Cognates as an Instructional Strategy

by Cristina Zakis, Education Consultant

As teachers, when we choose instructional strategies to use with our students, we want to make the most of the time we have with them and make the most of the assets they bring to the classroom. English learners (ELs) bring the asset of their first or primary language. However, it is up to the teacher to make the connections between the student’s primary language and their new language, English, if there are any. With the majority of ELs being Spanish speakers, there are many opportunities to make this connection between languages. Connections can be made by pointing out cognates between English and another language.

The use of cognates is a strategy that students and teachers alike enjoy and can easily employ. defines “cognate” as “descended from the same language or form.” According to Colorin Colorado, cognates are “words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.” Many English-Spanish cognates share a Latin root. When students, even as young as 5, are taught about the connection between many English words and their Spanish equivalent, we unlock the magic of language for them. For example, when we show an EL that February and the Spanish word, febrero, mean the same thing, we can empower them to decipher this new language on their own in many instances. Note that it is just as important to teach ELs that there is such a thing as false cognates. Not all words that sound and look the same actually mean the same thing. For example, the Spanish word, globo, looks and sounds like the English word, globe. However, globo means balloon instead of globe. 

When I taught English Learners in grades K-5 I enjoyed teaching all students about cognates. I saw that this strategy could unlock the beautiful connectedness of languages for all students, not just ELs. I created a matching game in which students would work together to match up the cognates and then talk about their meaning. This activity is also good to use with teachers of ELs to demonstrate the importance of pulling in the asset of the ELs’ primary language to unlock both social and academic language and expedite their acquisition of English.

A great resource for more information about using cognates in instruction can be found in this Colorin Colorado’s article. It is also recommended to simply Google lists of cognates related to a topic or theme that is being studied. One might Google, “cognates related to the life cycle.” Don’t forget to also look up the false cognates. It is not necessary to know the other languages in order to use this strategy with students. Simply rely on the ability to find these lists through a quick Google search. Soon enough ELs will begin noticing cognates in their reading and all around them. As an English learner myself, I remember being able to rely on my knowledge of cognates even when I took the vocabulary portion of the SAT. It definitely gave me an advantage.