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Supporting English Language Learners During Distance Learning

“English learners develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge and language proficiency when they are engaged in meaningful interaction in the classroom and participate in the kinds of activities in which STEM experts and professionals regularly engage.”

National Academy of Sciences, 2018

The shift to online instruction has been challenging and learning how to use the tools of technology in virtual environments can be time consuming and stressful. However, we must not forget the special learning needs of our students. Even in face-to-face environments, our English learners face a triple challenge in math class: learning everyday English, mathematical English, and new math content. We use language to learn, therefore, English learners will benefit from targeted support as well as engaging, language rich math lessons during online instruction. 

English learners and their families have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. With school closures, the opportunity-to-learn gap has the potential of widening further. This is especially true for those English learners who come from low income families and who are likely to face digital and connectivity divides.

Providing support for English language learners during math instruction online is crucial in our efforts to close the achievement gap and increase opportunities for these students to learn. Supporting English learners during math class is part and parcel of teaching in a culturally responsive manner. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, describes culturally responsive teaching as helping students become independent learners and should focus on improving the learning capacity of students who have been marginalized educationally because of historical inequities in our school systems. Hammond provides some very informative webinars that focus on supporting students using culturally responsive strategies.

What are some examples of best practices for supporting our English language learners in math class during the pandemic? How can we make use of what we know from face-to-face teaching and learning and leverage those teaching skills in online platforms to support our Els? Following are eight tips that can benefit all students, but particularly English learners as we work through the challenges of meeting all students’ needs in virtual environments. 

Tip #1: Hold asset views of ELs and see them as potential scientists and mathematicians.

Holding asset views is probably the most important thing that we can do as educators when working with all students, but particularly our English learners. When we truly believe that English learners can succeed and be successful in virtual environments, this attitude comes across in our interactions, facial expressions, and expectations. Deconstructing harmful myths about English learners can also help educators develop positive attitudes when working with these students. Check out this informative list of 5 common myths from Colorin Colorado.

Tip #2: Build on what English Learners already know about a topic.

For example, when teaching geometry, ask students what they know about shapes and ask them if they can find different polygons in their home. Make use of students’ native language by highlighting cognates (e.g. triangulo in Spanish sounds like and means the same as triangle in English). Helping students bridge what they already know in their native language to English can help them make sense of new vocabulary. Tapping students’ prior knowledge assists them with new learning and sends the message that we respect what they bring to the table. Valuing English learners’ experiences and connecting those experiences to new learning is what culturally responsive teaching is all about. You can help English learners connect what they know with what they are learning by providing frames such as:

 I used to think ________. Now I think___________.

Tip #3: Ask questions and pose prompts that elicit students’ ideas, opinions, and feelings.

By doing so, we send the message that we respect what our English learners think. Prompts and questions such as the following help English learners reflect on what they are learning and have learned. The prompts and questions provide support and encourage Els to say something about their learning:

 I liked _____.
 I learned ______.
 I wonder ________.

 What do you notice?

 What do you wonder?

 What connections can you make between _____ and ______?

Tip #4: Build Relationships with your English Learners online.

Colorin Colorado has an excellent list of eight strategies that describe ways to develop such relationships in virtual settings. This site also includes video clips of educators explaining the strategies. For example, one tip explains the importance of learning how to correctly pronounce students’ names, recommends and provides resources for teachers to learn more about different naming conventions in their students’ cultures and languages, and includes rich project ideas for students to explore their names through art, writing, and children’s literature. 

Speaking of names, the children’s book Chrysanthemum (Greenwillow books, 1991) by Kevin Henkes provides the perfect context for talking about names and developing cultural sensitivity with students. The book also serves as a springboard for math explorations. See Marilyn Burns’ blog for details about possible math lessons related to the book: 

Tip # 5: Offer engaging and language rich math tasks.

For various reasons, it can be tempting to revert to traditional forms of teaching during online instruction. Lecturing or giving students directions and then having them work on tasks asynchronously might seem easier than engaging students in rich tasks synchronously. However, English learners benefit most from language rich tasks that require them to think, reason, solve problems, and communicate their math thinking to others. Without these opportunities, English learners will miss out on the chance to practice using English to further their math understanding and using math as a context for developing their English skills. For language rich, engaging task ideas, see our blog titled Developing a Math Community in Your Virtual Classroom: Activities to Start the Year.

Tip #6: Maintain engagement, support, and communication with Els’ families.

Staying in touch with families during online instruction is vital. When teachers check in with families to ask for or offer advice, or just chat to develop a working relationship, everyone benefits. Sometimes language can be a barrier to communication if the teacher doesn’t speak the student’s home language. Finding someone to translate or asking the student to help out can facilitate communication. Conversations should focus on both academic and affective concerns. And finally, encourage families to use their home language to support their children. 

Tip #7: Provide mini-lessons to pre-teach language.

Meeting with a small group of English learners prior to teaching a math lesson can help prepare them for the academic language they will need to use once the actual lesson begins. It may seem like a lot of extra time to put in, but you’ll find it’s time worth spending. 

Following are examples of sentence frames and vocabulary a teacher practiced with a small group of English learners prior to a lesson on polygons. The teacher introduced words such as polygon, curves, open, closed, straight, vertices, and sides by using visuals to support understanding. Since academic language includes more than just vocabulary, the teacher had her Els practice the words using sentence frames in order to allow students at different proficiency levels to use the words in complete sentences.

Emerging Level This is not a ______. It is/has _____.

Example: This is not a polygon. It is/has curves. Expanding Level

This is not a ______ because it has ______ and _______. Example: This is not a polygon because it has curves, and is open. Bridging Level This polygon _____________, __________, and _________. therefore, it is a 


Example: This shape has four straight sidesfour vertices, and is closed; therefore, it is a polygon.

Tip #8: Consider language skills rather than math skills when grouping students.

There are times when grouping students with similar abilities in math makes sense, especially when those students are all struggling with the same concept or skill. Most of the time, however, students benefit from working in groups where participants have varying skill levels in mathematics. Research shows us that low income and African American and Latino students are overrepresented in low groups, and oftentimes, low ability groups receive more drill and practice than  problem solving and concept focused instruction. Grouping by skill can be productive when it’s targeted and short term.

English learners  benefit from working in small groups where participants have different levels of English language competence so that translation and other forms of support can occur. On the other hand, when Els with similar levels of proficiency pair up, both are apt to produce more language. When placing English learners in break out rooms, it is important to monitor student talk to ensure that all students have the opportunity to engage in mathematical conversations.

Final Thoughts

Our English learners will benefit from targeted support and safe online platforms where they can take risks as they stretch their language and math skills. We hope that the tips in this blog will help as we all work to meet the needs of our students in virtual learning environments. 

What tips do you have for supporting English language learners online? 

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