ELL and SpEd Student Support

Instructional practices embedded in the curriculum that support all learners and provide access.

Below you will find additional information on the elements embedded within our Instructional Routines that are intended to support both students learning English (ELL) and students with special needs. While these strategies are embedded in the Instructional Routines, we recommend teachers also use these strategies when using other resources with students.

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

Independent think time:

Giving students independent thinking time provides all students more processing time. ELL 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 thinking time.

Launching a routine (or lesson or task):

This is the what and why of the routine. Starting with clarity around what we are doing and why we are doing it, helps all students become owners of their own learning and understand the purpose of each routine, lesson or task, and the criteria by which they will know they are successful. The launch can also establish relevance for students (increasing engagement and making connections to unit Big Ideas explicit) and 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. ELL 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. Students with special needs 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 are provided with 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 clarity around what is being asked by the question.


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 all 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.

Annotation Guide


By pointing strategically at what is being discussed, this act gives all students more clarity about the mathematical ideas being shared. Further, the visual nature of the gestures help ELL 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, which is written 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 ELL students, it means that not everything is being discussed verbally so for ELL 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.

More on Keeping a Public Record

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 ELL students and special education students more processing time to understand the idea. ELL students also gain additional opportunities to listen to or produce language.


Noticings give all students a 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. Students with special needs especially benefit from the additional processing time for the problem. Finally, ELL 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. 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.

Watch how a teacher pushes for clear explanations.

The Four R's:

Repeat, Rephrase, Reword, and Record are four talk moves that support students in following and understanding a whole class conversation. If you think students haven't heard an idea, ask another student to repeat what was said. If you think students haven't understood an idea, ask another student to rephrase what was said. If you want to work on precision in language or precision with a mathematical idea, ask a student to reword what was said using target language. While engaging in a whole group discussion, you may want to consider what to record and how to record the discussion to support students.

Watch the Four R's in action!

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.


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 are more likely to focus on what is different today, specifically the mathematics of the task presented. Teachers also benefit from routinizing their instruction so 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.

Individual Access Strategies

While the strategies above are very helpful for all learners, some students have more specialized needs. The Accessible Planning and Instruction project has helpfully put together an additional filterable list of support strategies for students who need more support.

View additional strategies


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