Look for the Cognates when Learning a New Language

cc licensed flickr photo shared by mrsdkrebs

Each week I write a newsletter entitled The Learning Journey for the educators at the two school I serve as an instructional coach. Teachers lead busy lives. It is my hope that the weekly newsletter can streamline ideas on a variety of instructional strategies. The following post includes ideas recently shared in The Learning Journey.

On Saturday, April 15, I took my dog, Boji, to the Sioux City Public Library. It was our first day to volunteer in the “Read to Me” Program set up by the S.T.A.R.S. organization.

Boji and I had a great time meeting kids. Most were even from schools I currently serve or have served in the past as an instructional coach. Boji listened to several stories. The kids also loved asking questions about Boji. It was fun to see them in such an inquisitive state. Boji has even decided to blog about all of his experiences! You can follow Boji at Boji’s Blog: My Adventures as a Therapy Dog!

One of the books that was read to Boji (and I) was a book in English and Spanish. I attempted to learn how to say the Spanish sentence provided on each page. Whenever I’m faced with speaking/learning another language, I am reminded what many of our students deal with on a daily basis. I felt frustrated when my pronunciation was incorrect or when I didn’t understand what I was even saying. Yet, I felt encouraged by the assistance of the students. They guided me through the pronunciation and understanding of the text.

I found myself relying a lot on the cognates, words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. I felt secure in my understanding and pronunciation of words that looked similar to words I was familiar with in English.

Many of us do not speak the home languages of our students. Cognates are difficult to know if we don’t know the first language of our students. It helps if we educate ourselves. One way is becoming familiar with the cognates and similarities of languages!

Following are a few resources on cognates. I hope you find them helpful as you serve the needs of the English language learners in your classrooms. Perhaps they will be helpful as you work with your students’ caregivers as well.

Using Cognates to Develop Comprehension in EnglishThis is a very helpful article on the ¡Colorín Colorado! Website. It provides some background information on cognates and their role in helping students comprehend English. It also provides several classroom applications. One such resource is a PDF of several cognates. (Note: While on the site ¡Colorín Colorado! do a search for cognates. You will find several other resources!)  The article also reminds the reader that there are “false cognates” or pairs of words that look similar but have different meanings. For example:

  • In English exit means to leave
  • In Spanish éxito means success

Quizlet Flashcard Developer Quizlet is the largest flash cards and study games website with over 11 million free sets of flashcards covering every possible subject. It is a place to play educational games, memorize vocabulary and study online. There seems to be several sets cognate flashcards already developed. The cards also have audio of the English and second language pronunciation. Older students may find it useful to review some sets. Or, it appears that you can make your own Quizlet flashcard sets. For flash cards to be even more useful, picture support would be beneficial.

Cognate Commotion This site explains a game in which you can use cognate flashcards. The two resources above would be beneficial. Determining cognates that go with a specific unit of study will help students comprehend the new learning expectations.

The Cognate Highlighter –  This is FREE resource produced by The Cognate Project. You just copy and paste English text in the window and those cognates understandable to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French speakers will be automatically highlighted. Interestingly, hundreds of proper names (popular brands worldwide included) will also be highlighted. THIS IS PRETTY COOL! (Site indicates it works best with the browser Google Chrome)

Math Cognates – Math has its own language, even to English speakers. This link will take you to a list of MANY math cognates.

Familiarizing ourselves with cognates and helping students understand the link between languages is one way to help students gain a new language, comprehend what they are reading or listening to and feel successful along their journey. Cognates also are helpful to us, as we learn their first language. A shared love of learning languages can help students feel comfortable in their in their language acquisition process.  It all goes back to “People don’t care how much you know until they know you care!” 


  • Dawn 21 May

    Kathy – This is such an important topic, especially in CA with our new focus on building the efficacy of our multi-lingual students.

    I’m so glad you posted this because using cognates is both a way to teach a new language and a way to honor the language students come with.

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