Cognates: An English Learner‘s Friend or Foe?


Cognates: An English Learner‘s Friend or Foe?

A cognate is a word that is similar, or even the same, in spelling and meaning in two different languages. For example, “abbreviation – abreviación,” “necessary – necesario,” and “tropic – trópico,” all share similarities in both English and Spanish. Cognates are useful because they can help students navigate unfamiliar vocabulary. Consider the English words “compare and contrast” with the Spanish “comparar and contraste.” Students could use knowledge of these words in Spanish to assist in comprehending them in English, even if they have not had instruction in these words in English.

While simplifying directions or test questions in order to increase student comprehension is an appropriate accommodation for some ELs, more advance vocabulary may actually be easier for some students to understand.  Most Romance language (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian) cognates in English are found in Tier II and Tier III words (academic language), because they share Greek and Latin roots (rather than Tier I words, most of which are of Anglo-Saxon origin). These words can be used to anchor new English words by tapping into what students already know and helping to build connections between the two languages. Research suggests however, that most students do not recognize cognates in text and fail to link what they already know to new vocabulary. Without explicit instruction, this great mental resource is wasted.

Cognates are not random and students can be taught patterns to help them identify cognates and see how the languages compare. For example, words that end in “ant” in English often end in “ante” in Spanish. Words that end in “ct” in English, often end in “cte” in Spanish.  Explicit instruction about these patterns can help students both identify and use cognates for decoding and comprehension. Consider the chart below:

Cognates Chart

Click here for a PDF version: Cognates Chart

Beware though, sometimes words that seem like cognates may not translate with exactly the same meaning. These “false friends” can get you in trouble. For example, “embarazar” may sound like “embarrassed,” but it actually translates most often to mean “pregnant.”  Also, consider that students who have had little education in their native language or come from low income households with vocabulary deficits in the native language, may be unfamiliar with Tier II and III words in their native language. Some languages, such as Arabic, have very few cognates in English. Teachers should use their knowledge of the student, the student’s native language proficiency, and best judgement when considering how to use cognates for instructional and assessment purposes.

One of the best resources I have found comes from the New York Department of Education. It explains in detail how cognates in Spanish and English are related:


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