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May 1, 2013
Vol. 55
No. 5

In the Classroom with Liliana Aguas: Capitalize on Cognates

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      I am incredibly fortunate to have an expressive and eloquent father. While I didn't always appreciate his loquacious ways while growing up, I did learn some of my favorite words from him: altruista (altruistic) and omnipotente (omnipotent).
      In school, as an English language learner struggling to read in English, I discovered that many of the "tricky" words that puzzled me reminded me of words I already knew in Spanish. This was especially true when I read my science and math textbooks: I recognized the words pyramid (pirámide) and asteroids (asteroides). When I realized how many words I actually knew and understood even while reading English, I thought that I had some kind of "magical power." In fact, it felt like I was getting away with something, so I never told any of my teachers about my useful reading strategy.
      To this day, I still use this strategy and credit this magical power as part of my decision to major in science in college. What I didn't know back in elementary school was that my magical power has a name and involves the recognition and use of cognates. Cognates are words that mean the same in English and Spanish and are often pronounced and spelled in a similar way. In fact, 30–40 percent of all words in English have a similar word in Spanish. As teachers, we can take advantage of the similarities between languages and capitalize on cognates.
      Unfortunately, when I was in school, no one ever taught me about cognates. It wasn't until I took a Spanish literature class in college that I found out what they are. Also, while traveling through Europe, I came across minipocket books full of cognates that smart travelers relied on to get by in a foreign language.
      Resourceful adults learning a second or third language successfully use cognates by building on the language they already know. Why not teach English language learners to do the same? In fact, volumes of research have demonstrated that literacy skills in the first language transfer to the second language, especially when the two languages share a similar writing system and roots.
      If we explicitly teach English language learners how to recognize and use cognates, it will help them transfer their native language word knowledge into their second language. Like me, many Spanish-speaking students come to school with a wealth of vocabulary that teachers can tap into and use to develop academic English vocabulary and thus enhance reading comprehension.
      Unlike me, however, many of these students do not automatically recognize or use cognates; therefore, they need explicit cognate instruction. The good news is that teaching cognates can be easy and fun! I use Scholastic's Vocabulary Building Bilingual Mini-Books to introduce my students to cognates. The minibooks include a model lesson that's easy to follow and implement. After my students have a good understanding of cognates, I reinforce them with interactive, hands-on activities throughout the year.
      The following are my top four classroom activities for teaching and reinforcing cognates:
      • Look for cognates during read alouds and shared reading: I select a book that my students are familiar with and that they enjoy. Before I begin reading, I ask my students to be on the lookout for cognates. When a student identifies a cognate, she shows me our special cognate hand signal. I stop reading, I write the cognates on chart paper, and we discuss the cognates together.
      • Nonfiction buddy reading: Buddy reading is an integral component of my readers' workshop. On designated days, my students read nonfiction books with a partner and look for cognates as they read together. When they come across a cognate, students fill out what I call a "cognate study sheet," which includes space for them to draw a picture of the cognate, write the definition, and use the cognate in a sentence.
      • Cognate sort/memory game: Students love cognate sorts. For this activity, I give a small group of students a set of cognate cards. One card has the Spanish cognate, and the other card has the matching cognate in English. I ask my students to sort out the cards and match the cognates. As an extension, I have my students play a round of memory with the cognate cards.
      • Ms. King's cognate extravaganza: A colleague and mentor teacher of mine gathers multilingual texts—such as manuals from Ikea, children's books in Portuguese or French, and instructional manuals for cell phones or DVD players—and brings them to her classroom. She explicitly teaches her students about cognates, word origins, and the five Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Romanian) and then uses the items she collected to encourage her 5th grade students to identify cognates.


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