Telescope pointing at the Milky Way

Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation, such as the English-Spanish cognate inspiration / inspiración.

This strategy is part of Colorin Colorado's ELL Strategy Library.


Special thanks to the authors of these strategies, Beth Skelton and Tan Huynh. For additional ideas and resources from the authors, see their book, Long-Term Success for Experience Multilinguals.

Strategy Overview

How This Strategy Supports Language Development

Cognates are bridges between languages. For example, 30-40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish, which can be a powerful tool for students once they learn to recognize them and use them. (This is especially important given the high number of Spanish-speaking English learners in the U.S.) Other languages share cognates with English as well, such as French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and Haitian Creole.

Research has shown that students can benefit from "cognate awareness," or the ability to use cognates in a primary language as a tool for understanding a second language. This kind of awareness can be taught to very young children and expanded with more sophisticated words and language as students get older. Many academic words have cognates that students can use to make connections in their content classes. Cognates can also be a helpful tool for developing literacy in both first and second languages.

And it's worth noting that cognates can help students who are learning other languages as well. In this video, bilingual teacher Alejandra Rojas talks about using cognates to help students in her Spanish-language math class:

Note: If you have students who speak languages that don't share many cognates with English, be sure to provide appropriate supports to them as well, such as these bilingual glossaries compiled by New York University. You can also teach them about cognates or other connections since English draws on so many languages; they may find connections you hadn't thought of!

Step-by-Step Instructions

Learning About Cognates

  1. Start by becoming familiar with examples of cognates in different words, such as our popular list of Spanish-English cognates compiled by Colorín Colorado. (Here are additional lists in French, Portuguese, German, and Haitian.) You can also see some common Greek and Latin roots that often appear in Spanish and English cognates in this chart.
  2. Look for other examples or connections in the languages your students speak.
  3. In addition, look for examples of false cognates -- words that look like they have the same meaning, but don't. Some examples from Spanish include:
  • exit / éxito (success)
  • embarrassed / embarazada (pregnant)
  • soap / sopa (soup or paste)

Using Cognates in the Classroom

  1. Introduce your students to the concepts of cognates by sharing examples with them from different content areas. Ask students to indicate which letters are the same and which are different between the cognates. In addition, talk about how pronunciation varies between the languages. Then ask students to come up with their own examples.
  2. Use cognates in the classroom through the following ways:
  • Ask students to raise their hands when they notice a cognate. Pause to discuss the meanings of the words in both languages. Invite other students to share other connections with their languages as well.
  • Teach students about false cognates. Ask the students: "Does anyone know what pie means in Spanish (foot)? What does the word pie mean in English (a kind of dessert)?" Give students some cognates and false cognates and ask them to identify which are false cognates.
  • Encourage students to highlight cognates when reading. You can also ask them to write cognates they find on sticky notes that are displayed on the wall under the heading "Our Cognates."
  • Pair students and give each pair a set of cognate cards: one card has the English cognate and the other has the Spanish cognate. Have students sort the words. Then ask them what the word pairs have in common and write responses on the board.
  • As you get more familiar with cognates, be sure to share the strategy of using cognates with your colleagues, particularly in the content areas. Show them examples of how you and students are using them in the classroom.


  • Give students additional practice in finding and identifying cognates, ideally with peers who speak the same heritage language.
  • Use visuals to highlight cognates in text you are teaching.

Lessons Learned

  • Be inclusive of all students' languages. If most of your students speak Spanish, for example, and a few speak other languages, make sure everyone's language is represented in the classroom and your lessons.
  • While it may seem like an obvious connection to make, students may not know about cognates, know to look for them, or know how to use them. Students need explicit instruction not only in recognizing them but also in using them in the classroom and across content areas.

Co-Teaching Considerations

Content or Grade-Level Teacher

  1. Look for cognates in the material you will be teaching. (If needed, ask a bilingual colleague to help you identify some cognates in the material.)

English Language Development Teacher

  1. Work with your colleague to brainstorm a few ways to highlight and use the cognates in the classroom.
  2. Look for ideas to help students "collect" cognates, such as the cognates board idea with sticky notes above.


Maya Skies: Calendars, Seasons, and Time (National Museum of the American Indian)
Examples of cognates in featured text

Related Videos: Cognates

These videos explain the value of using cognates with English language learners. See more in our Cognates Strategy.