How to focus on English Specific Skills (ESS) (and avoid double teaching in Spanish immersion classrooms).

February 27, 2018

There are three letters that every immersion educator must know:  E.  S.  S.

ESS stands for English Specific Skills. Knowing what these skills are and how and when to introduce them in the classroom will impact everything from immersion program design to the instructional practice you’ll see in classrooms.

What are English Specific Skills (ESS)?

These are surface features unique to the English language like apostrophe placement with contractions or spelling patterns that DON’T make the sounds you’d expect. Think about the funny -igh word families for example. In fact, did you know there are no punctuated contractions or “igh” word families in Spanish? It’s true!

English specific skills refer to the concepts and patterns that need to be explicitly taught in order for students to master these idiosyncratic features of the English language.

Most skills learned in Spanish do transfer to English (Hooray!)

The good news is that most of the linguistic skills that addalingua immersion students develop in Spanish do, in fact, transfer to English. What Dr. Tara Fortune calls  the “gift of early literacy instruction in Spanish” is why addalingua supports just two time-intensive immersion models. (It may seem counterintuitive, but more instructional time spent in English doesn’t actually result in better English outcomes for students.)

Why is understanding “transferable versus non-transferable” skills so important?

Teachers who fully understand the difference between skills and concepts that transfer from Spanish to English and those that don’t, make sure every instructional minute counts and contribute to the quality of dual language  immersion programs. addalingua classroom teachers rely on a K-8  structural scope and sequence and a non-transferable English Specific Skills framework so they feel confident about where to spend their valuable instructional time.

For example, savvy immersion teachers know that teaching students the structure of an essay or the concept of 2 + 2 becoming 4 is something that can be learned in ANY language.  They don’t need to “re-teach” these concepts in English after they’ve taught and ensured student mastery of of them during Spanish instructional time.

Every essay needs a good introduction, regardless of the language in which it’s written! For that matter, 2 + 2 is always 4 – in any language. add.a.lingua teachers TRUST the model of  “common underlying proficiency”(Cummins, 1979) and don’t feel the urge to “add more English time” into the schedule.

How do addalingua immersion programs introduce English Specific Skills (ESS)?

Through a well-planned and articulated ESS experience across the grade levels, add.a.lingua immersion programs ensure that the critical surface features of the English language that don’t transfer directly from Spanish receive targeted attention.

During ESS time, students explore the English language through a core content area such as science or social studies. They write across the curriculum, engage in word study in English, and explore patterns in the English language.

In this brief video, add.a.lingua director, Stephanie Irizarry, introduces English specific skills (ESS) within the context of a 4th grade science lesson about physical properties at Holland Language Academy. She spent time at the start of the science lesson reviewing ESS. Once the students wrapped up their hands-on science experiment, she asked the students to use those same English Specific Skills to enhance their learning through dialogue and writing. Doing so helped these young scientists accurately express their learning!

The add.a.lingua ESS frameworks provide the roadmap for teachers and students with respect to grammatical features, word features of focus, and a four-part word wall that gets baked into core content instruction.

When do addalingua immersion programs introduce English specific skills?

In our early total one way immersion programs, English specific instruction begins in 3rd grade. In our 90-10 two way programs, English specific instruction begins in kindergarten. As noted above, the English specific skills introduced during English instructional time are always contextualized within core content areas because every minute counts.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “But, wouldn’t it make more sense to “do English” during an official English Language Arts class during the day? Especially in the upper grades? Our answer: No. Students need a context in which to explore English Specific Skills, make connections to the Spanish language and to become grade level biliterate. Our model avoids the add-on of a “fifth core class” because it’s not needed.

How do I know if our dual language program has a plan?

Well, instruction won’t involve teaching the same things twice, first in Spanish and then again in English. If the dual language immersion program that your child attends is high quality and is intentionally articulated, there is absolutely NO NEED to teach conceptual skills twice.

Rather than spending precious instructional time covering concepts that actually transfer across languages, the program should equip students with conceptual skills like essay writing and math facts as well as with a DEEP awareness of  how their two languages are unique and different!

Here’s the bottom line: ALL high quality dual language immersion programs need a plan for how they’ll help students master English Specific Skills.

If you’re an immersion program administrator or a teacher and would like to learn more about how add.a.lingua helps our partners with ESS, we’d love to talk. Fill out the form below and we’ll be in touch.

And if you’re a current or prospective immersion parent, don’t be afraid to ask your school administrator to see their plan for helping students develop mastery of English specific skills. (And be sure to check out 6 questions parents should ask before enrolling their child in a dual language immersion program.


February 27, 2018

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