(Contributed by: Dr. Lynn and Dr. Pappamihiel)
Several researchers have commented on the effective use of cognates (Nagy, Garcia, Durgunolgu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993, Garcia & Nagy, 1993). Cognates are pairs of words in two different languages that are so similar in either spelling or pronunciation they are easily recognizable between languages. These pairs of words help establish familiar territory and schema for ELLs who are expanding their reading skills in English. The use of cognates can also help teachers increase word awareness in ELLs, a task highly associated with the development of academic English.
In terms of academic English, native Spanish-speakers have an advantage when it comes to using cognates. Because many of the words we associate with academic English have Greco-Roman roots, it is common to find many cognates between these academic English words and more common words in other Romance languages, such as Spanish. Corson (1997) argued that higher-level Spanish readers are able to take better advantage of cognates because many of the low-frequency academic words in English are actually high-frequency words in Spanish.
There are two students from Mexico City in Ms. Dowdy’s fifth grade science class, and the lesson is one in which students are studying Newton’s First and Second Laws of Motion. Coming from a school known for academic excellence, the twins, Manuela and Ricardo, are very familiar with the material in their L1. However, English still tends to give them trouble. Manuela and Ricardo are already familiar with some of the academic vocabulary because many of the words have direct Spanish cognates that they use quite often (object=objetos, accelerate=acelerar, dependent=dependiente, etc.). Putting Manuela and Ricardo into separate small groups with 3 to 4 native English speaker students who are also having trouble with the assignment, Ms. Dowdy instructs the group to look for cognates in the reading. Discussion of the vocabulary allows both the language learners and the native speakers to flesh out the gist of the class assignment.
One word of caution; although our examples here are of Greco-Roman cognates because of their academic English usefulness, English has Indo-European roots. As such, “false” cognates do exist that could cause problems in the classroom. For instance, in German, which is closer linguistically to English than Spanish, the word “gift” means poison rather than “present”. We advise teachers to be aware of these “false” cognates and add that having a few as examples is an excellent way to raise student awareness of the phenomenon.