Support for Emergent Bilingual and SpEd students

Here are the elements embedded within our instructional routines that are intended to support both Emergent Bilingual (EB) students and Students with Special Needs. We recommend teachers use these strategies as they use other resources with students as well. 

These strategies come from, and are described in more detail in, a book by Grace Kelemanik, Amy Lucenta, and Susan Janssen Creighton called Routines for Reasoning.


  • Independent think time:

    Giving students independent think time provides  all students more processing time. EB students have time to consider and choose  the language they need to explain their ideas. Many special education students need additional processing time before they are ready to share with a partner which is provided by the independent think time.

  • Launch:

    What are we doing and why are we doing it? This helps all students be owners of their own learning and understand the purpose of today’s class as well as the criteria by which they will be successful. It can also establish relevance for students (increasing engagement) and makes connections to big unit ideas explicit. This creates another pathway for students to form a relationship with and between ideas.

  • Partner work:

    These help students develop language and increase their processing time. EB students have the chance to practice articulating their ideas or they may be able to work with a partner in their native language to develop an English explanation. Special education students get additional processing time and the opportunity to sort through, synthesize and prioritize ideas in a low-stakes/low-risk way. Both groups benefit implicitly from the high expectations assumed when teachers allow them to work on a problem independently of the teacher.

  • Sentence starters:

    By providing students with sentence starters (or sentence frames), students get both a model for what their sentences can look like, which helps them develop language and a stronger focus on the mathematics and the associated mathematical language. Students also benefit from sentence starters as these provide a clearer idea of what is expected in a good explanation and what is being asked by the question.

  • Annotation:

    By carefully annotating student strategies with a mathematical focus, all students get more clarity about what mathematical ideas are being discussed. The visual nature of these annotations help EB students by both giving them access to what is being discussed if they are having trouble tracking the language and an opportunity to develop language as they are more able to associate words being said (or written) with specific mathematical objects.

  • Gestures:

    By pointing strategically at what is being discussed, this gives all students more clarity about the mathematical ideas being shared. Further the visual nature of the gestures help EB students by both giving them access to what is being discussed if they are having trouble tracking the language and an opportunity to develop language as they are more able to associate words being said (or written) with specific mathematical objects.

  • Public record of work

    The public record of work on chart paper or on the board gives all students additional processing time to understand what strategy is being discussed. If a student loses focus for a few moments, a public record helps them get back into the conversation more easily. For EB students, it means that not everything is being discussed verbally so for EB students whose reading comprehension is currently better than their oral comprehension of language, they have more access to the mathematics being discussed. Further, all students benefit from having models of what clear explanations of mathematical ideas look like.

    There is some evidence that studying worked examples supports students in learning mathematical ideas, so the public record can help students draw further connections when they attempt other related mathematical problems. The public record of work is also helpful for students to reference as mathematical concepts begin to build on one another. It allows students to reference repeatedly which creates more opportunities to internalize foundational concepts.

  • Restating & repetition:

    Having students restate what another student has said both increases the likelihood that students will listen to other students and doubles the number of opportunities students have to access the mathematical idea being presented. When students know that other students will be responsible for restating their strategy, they also have to explain their ideas more clearly so that their peers are able to restate their strategy.

    The repetition of the idea, usually presented in slightly different language each time, gives both EB students and Special Education students more processing time to understand the idea. EB students also gain additional opportunities to listen to or produce language.

  • Noticings

    Noticings give all students some place to start when problem solving. They also help students connect the mathematical ideas that are used in the problem solving session to what in the problem prompted those ideas. Special education students especially benefit from the additional processing time for the problem. Finally, EB students have opportunity to have mathematical objects described in both oral and written form.

  • Push for clear and complete explanations

    By pushing for clear and complete explanations as students present their strategies (through questioning technique), teachers give their students more processing time to understand the idea and make the idea being discussed clear for all students. This helps students both build their prior knowledge and connect it to the mathematics being discussed today. Further, teachers often present ideas from the perspective of an expert who already knows the idea while students need opportunities to see mathematical ideas described in more detail. This also helps develop more precise language around the mathematical ideas being presented.

  • Focus on strategy and why it works

    While the answer to a problem is important, what is usually more important is the process that allows students to arrive at that answer. By focusing on the strategies being presented by students, students can spend their time thinking about mathematical reasoning and processes and not just answers. By focusing on why a strategy works, all students are more likely to be able to make mathematical connections to what they already know.

  • Routines

    Students always have to spend a certain amount of their mental focus remembering what their roles are and what they are supposed to be doing. By routinizing instruction, students internalize the steps of the routine and be more likely to focus on what is different today, specifically the mathematics of the task presented. Teachers also benefit from routinizing their instruction to some degree so that they can focus more on how their students understand the mathematical ideas and less on remembering what they wanted to do next. Finally, by keeping some parts of their teaching the same each day, teachers can more easily study the impact of the decisions they make on student learning, particularly when working collaboratively with other teachers.