Colorin Colorado: Helping children read... and succeed!
A bilingual site for families and educators of English language learners
  • small text
  • medium text
  • large text
  • print

Using Cognates to Develop Comprehension in English

By: Colorín Colorado (2007)

Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. While English may share very few cognates with a language like Chinese, 30-40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish. For Spanish-speaking ELLs, cognates are an obvious bridge to the English language.

Not surprisingly, researchers who study first and second language acquisition have found that students benefit from cognate awareness. Cognate awareness is the ability to use cognates in a primary language as a tool for understanding a second language. Children can be taught to use cognates as early as preschool. As students move up the grade levels, they can be introduced to more sophisticated cognates, and to cognates that have multiple meanings in both languages, although some of those meanings may not overlap. One example of a cognate with multiple meanings is asistir, which means to assist (same meaning) but also to attend (different meaning).

Here is a helpful list of cognates in Spanish and English.

Classroom strategies for teaching cognates

Read aloud

When you read aloud to your students, ask the Spanish speakers to raise their hand when they think they hear a cognate. Stop reading and discuss that cognate. Point out the subtle differences you hear between the Spanish and English words. If you have a French, Italian, or Portuguese speaker in your class, invite them to contribute cognates in that language.

Student reading

As ELLs read their texts, ask them to find three or four cognates and write them on sticky pads. Collect those notes and put them on an OUR COGNATES laminated chart. Before the class ends, read or have students read them to the class. Discuss spellings or sounds that are the same and different between the cognates.

Follow-up activities:

Word Sort

Pair students and give each pair a set of cognate cards: one card has the English cognate and the other has the Spanish cognate. For example:

English

Spanish

family

familia

center

centro

radio

radio

class

clase

desert

desierto

magic

magia

gorilla

gorila

Have students sort the words. Then ask them what the word pairs have in common and write responses on the board.

Circle Differences

Ask students to indicate which letters are different between the cognates by circling the letters. Alternate between having them call out differences with the teacher circling and occasionally having students come up and circle the differences themselves.

False Cognates

Write examples of false cognates on the board. For example: embarrassed/embarazada and pie/pie. Warn students that they might run into some words that are false cognates. These are words that look alike but do not have the same meaning in English and Spanish. Ask the students:

Does anyone know what pie means in Spanish (foot)? What does the word pie mean in English (dessert)?

Another example of a false cognate is the word embarrassed in English and embarazada in Spanish. What does embarrassed mean in English (to feel ashamed about something)? Does anyone know what embarazada means in Spanish (pregnant)?

Give students some cognates and false cognates and ask them to identify each. Examples of false cognates:

English

Spanish

globe

globo (balloon)

pie

pie (foot)

rope

ropa (clothes)

soap

sopa (soup or pasta)

large

largo (long)

exit

éxito (success)

hay

hay (there is)

Ask students to work with a partner to find as many cognates and false cognates as they can from a given list of words. After they finish, ask partners to share one example of each with the class.

Exaggerate intonation and stress

Cognate words can cause problems for Spanish speakers learning English and vice versa because of different stress patterns in the two languages. Point out how the emphasis changes in the following words:

  • condition / condición
  • animal / animal
  • ability / habilidad

Common Greek and Latin roots that are cognates in English and Spanish

Root

Meaning

Origin

English
examples

Spanish
examples

aud

hear

Latin

auditorium
audition

auditorio
audición

astir

star

Greek

astrology
astronaut

astrología
astronauta

bio

life

Greek

biography
biology

biografía
biología

dict

speak, tell

Latin

dictate
dictator

dictar
dictador

mit, mis

send

Latin

mission
transmit

misión
transmitir

ped

foot

Latin

pedal
pedestal

pedal
pedestal

phon

sound

Greek

phoneme
microphone

fonema
micrófono

port

carry

Latin

transport
portable

transportar
portatil

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Adapted from: Calderón, M., August, D., Durán, D., Madden, N., R. Slavin & M. Gil (2003 and in press). Spanish to English Transitional Reading: Teacher's Manual. Baltimore, MD: The Success for All Foundation.

Comments and Recommendations

I am so happy to find your website. Appreciate your efforts in sharing these ideas,tips, and so much information with others. May God bless your efforts and hard work.
Posted by: juanita barbosa  |  February 12, 2010 12:45 PM
I love your website. It is easy to navigate and everything I have visited is easily to apply in the classroom.
Posted by: D. Cohen  |  February 27, 2010 10:27 AM
As an immigrant and as an ELL instructor, I absolutely love this website!! Everything in it, is so user friendly and the name of your website.."Colorin Colorado," brings warm, loving, and at the same time, nostalgic memories of my childhood. Growing up in Ecuador, S.A., our mother would read us a story every single night, and she will always end the story with,..."Colorin Colorado, este cuento se ha terminado".... Thanks so very much for the love and dedication this website portraits..:) Monica L.
Posted by: Monica Lukas  |  October 28, 2010 01:20 PM
I think it is to hard to find info on this. [Modified by: Lydia Breiseth on enero 07, 2011 05:44 PM]
Posted by: Tina  |  January 07, 2011 10:07 AM
I am writing my Capstone exam and my topic is on strategies for teaching ELLs. I came across this website and it has given me useful hints on what I need. Great website! I will always come back.
Posted by: UC  |  June 11, 2011 01:40 AM
Just what I needed to present a Profession Development lesson! I always incorporate cognates in my classes.
Posted by: marty dreskin  |  January 01, 2013 06:29 PM
I notice that you have "asistir" as an example of a cognate with multiple meanings. It's actually a false cognate in the complete sense and doesn't ever mean "to assist." (The only situation I can imagine where we'd find that is in carry-over English influence, but even that would be a stretch since it has a concrete meaning to Spanish-speakers.)
Posted by: J. Marie Weldon  |  May 21, 2013 09:11 AM
I learn more every day
Posted by: Belkis viego  |  March 05, 2014 09:20 AM
(Note: Comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for their content.)

Post a new comment

 

 

Would you like ideas on this topic from other educators? Join the conversation about ELLs on our free social network on Ning, the Colorín Colorado Community!