• by Sulema Carreón-Sánchez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2015 •

Dr. Sulema Carreon-SanchezEnglish language learners comprise a fast-growing population that has a number of implications for classroom instruction. In the United States, 4.7 million students – 10 percent of the student population – are English language learners (ELLs). Teachers choose instructional strategies and tools based in part on the age and level of English language proficiency of their students. A recent encounter that I experienced in a classroom demonstrates the importance of cognates in the early elementary classroom setting.

One morning, I had the privilege of going to a bilingual classroom to read to students. Typically in a bilingual classroom, students’ proficiency levels will range from beginner to advanced high levels, as identified by the state. Unaware of the specific proficiency levels of students, I selected a bilingual book. As I began to read the story in Spanish, some students were responding to the questions in Spanish. But I noticed that some other students were not responding. So I began to read in English. I continued to ask questions in English, and some students responded in English. I decided to read each page, first in Spanish and then in English. Then we had a class discussion.

One student proudly told me that he was nervous because in a few weeks he was going to be in a spelling contest. As we talked, I learned that he could easily spell words in Spanish, but words in English would prove to be challenging for him. He said the English words seemed confusing, and he could not remember how to spell them.

I asked, “Do you think you know how to spell those words in Spanish?” Proudly, he answered, “Yes, those are easy.” So I suggested the following: First think of the word in Spanish, look at it visually, than try to spell it in English. The boy’s eyes lit up. “I think I found a way to remember the English words!”

I returned to the book and as a concluding activity I pointed out several cognates in the story, giving students a tool to connect Spanish to English.

Ai­da Walqui and Leo van Lier highlight the concepts of “playground and classroom languages” (2010). The term playground language refers to words used by children in social environments when they want to belong when playing games or making friends. It is simple language used to be a part of the class or group. The term classroom language, or academic language, refers to words teachers use to teach and is focused on classroom lessons. Using cognates can help with building academic language by transferring common words in meaning, spelling and pronunciation.

IDRA and others’ research have identified a variety of factors that are related to the achievement gaps of students, including limited access to high-quality preschool instruction, inequitable school funding, low quality curricula and instruction (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).

Educators are familiar with the idea that strong vocabulary development leads to successful building of academic language. Moreover, this vocabulary bank grows and becomes a resource for students connecting to the funds of knowledge. Moll, et al., define funds of knowledge as “the historically-accumulated and culturally-developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (1992).

Montelongo & Hernández state that the background of bilingual students with their funds of knowledge puts them at an advantage over English-only speakers for acquiring academic vocabulary (2013). This knowledge can assist with literacy and success of second language learners.

Cognates are words in two languages that are common in meaning, spelling and even pronunciation. Colorín Colorado has identified 30 percent to 40 percent of English words have a related word in Spanish (2007). Montelongo & Hernández emphasize that “Spanish cognates are an important category of vocabulary words” (2013). The authors identified more than 20,000 such cognates as identified in academic vocabulary words deriving from the Latin and the Greek languages. Examples of some cognate in mathematics are: function – función; formula – formula; triangle – triángulo. Examples of science academic words are: calculate – calcular; comparison – comparación; investigate – investigar.

Jiménez & Gámez (1996) found that just using cognates is not enough, “Direct instruction is required” to show students how to make connections. When students use cognates in early grades, they can begin to make the connections to math, science, social studies and reading and can continue the connections as they progress through school. The scaffolding of academic words will be extended between advanced high school courses and will act as a spring board to college readiness. As a result, students will have a tool for future use to increase the learning of unfamiliar English words.

Montelongo & Hernandez (2013) stress that it is essential that students continue to develop their Spanish vocabulary to take full advantage of the cognates. Thus, for example, when reading a story to children in a bilingual classroom, the reader can incorporate vocabulary activities using cognates to help students build a rich vocabulary and make connections to their first language.

While having fun and supporting classroom learning, a classroom teacher may observe and learn through one’s modeling of how important these strategies can be for ELL students no matter what the proficiency level is. Technology today provides a variety of ways to use cognates as a resource. Some websites offer titles of books and will go to the extreme of identifying specific types of cognates within the story. School districts can begin gathering their targeted vocabulary per grade level or per content area and begin their cognate banks.


Colorín Colorado. Using Cognates to Develop Comprehension in English, web page (2007). http://www.colorincolorado.org/educators/background/cognates

iménez, R.T., & A. Gámez. “Literature-Based Cognitive Strategy Instruction for Middle School Latina/o Students,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (1996).

Montelongo, J.A., & A.C. Hernández. “The Teachers’ Choices Cognate Database for K-3 Teachers of Latino English Learners,” Reading Teacher (November 2013).

Moll, L., & C. Amanti, D. Neff, N. Gonzalez. “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using A Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms,” Theory Into Practice (1992).

Pelatti, C.Y., & S.B. Piasta, L.M. Justice, A. O’Connell. “Language- and Literacy-Learning Opportunities in Early Childhood Classrooms: Children’s Typical Experiences and Within-Classroom Variability,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (December 2014).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman. Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™ (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Walqui, A., & L. van Lier. Scaffolding the Academic Success of Adolescent English Language Learners (San Francisco, Calif.: WestEd, 2010).

Sulema Carreón-Sánchez, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Student Access and Success Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at sulema.sanchez@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]