Supporting English Language Learners in Math During Distance Learning

ELL and distance learning
Teenager is studying at home attending online classes during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic quarantine. Madrid, Spain

By: Liz Ramirez

Knowing and using math is about more than calculating and evaluating. It is also about engaging in sense-making and using language to negotiate meaning. This calls for a language-rich environment where there is space for all students to participate in argumentation and explanation.

While virtual learning platforms have made it possible for some live instruction to continue during school closures, this type of learning environment presents additional challenges for students who are learning English. Many language supports and resources that students rely on in the classroom are no longer accessible, including teacher gestures, word walls, and turning to a partner for clarification.

How can teachers support students who are gaining proficiency with English during distance learning? What do math conversations look like when students and teachers are no longer sharing physical space together?

To enhance access for ELLs, it is important to create an environment that supports both receptive and expressive language functions.

Receptive Language

Receptive language skills include listening, reading, and representing ideas. Whether a student can follow instructions or respond to questions, for example, relies on receptive language skills.

Here are a few quick tips and practices to support these skills in a virtual learning environment.


  • Mute all microphones, except for the person who is speaking, to limit extraneous noise.
  • Read all directions, questions, prompts, and slide contents aloud.
  • Repeat important information such as directions and vocabulary.
  • Provide independent think time. Give students time to make sense of what they are being asked to do, time to do it, and time to figure out how to communicate what they are thinking.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and press each other for details to support their understanding.
  • Remind all speakers to speak clearly and slowly.

Reading and Representing Ideas:

  • Maximize the use of visuals.
  • Use screen sharing to view slides, documents, worksheets, and other visuals.
  • Give students access to slides and other resources. As appropriate, allow them to preview content or refer to the materials after a lesson.
  • Use live annotation to help make student thinking visible.
  • Record sessions and make them available to students.

Expressive Language

Expressive language is the ability to communicate—to put thoughts and ideas into words and sentences. To build these skills in a distance learning environment, it is important to provide multiple opportunities for students to produce verbal and written language. The following are a few ways to do so.

Speaking and Conversing:

  • Hold students accountable for listening. Call on them to restate what they hear from each other, either verbally or in the chat window.
  • Use choral repetition of new or important words and phrases to give all students an opportunity to practice and produce language.
  • Use virtual breakout rooms for small group conversations. Make certain that students understand the prompt, how much time they have, and what they will be expected to report back on when they return.


  • Invite students to share a response or idea, or ask questions in the chat window. This allows for multiple students to produce language at the same time.
  • To preserve independent think time and limit distractions, direct students’ focus to the chat window at strategic times, and give them explicit instructions for when to share.

Math Language Routines (MLRs)

MLRs create opportunities for students to converse with others about math. They empower students to share their thinking around mathematical ideas in ways that foster understanding. A key benefit of using MLRs in distance learning is that conversations can span longer periods of time, which gives students and teachers time to reflect and be purposeful about language.

Here are some sample strategies for making use of a couple of MLRs to foster mathematical discourse in synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.

The Clarify, Critique, Correct routine invites students to analyze, reflect on, and improve upon a sample piece of mathematical writing that is not their own. More than just error analysis, this routine engages students in considering the author’s mathematical thinking as well as the features of their communication.

  • Synchronous: Display a sample response (or actual student work) as part of the lesson synthesis, and ask students to clarify, critique, and correct in the group chat. Then give feedback to each student’s corrected response, focusing on the language the student used.
  • Asynchronous: Include the sample response for students to clarify, critique, and correct as part of the assignment. Then have students review each other’s corrected statements in a shared virtual document.

In the Compare and Connect routine, students make sense of mathematical strategies by relating and connecting other approaches to their own. It can be used to support discourse around a problem that can be approached and solved using multiple strategies or representations.

  • Synchronous: Ask students to use screencasting tools or send a picture of their work ahead of time, then select strategies for them to compare and connect. Share selected pieces of student work and ask them to identify what is the same and what is different. Ask students to identify where the quantities or relationships are expressed in the different strategies.
  • Asynchronous: Ask students to submit an image of their work, such as a screen capture or a photo of paper and pencil work. Then share selected pieces of student work (or teacher-generated samples based on student work) in a document or discussion board post for students to respond to. Ask students to identify what is the same and what is different across the selected pieces of work.

Whether teaching synchronously or asynchronously in the distance learning environment, there are a variety of ways to strengthen opportunities and support for mathematical discourse orally, visually, and in writing. By focusing on language, teachers give students a way to go beyond describing their own process or answer. Students can explore connections between their thinking and the thinking of others. They can reflect on their reasoning and comparisons between their work and the work of others. This allows them to engage in sense-making, optimize output, maximize linguistic and cognitive meta-awareness, and cultivate conversation—whether or not they are in the room with the teacher.

For more, see:

Liz Ramirez is the Director of Access and Supports at the nonprofit organization Illustrative Mathematics (IM). IM is the developer of IM Math, a problem-based core mathematics curriculum for grades K–12. Before joining IM, Ramirez devoted her career to teaching students and supporting educators in New York City Public Schools.

Mathematical Language Routines adapted with permission from work done by Understanding Language at Stanford University. For the original paper, Guidance for Math Curricula Design and Development, please visit

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.