Using Cognates to Expand English Language Learners’ Vocabulary

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As part of my RETELL training (see more about this here), we have been discussing different ideas and techniques for making academic content more accessible for English language learners (ELLs). Recently, in response to an assignment, my friend and colleague, Megan from Breaking Grad(School), called attention to the idea of using cognates to help students connect new vocabulary words in English to familiar words in their native languages, which I think is a beautifully simple and genius idea. Whenever a pedagogical strategy honors and relies on students’ prior knowledge, I’m always predispositioned to like it. So I decided to do some resource hunting on the topic and, as always, I learned a few things!

Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll define cognates as words from two different languages that are derived from a common linguistic root or ancestor, causing them to share similar meanings, spellings, and/or pronunciations. Cognates almost always have the same meanings as one another, although not every time; however, they appear to be extremely similar on paper. The idea here is that, if we can teach ELLs to identify cognates or if we can give them lists of cognates in their primary language, they will more quickly and easily be able to acquire the corresponding cognates in English. For example, when teaching a Spanish-speaking ELL the word “abbreviation,” a quick and easy shortcut is to point them to the Spanish cognate of that word, “abreviación,” which has the same meaning.

Obviously this strategy is more helpful in some languages than in others. English shares very few cognates with languages like Chinese or Arabic. However, according to research by Colorin Colorado, 30-40% of all words in English have a Spanish cognate. That works out to around 10,000-15,000 English words that a Spanish-speaking ELL most likely has easy access to. This handy Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages (MATSOL) factsheet tells us that over 50% of ELLs in Massachusetts speak Spanish. So, when working with Spanish-speaking ELL students, which, statistically speaking, will be more often than not, the use of cognates to build vocabulary is a useful tool.

Like I mentioned earlier, I love this strategy because it takes advantage of knowledge that students already have in a language that is comfortable for them. It can also be a tool to boost ELL student confidence in an environment where they feel disadvantaged when compared to their English-speaking peers. In a webcast interview, researcher Diane August points out that the many Spanish-English cognate pairs are actually made up of what is a very commonly-known, basic word in Spanish and a fairly high-level, Tier 2 or 3 word in English. This means that a simple, commonly-used word in Spanish might actually have an SAT-level cognate in English, giving Spanish-speaking ELLs an advantage in vocabulary acquisition.

A small catch to this idea is the existence of false cognates, which are words that are spelled and pronounced very similarly to one another, but do not actually share a common meaning. An example of this would be the words “actually” and “actualmente.” Relying on the cognate trick, an ELL student might assume these two words share a meaning; however, in Spanish, “actualmente” means “currently” and “actually” best translates into “en realidad.” When using cognates to teach ELLs new vocabulary, it’s a good idea to make sure they are aware of the possibility of false cognates so they aren’t caught off-guard when they meet one. Fortunately, statistics from show that only around 5% of cognates in the English language are false; so ELLs will benefit more often than not from assuming a familiar word is a cognate.

Another slightly larger catch to this idea is that the teacher of the class has to actually know which cognate to point to to help build vocabulary. Since my foreign language knowledge is definitely insufficient to meet the diverse needs of Massachusetts ELL students, I found a few great websites that identify some common and helpful cognates in a variety of languages.

Ultimately, as with most things, the usefulness of this strategy can only be determined on a case-by-case basis; however, it’s definitely an idea I’ll keep in my toolbox just in case.

An Overview of the Sheltered English Immersion Program

If you plan on being a core academic teacher in Massachusetts, you either are or soon will be fairly familiar with sheltered instruction and the Sheltered English Immersion program. I do plan on teaching in Massachusetts and am in the “getting to know you” phase of my relationship with sheltered English instruction, so I thought it would be helpful for myself and for other teachers in similar positions to have a brief overview of what sheltered instruction is, where it comes from, and why Massachusetts is making us learn about it.

Here are some facts to start off with:

  • English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing population in the U.S. school system, with the number of English learners tripling since 1998 (Echevarría 1).
  • In Massachusetts, ELL Enrollment has increased by 57% since 2000
Taken from the MA Department of Education's RETELL field slide show.

Taken from the MA Department of Education’s RETELL field slide show.

  • For the 2013-2014 academic year in Massachusetts, the annual ELL dropout rate was approximately 3 times higher than that of non-ELL students. See this Department of Education report.

The poor performance of increasing numbers of ELLs in Massachusetts is not a new thing; the numbers were actually significantly worse in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Justice notified the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that their ELL instruction was not adequate to meet the needs of their student populations. The Department of Justice actually qualified the low quality ELL education in Massachusetts as a violation of civil rights as well as the federal Equal Opportunities Act. In response to this pressure from the Department of Justice, in June 2012, Massachusetts approved the Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) initiative, which is a collection of reforms regulating ELL instruction in schools. One of the primary components of the RETELL initiative is the requirement that all core academic teachers earn a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) Teacher Endorsement, which equips them to use sheltered English instruction in their classrooms.

Sheltered English instruction is a pedagogical approach to helping ELLs access and understand grade-level, content-area knowledge while also building their English language skills. The term sheltered suggests that “such instruction provides refuge from the linguistic demands of mainstream instruction, which, unless modified, are beyond the comprehension of many English learners” (Echevarría 50). In other words, sheltered instruction, also referred to as Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English in some places, is intended to protect ELLs from English language requirements that they are unable to meet while they are developing both language and content-area skills. This kind of instruction can be used in a mainstream classroom where ELL students are surrounded by fluent English-speakers, or in a class entirely made up of ELLs (from Brown University’s SEI page). A core idea behind sheltered instruction is that it should benefit both ELLs and English-proficient students, making it appropriate for use in a mainstream class as well as an ELL class; all students should experience a richer, more rewarding educational experience when sheltered instruction is employed correctly.

And so, in response to generally inadequate educational opportunities for our ELL students here in Massachusetts, the state is requiring teachers to get some explicit instruction on how to work with students who do not have the necessary English language skills to complete their work independently. The most common way of attaining this newly required SEI endorsement is by completing an SEI endorsement class, which is what I will be doing. Because of this, you can expect to be seeing some ELL-themed blog posts over the next few months, which will make having this overview to refer back to even more useful!

Tales of a Blogging Faux Pas

I have a confession to make. This blog has been guilty of what I have recently learned is a fairly significant typographical faux pas.


I have been working on a very exciting collaborative webtext with a group of writers from Salem State (more on this later) and, as we worked out some of the design choices for that webtext, the ever-relevant and web-savvy Kate Artz brought up the question of spacing. She asked whether we would all be double or single-spacing between sentences. I had never really considered this question, being a die-hard, lifelong double-spacer myself.

Turns out that double spacing in between sentences is officially wrong! The double space is in fact an outdated holdover from the typewriter days in which all spaces were uniform. Currently, both the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style clearly dictate that the informed writer should place one, lone space after each period and before starting the following sentence. For a pretty great history and breakdown of the one v. two-space debate, tech writer and journalist Farhad Manjoo has a fantastically informative and funny post. Time spent reading that post is time well spent; trust me on this one.

Oddly enough, with myself as a prime example, teachers of all grade levels can still be seen instructing on and enforcing the erroneous two-space convention. For those of you who are in my boat and entirely missed the memo on this one, it looks like we’ll have to adjust our ways.

On the topic of ways-adjusting, I am not planning on combing back through all this blog’s archives and ripping out the offending, extra spaces; however, I will clean up my About and Get in Touch pages. I will also use my new knowledge from here on out to publish single-spaced blog posts. So have pity on my typographical ignorance in posts dated prior to this one.

You have my sincerest apologies, Internet, Modernity, and Professionalism. I will now go forth and try to break this lifelong habit of mine.

The Final Lap

It seems like it wasn’t so long ago that I sat down and bemusedly pondered the possibility of going back to school to get a teaching degree. And here I am….

  • entering my final year (hopefully) at Salem State! The first session of my last class begins a few days from today. How can that even be?
  • working on my thesis for my English masters with the truly and intimidatingly brilliant Dr. Stephenie Young. With my focus on modern wartime narratives by female, Arab authors, I have been and will continue to be digging deep and reading extensively into recent, multimodal compositions coming out of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.
My ever-growing, leaning tower of thesis reading.

My ever-growing, leaning tower of thesis reading.

  • preparing to complete my student teaching in the Spring, where I will take all my newfangled know-how for a test drive and have my naive sense of preparedness dashed upon the rocks of adolescent savagery.

I’m experiencing an odd conglomeration of feelings, just a few of which include anticipation, fear, and gratitude. In an attempt to focus and anchor this whirlpool of happenings and emotions, I have set a goal for this next and final year, which is simply, in the words of Thoreau’s Walden, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I am excited and determined to live this next year to the fullest, taking every opportunity to learn and grow in the craft of teaching. So wish me luck as I start my final lap!