Printer Friendly

Library instruction and Spanish-English cognate recognition.

Juan is a fourth-grade Latino English Language Learner (ELL) in a bilingual program. He finds it difficult to read the English texts in his content area classes because he does not understand many of the words on the page. In this morning's library session, Mrs. Reyes, the teacher-librarian, discussed Spanish-English cognates with the class. She told the class that cognates are words in the English language that are similar, if not identical, to words in Spanish. Mrs. Reyes cited the examples: "agriculture," "mythology," and "hospital," that are very similar to the Spanish words: "agricultura, "mitologia," and "hospital." Mrs. Reyes then passed out a list of words and directed the students to find out which words were cognates using the Find-a-Cognate online database. Juan and his companions were surprised to find that so many of the words were cognates. Mrs. Reyes then asked her students to think of their own words that might be cognates and to check them on the database. After discovering that many of their words were also cognates, the students learned that cognates are everywhere. Mrs. Reyes then advised the students to think of similar words in Spanish whenever they came upon an unknown English word in text. It just might help them understand what they are reading.

In this true-to-life vignette, the students learned that their Spanish home language can be used to decipher unknown English words. Instead of being made to feel ashamed of their Latino heritage, the students discovered a new appreciation for their Spanish. They also learned a strategy for making meaning of unknown words--the cognate-recognition strategy.

The words Mrs. Reyes used, "agriculture, mythology, and hospital," are instances of Spanish-English cognates. Cognates are words that are orthographically and semantically similar in two languages because of a shared etymology. There are over 20,000 Spanish-English cognates, many of which are among the most frequently used words in English (Johnson, 1941; Montelongo, 2002). Some cognates like "hospital" and its Spanish equivalent, "hospital" are identical in both English and Spanish, while other cognates, such as "cat" and "gato," are not as obvious (Montelongo, Hernandez, Hefter, & Hernandez, 2009).

Educators have known that cognates facilitate second language learning for decades [Doyle, 1926; Johnson, 1941). Because of their orthographic transparency, Latino ELLs can guess their meanings. Cognates have been used to teach morphological regularities between English and Spanish (Garrison, 1990) and to scaffold the meanings of unknown noncognates in context clue exercises (Montelongo, Hernandez, Herter, & Cuello, in press). Most important, think-aloud studies have shown that Latino ELLs who use a cognate-recognition strategy outperform those students who do not (Jimenez, 1997). Despite their obvious potential, however, cognates remain an underutilized language resource (Fitzgerald & Cummins, 1999).

Recognizing Spanish-English cognates is not an automatic process (Nagy, Garcia, Durgunoglu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). Latino ELLs require direct instruction to recognize cognates (Jimenez & Gamez, 1996). Therefore, it is necessary for librarians as teachers to provide instruction on cognate recognition. They can do this by developing word activities that highlight cognates. The purpose of this paper is to present activities teacher-librarians can create and use to help students at all grade levels develop cognate-recognition strategies.


Teacher-librarians who work with Latino ELLs can teach students about Spanish-English cognates at the earliest levels of elementary school. A teacher-librarian can introduce cognates prior to reading a story aloud or after having read it. In either case, the purpose is to get Latino ELLs to think about the relationships between English and Spanish words. Presenting the Spanish and English cognate equivalents side by side in large bold lowercase letters on a word wall is an effective way of displaying the words from a read-aloud. To acquaint students with their pronunciations and meanings, a teacher-librarian can point to each cognate and have the students pronounce them while ensuring that the students understand the word meanings.

The primary purpose of introducing cognates is not only to teach elementary school students the meanings and pronunciations of individual cognate words, but also to stimulate thinking about how much regularity or connections exist between Spanish and English words. Most easy-reader books contain many Spanish-English cognates. Teacher-librarians can use the cognates from easy readers such as Alice the Fairy (Shannon, 2004) to create mini-lessons on Spanish-English language generalizations. For example, many Spanish adverbs ending in the suffix, -mente, are predictable from English adverbs ending in "-ly." This rule can be illustrated with the cognate examples from Alice the Fairy: accidentally/accidentalmente," "really/realmente," and "probably/probablemente."

Technology can be used to teach these regularities. Teacher-librarians can create lessons for read-alouds or curriculum-related articles on Web pages. A teacher-librarian can create a Webpage (for example, cognates.html) containing a table of Spanish and English cognates to teach students to infer the -ly/-mente relationship.


Reading (usually around the fourth grade) using expository texts such as textbooks, magazine articles, and informational webpages is becoming more prevalent. These resources are loaded with cognates. Many words in bold-faced type in texts and webpages are cognates, as are the majority of terms in textbook glossaries. Spanish-English cognates can be found in large numbers in science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts. The importance of cognates in expository texts can be traced to the historical status of Latin as the academic language of Western scholarship, and this can be used to explore and engage in the discovery of cognates in many areas.

Teacher-librarians in the upper elementary grades and middle school must do their part to make English Language Learners aware of the many cognates in the expository texts they read. As was the case with younger elementary students, they can create word walls highlighting the cognates students will likely encounter in their readings, or create webpages to teach morphological regularities.

Teacher-librarians can also help Latino ELLs take advantage of their knowledge of Spanish-English cognates by teaching them the various reading strategies that exist under the using-the-context umbrella (Montelongo, Hernandez, Herter, & Cuello, in press). To figure out the meaning of an unknown word from its context, students must be taught to use the clues provided by the text. Teacher-librarians can create webpages to teach students the context-clues strategies of looking for cognate synonyms, antonyms, and examples for clues to the meanings of unfamiliar words in sentences before and after an unknown word. A webpage ( monte/contextclues.html) such as the one shown in Figure la, contains exercises for modeling the cognate-recognition and using-the-context strategies for words from the novel Esperanza Rising (Munoz Ryan, 2000). A teacher-librarian can model using context clues by teaching students to look in the text following the unfamiliar italicized words or phrase for clues to its meaning and can teach the cognate-recognition strategy by teaching students to use cognates to guess the meaning of the unfamiliar italicized word.


The capabilities of a simple webpage such as that presented in Figure la can be enhanced by the addition of the free Apture Highlights add-on program ( As demonstrated in Figure lb, students working on a vocabulary webpage can instantaneously access more information, videos, and images from external websites without leaving the page. They can find more information about the word or phrase such as its etymology or usage in language. They can also view images or videos related to the highlighted word or phrase.


Teacher-librarians can develop other assignments to increase student recognition of cognates. As described in the opening vignette, they can direct students to locate cognates from texts or even terms from the Dewey Decimal System using online sources such as the free Find-a-Cognate database (http://www.angelfire. com/ill/monte/findacognate.html). With this database, a user types in a term, say "bottle." In response, the database returns the Spanish-English cognate, "botella." If no cognate exists, the database responds with the message, "no records found." As with webpages, students can highlight words from the database and be taken to an informative website or video by Apture Highlights as demonstrated in Figure 2.


Teacher-librarians can also create interactive assignments for students using free educational Web 2.0 tools such as Edmodo ( Assignments featuring cognates can be created for students using the combined technologies of Edmodo, the Find-a-Cognate database, and Apture Highlights. For example, a teacher-librarian can assign students to review a historical document essential for research and have them identify the cognates in the document. Students can review the document for cognates using the Find-a-Cognate database and get more information from other sources and videos made available by Apture Highlights. Or, a teacher-librarian might create a context-clues assignment and ask the students to discuss the various ways they used cognates to guess at the meanings of unknown words. Through Edmodo and the other technologies, students can interact with each other and/or the teacher-librarian as shown in Figure 3.


Many teacher-librarians are monolingual English speakers and find it difficult to identify cognates in the readings they assign their students. One way to ensure the identification of the most important cognates is to use the free online program WordSift in combination with the Find-a-Cognate database. WordSift was created to help educators manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language found in text materials (Hakuta & Wentjies, 2010). Librarians can input up to 65k of text and Wordsift will output the 50 most frequent words in the selection (excluding function words) and display them on a tag cloud. Teacher-librarians can then check to see which of the fifty words are Spanish-English cognates using the Find-a-Cognate database or they can create assignments with these most useful words. WordSift is especially valuable given that teacher-librarians use resources from the Internet as supplemental materials and because many texts are now available online. The results of a Wordsift output for this manuscript are presented in Figure 4a along with a representation of the Find-a-Cognate database in Figure 4b.



Research studies have shown that Latino English Language Learners who use cognate recognition strategies to decipher the meanings of unknown words are more capable readers than those ELLs who do not. Teacher-librarians can create activities to help Latino ELLs recognize Spanish-English cognates. The activities presented here range from simple lists of cognates to those that take advantage of the free online technologies of Edmodo, the Find-a-Cognate database, Apture Highlights, and WordSift.



Anecdotal evidence suggests that Latino English Language Learners feel a sense of pride in their Spanish heritage when the usefulness of cognates is highlighted in classes. However, the utility of teaching students about cognates is not limited to English Language Learners. Activities that revolve around cognates serve to make all students curious about language.


Doyle, H. G. (1926). Aids to the study of Spanish. Hispania, 9, 23-30.

Fitzgerald, J., Cummins, J. (1999). Bridging disciplines to critique a national research agenda for language-minority children's schooling. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 378--390.

Garrison, D. (1990). Inductive strategies for teaching Spanish-English cognates. Hispania, 73, 508-512.

Hakuta, K. and Wentjies, G. (2010). About Wordsift. Available at:

Jimenez, R. T. (1997). The strategic reading abilities of five low-literacy Latino readers in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 224-243.

Jimenez, R.T. & Gamez, A. (1996). Literature-based cognitive strategy instruction for middle school Latino students. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 40, 84-91.

Johnson, M. (1941). Spanish-English cognates of high frequency. Modern Language Journal, 25, 405-417.

Montelongo, J. A. (2002) Learning and memory for Spanish English cognates. Un published doctoral dissertation. Las Cruces, NM: New Mexico State University.

Montelongo, J. A., Hernandez, A. C., Herter, R. J., & Cuello, J. (in press). Using Spanish-English Cognates to Scaffold Using-the-Context Strategies for Latino ELLs. The Reading Teacher.

Montelongo, J. A, Hernandez, A. C., Herter, R. J., & Hernandez, C. (2009). Orthographic transparency and morphology of Spanish-English cognate adjectives. Psychological Reports, 105, 4, 1-5.

Munoz Ryan, P. (2000). Esperanza Rising. New York: Scholastic.

Nagy, W. E., Garcia, G. E., Durgunoglu, A. Y., & Hancin-Bhatt, Barbara. (1993). Spanish-English bilingual students' use of cognates in English reading. Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 241-259.

Shannon, D. (2004). Alice the Fairy. New York: Blue Sky Press.

Jose A. Montelongo, Ph.D., M.L.I.S. is teacher-librarian in the Canutillo Independent School District, Canutillo, Texas. He may be contacted at
COPYRIGHT 2010 E L Kurdyla Publishing LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Montelongo, Jose A.
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2010
Previous Article:Merchandising your library resources.
Next Article:Bestsellers.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters