programmes exist with relatively clearly defined goals and standards. These countries include Australia, Canada and Sweden. In a few countries where immigrant students perform at significantly lower levels, language support tends to be less systematic. (OECD, 2006, p.5)

As part of a wider response to these findings the Ministry of Education has allocated special funding for resourcing ESOL provision in New Zealand schools. One of the targets for this funding is the employment of teacher aides/language assistants, referred to in the RFP (Request for Proposal) as 'paraprofessionals' because they are not trained (professional) teachers (Ministry of Education, 2007). Paraprofessionals are employed in a number of jurisdictions to support the work of trained teachers in classrooms across the compulsory school sector. In New Zealand the Ministry of Education (2006) defines paraprofessionals as: 'Teacher aides and education, behaviour and communication support workers' and in turn defines teacher aides as 'People who help educators support students and young people who have special education needs, also known as kaiawhina and paraprofessionals.'

Those paraprofessionals employed to work with ELL students in New Zealand primary schools may be from a variety of employment and educational backgrounds and might be bilingual, multilingual or English speaking only. Equally, they may be employed to support the work of teachers in a variety of ways. Ministry suggestions for the ways in which paraprofessionals can be deployed in ESOL work are as follows:

  • Read to and with a small group of students, with supportive activities and discussion;
  • work through the Self-Pacing Boxes programme with individuals or small group;
  • develop key oral and written vocabulary in a specific curriculum, topic or concept area, through discussion and using visual support materials with a group;
  • support first language translation and interpretation to aid learning;
  • be available in class to support NESB students in carrying out specific learning tasks set by the class teacher;
  • prepare and organise materials and learning support resources under teacher direction;
  • supervise learning centres established by the teacher.

 (Ministry of Education, 2006)

In this research, an in-depth description of practices was obtained through interviews with classroom teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as observations of the paraprofessionals working with ELL students in schools across the Auckland region.