15 ELL Strategies for Paraprofessionals

Paraprofessional supporting students

Learn how paraprofessionals can support English language learners in the classroom and beyond in these tips from veteran ELL educators.

As a paraprofessional who works with English language learners (ELLs), you have an important role to play in supporting your students!

Here are some tips that will help you succeed, compiled from the following veteran educators:

  • Joni Anderson, ELL Paraprofessional
  • Ingrid Miera, ELL Paraprofessional
  • Michelle Lawrence Biggar, ELL Educator

See more tips on how teachers can collaborate with paraprofessionals on behalf of ELLs.

Getting Started

1. Get to know your students

Getting to know your students is an important first step towards helping them to succeed in the classroom.

Your role: Start by learning your students' names and how to pronounce them correctly. Many ELLs will not correct a teacher who mispronounces their name. Therefore, if you ask students, "Is that how you say it?", they will most likely say "yes" even if you mispronounce it. Instead, try asking them how their mother says their name. You might be surprised how differently it's pronounced.

In addition:

  • Use positive body language and remember to smile.
  • Ask students what their favorite activities or hobbies are, and connect them to class activities or lessons.
  • Focus on your students' strengths and what they "can do."
  • Look for ways to make students feel welcome and comfortable.
  • Ask yourself, "What do I know about the students I work with?"

If a student feels that you have taken a genuine interest in them, they will be more likely to request and/or accept your help.

Related resources

Learn more

Take a look at these other ELL resources in our Paraprofessionals section!

2. Welcome students' cultures and languages

Letting students know that their cultures and languages are welcomed is an important step in building trust with ELLs.

Your role: You can show your students that their languages and cultures are welcome through the following:

  • Find out where your students are from and what languages they speak at home.
  • Ask them to teach you a greeting in their languages.
  • Learn and share phrases in your students' languages.
  • Invite your students to share information about their cultures. In addition, share your own culture with students.

Related resources

3. Learn more about students' language proficiency levels.

Having information about your students' language background and proficiency can help you make more informed choices about instruction.

Your role: Learn more from the following:

  • First and foremost, if you are working in a classroom where ELLs are integrated with non-ELLs, be sure to find out who the ELLs are.
  • Avoid making assumptions about who is, or is not, an ELL. (See more on this topic from Dr. Ayanna Cooper.)
  • If you can, find out more about how much schooling your students have had in their heritage languages and how strong their literacy skills are in those languages.
  • Find out English language proficiency levels of the students in the following areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You should be able to find that information from the classroom or ELL teacher. Keep in mind that students may be stronger in one skill than another and that it is common for new students, particularly at the beginning level, to experience what experts call a silent period.

Related resources

4. Help students understand how the classroom works

You can play an important role in helping students understand classroom routines, schedules, and expectations, particularly for newcomers and/or students with interrupted education.

Your role: Look for ways to help students move through their day more easily. This might include:

  • Creating a visual schedule with pictures
  • Using visuals to explain classroom expectations or rules
  • Helping students learn how to use their lockers
  • Ensuring that students are able to participate in community building or social and emotional learning activities
  • Paying attention to where more practice or explanation is needed (and getting support in the students' languages if needed)

Classroom Support

5. Provide targeted academic support

Students will need different kinds of academic support depending on a range of factors. That's why it's so important to learn what you can about your students' academic backgrounds, strengths, and areas of growth.

Your role: You can support students' academic growth in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Model an example for students if they do not understand the task at hand.
  • Restate or simplify questions, directions, instruction, etc.
  • Check for comprehension frequently. Refrain from "yes or no" questions because when you ask an ELL if they understand, they will often say that they do. Instead, ask open-ended questions that encourage them to explain their answers with words, motions, or pictures.
  • If students are lacking the confidence to share answers with the entire class, act as their sounding board. If they are correct, encourage them to share. If incorrect, help them to find the correct answer.
  • When students need to look up vocabulary words or definitions, help them to navigate through glossaries and picture/bilingual dictionaries.
  • Check that students are on the correct page in the textbook, correct worksheet, or the same number problem.
  • Ensure that they have copied down assignments correctly. If they are written on the board, help them to locate them. If an assignment was given orally, students may need to see it in writing to fully understand.

6. Learn about best practices for teaching ELLs

The more you know about best practices for teaching ELLs, the more tools you will have in your toolbelt!

Your role: Take some time to learn more about the following topics, which you can also explore through professional training:

You can find many more ideas in our ELL Strategy Library and on our free web app, Colorin on the Go.

7. Use students' languages as a resource

Students' languages are a valuable resource for tapping into what students already know, building confidence, and developing their bilingual skills.

Your role: Look for ways to use students' languages in the classroom, even if you don't speak those languages. You can do so through the following:

  • Teach students to recognize cognates, which are words that are related between languages, such as the English-Spanish cognate "information / información."
  • Use bilingual glossaries, which students can also make for themselves.
  • Look for books and other materials in students' languages. Ask other aides, teachers, librarians, or parent liaisons for ideas if needed.
  • Encourage students to their own languages in labeling images, annotated diagrams, sketchnotes, and graphic organizers.
  • Give students a chance to use own languages in small groups before sharing key ideas with the class.
  • Use strategies such as text engineering to make grade-level content accessible that include visuals, student-friendly definitions, cognates, and translations.

Social and Emotional Support

8. Identify key needs or areas that need to be addressed

As with many students, there may be a variety of factors impacting students' lives in and out of the classroom.

Your role: Pay attention to the following, and if additional support is needed, bring issues to the attention of a classroom teacher, ELL specialist, social worker, or administrator.

  • Mental health: Students may share some of their personal experiences with you, or you may see behaviors that indicate that they need additional support. Are they struggling with a difficult issue at home? Have they experienced trauma? It's critical to work as a team to offer students' the right kind of support, whether it's counseling, more peer interaction, or something more intensive. Make sure you are familiar with the kinds of services available at your school so you can talk about different options with your colleagues and families if needed.
  • Bullying: Are the ELLs being teased, ostracized, or peer pressured? OR are the ELLs bullying other students in an attempt to be accepted? ELLs, especially new students, often feel scared and alone. Take the initiative to introduce them to some friendly classmates who could help them feel more at ease in school, and talk with the teacher about any troubling behaviors immediately. (Learn more in this article about preventing the bullying of ELLs.)
  • Nourishment: Do the students look nourished? When you see them in the cafeteria, are they eating lunch? If they aren't, why not? Perhaps they didn't fill out the appropriate lunch application or they may not know where the cafeteria is! It's possible that they are afraid to eat because the food is unfamiliar and they think it may go against religious or dietary restrictions. Not all students will ask for help and not all adults in the school pay attention to such details. You can bridge the gap by keeping an eye out for such things and asking questions.
  • Clothing: Are students wearing appropriate clothing for the weather? Are they wearing socks with their sneakers or shoes? During cold winters, do they wear boots, coats, hats, and gloves? If not, talk with your colleagues or administrators about how to connect families with clothing pantries or community donations.
  • Hygiene: Not everyone shares the same hygiene practices as we do in the U.S. One explanation for this is that before their arrival, not everyone had access to daily showers, baths, and laundry as we do. For that reason, pay attention to whether the students' clothes are clean each day. Do the students seem to be properly bathed? Did they brush their teeth? For older students, do they wear deodorant? If not, you, the teacher, the counselor or the school social worker may need to find a way to sensitively address issues of hygiene with the student and/or family.
  • Other concerns: Students may request your help to address problems at lunch, locker issues, bus passes, etc. Sometimes, they ask for help on behalf of their parents: housing, green card questions, landlord problems, auto insurance, medical care, etc. If this is the case, set up a time to meet about the issue (not during instruction) or pass their question along to the appropriate colleague.

Collaborating with Teachers

As a paraprofessional who works with ELLs, you may support ELLs in a variety of settings and play a variety of roles. For example, you may be working alongside the ELL teacher in the ESL classroom, or perhaps you support a classroom or content-area teacher who has ELLs in his/her class. You may be multilingual yourself and familiar with the challenges of learning a second language, or this may be your first encounter with students who speak languages other than English.

9. Get to know the teacher in the classroom

Take the time to get to know the educators with whom you are working and discuss your teaching styles and expectations.

Your Role: Set up a time to meet with your colleagues to discuss expectations. Ask specific questions, such as:

  • How and when are you expected to assist in the classroom? For example, will you be working one-on-one and/or off to the side with ELLs in the class, or will you be walking around the classroom helping everyone?
  • Does the teacher prefer that you wait until there is a break in instruction to make clarifications or explanations to the students, or would the teacher prefer that you quietly clarify or explain to students in need at the moment?
  • Are there meetings that it would be helpful for you to join, particuarly if you are working with specific students regularly or supporting students with special needs?

If the teacher is open to it, you may also wish to talk about the following:

  • Your experience working with ELLs
  • The strengths each of you bring to your work with ELLs
  • What has worked (or what hasn't worked) with ELLs in the past, or in other staff partnerships

It is possible that you will have more experience in working with ELLs than your colleagues. Where possible, share your suggestions and observations -- the teacher can benefit from your insights! If your working relationship doesn't allow for that kind of feedback, however, consider asking for support from a supervisor or administrator to improve the situation.

10. Establish clear communication procedures

Establishing open and clear communication is crucial to any kind of partnership.

Your role: Talk with your colleagues about:

  • How each person prefers to communicate, both in terms of communication style and tools (e-mail, meeting, messaging, etc.)
  • Systems for regular, ongoing communication
  • How and when to share feedback and suggestions
  • Additional responsibilities you have within your schedule

Communicating with Students and Families

11. Determine your role in communicating with students and families

You may have an important role to play in communicating with students and families. If you are bilingual, you may be called upon for family communication even more. Speaking the same language as your students will put them (and their families) at ease. However, it is important to establish some guidelines and think carefully about how and when you are providing language support.

Keep in mind that:

  • General language support, communication, and outreach is different than official interpretation and translation. If you are being called upon to provide more detailed, technical, or frequent interpretation and translation than is appropriate for your role, raise your concerns with a supervisor or administrator or check on whether the school can support you in getting the certifications that you need. (See more in this helpful chart about the difference between bilingual staff and interpreters.)
  • Schools are legally required to provide families with information in their home languages. If you feel that appropriate language access is not being provided, this is another time to raise your concerns.
  • Remember that students should never be called upon as interpreters.

Your role: Talk with the classroom teacher and your supervisor about the following:

In the classroom

  • Discuss your role: First, talk with the classroom teacher to how you will be using language support in the classroom, such as explaining instructions. If the teacher is hesitant for you to use students' languages, consider sharing some examples of how you have provided language support in the past, as well as information on related research of best practices.
  • Get to know your students: Become familiar with the English language proficiency levels of your students as soon as possible. This will help you to determine when interpretation is necessary. Beginners will certainly require more attention than advanced students. Remember that there is a delicate balance between giving students the aid that they need and encouraging them to become independent learners.
  • Think about seating: Consider seating students who speak the same language closer together. That way you won't have to go back and forth across the classroom and repeat yourself.
  • Set limits: Encourage students to call on you for interpretation for academic help, but discourage them from socializing or addressing other issues with you during instruction.

During tests/assessments

If you are providing language support during instruction, it will look different than language support provided during tests. During tests, any interpretation should follow the same parameters set by your state. For example, your state may require that interpretations during state tests are to be oral only, not written. They should be word-for-word interpretations that do not clarify or explain content. By mirroring the state parameters during classroom tests, it will prepare students for final exams.

To find out more about your states testing accommodations for ELLs, speak with your principal or testing coordinator. You should also be able to find such information on your state's education website.

Interpreting for families

You may be asked to communicate with families in a variety of settings, such as family outreach, updates, or general communication. Again, clarify what your responsibilities and schedule will be early on. Otherwise, administrators and staff may be pulling you in different directions at the last minute to help communicate with families. If you are scheduled to be "on call," that may be appropriate. If you are being pulled away from instructional/student time, however, ask for support from a supervisor or administrator to address the situation.

The Individual vs. the Group

Americans value self-sufficiency. We have an individualistic culture, which means that we value individual achievements and are more likely to take pride in being independent. Many of the cultures your students will come from, however, have a more collectivist approach. Collectivist cultures tend to focus on working together for the good of the group, rather than for the good of the individual. In the classroom, this collectivism often manifests itself in the following ways.

12. Support students in collaborating effectively and appropriately

Being oriented towards the group is a tremendous strength as students are likely to enjoy working together. However, it's also important to ensure students understand how and when to work together appropriately and when "helping" could be considered copying, cheating, or plagiarizing.

Your Role: Help students understand the difference between what kinds of collaboration are appropriate or not in the classroom. In addition, explain that helping does not mean giving the answer. It could mean showing a classmate where to find an answer in the book. Or students could help each other by clarifying the question so classmates can come up with the answer on their own.

13. Steer students toward independence

ELLs, especially those at the beginning level, may be dependent on those who are supporting them. While it's necessary to provide students the support they need, they will eventually need to learn how to do things on their own.

Your Role: Encourage students to try something new on their own. One way to do this is to build them up to working independently. For example, offer them some guidance, but then walk away and tell them that you will be back to check on them in a five minutes (or after they have completed one task). When you return, praise their effort, offer additional assistance if needed, and then tell them that you will be back in 10 minutes (or after they have completed three tasks). This process will take time, but over the course of the year, you will begin to produce a more confident, self-sufficient student. You can also use the "We do, you do, I do" model of gradual release where students build up to trying something new on their own.

Professional Growth

14. Attend professional development and training

A great way to build a toolbox of teaching strategies is to attend trainings and professional development geared towards educators who work with ELLs.

Your role: Look for opportunities for training through the following:

  • Look into what is offered at the school, district, or regional level, including paid training.
  • It's possible that ELL teachers in the school are available to do presentations or answer any questions you may have.
  • Keep an eye out for seminars and conferences that are coming through town.
  • Connect with ELL department in your school and district so you don't miss new opportunities.
  • To learn more, search for current ELL paraprofessional job listings online, even if they are outside of your district. You can see how different positions are structured.

Note: If you are running into obstacles in your access to training, share detailed examples of how ongoing professional development has helped you strengthen your practice and the difference it has made in your work with ELLs. In addition, you may wish to ask for support from your colleagues, supervisor, administrators, or union representatives.

Here's a list of some professional organizations where you can learn more!

Professional organizations


15. Lift up your strengths

It's important for paraprofessionals to share their work and to create a community among their colleagues.

Your role: Paraprofessionals can lift up their work and that of their colleagues through:

  • Sharing success stories
  • Sharing their own story of how they got started and who helped/supported them
  • Encouraging paraprofessionals to share their knowledge with others
  • Building friendships with each other
  • Connecting with the paraprofessional/ESP union in your district for additional opportunities and support

Video Interviews

Video: How I provided tech support to multilingual families during COVID-19

Carla Fernandes, a multilingual paraprofessional in Brockton Public Schools (MA), speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. In this interview clip, she describes how she helped families navigate new technology during COVID-19 and how the word spread that she could provide important support.

Videos: Educators on the role of paraprofessionals

These interview excerpts highlight the important roles paraprofessionals play in supporting ELL instruction and family outreach. The following educators are featured:


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Excellent beginning article for new hires.

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