Using Spanish/English Cognates to Build English Academic Vocabulary

Using Spanish/English Cognates to Build English Academic Vocabulary

What is “Academic Language?”

Academic language is different from ordinary spoken English because it is the abstract language of ideas. Jeff Zwiers has defined it as “the set of words, grammar, and organizational strategies used to describe complex ideas, higher-order thinking processes, and abstract concepts.”  Students begin school with a fund of conversational language from their home culture, but in school they begin to use another language—that of learning in general and specialized fields. Zwiers refers to these as “bricks and mortar.” Bricks are the content specific vocabulary, like plate tectonics, while mortar are the general utility academic words, like analyze, define, summarize. In terms of vocabulary, we might compare this to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) vocabulary Tiers:

Tier 1 spoken, conversational words, like family, home

Tier 2 words and terms useful across contexts—the “mortar” words according to Zwier, like analyze, summarize

Tier 3 words that are bricks or content specific, like photosynthesis

For Spanish-speaking English Learners, academic language can often be a “third” language. Consciousness about cognates can assist these students to learn English.

What are Cognates?

Lubliner and Grisham (in press) define cognates as words that are spelled similarly in Spanish and English and share meaning due to a common Latin root.  Cognates are particularly plentiful in content area texts such as social studies and science books. For example, the word “nation” in English is “nación” in Spanish. Not all words that look and sound alike are cognates. The word “rope” in English has no relationship to the word “ropa” (clothes) in Spanish. Context is an important part of the strategic use of cognates.

Research suggests that up to 15,000 English words are Spanish-English cognates, including more than 70% of the Academic Word List (Nash, 1997; Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008).

Spanish/English cognates have some definite patterns that it is useful for teachers to know about.  For example, Lubliner identified some 21 patterns that occur with regularity in cognates and provided examples as shown in the following table:

Table 1: (Excerpt) Common English/Spanish Cognate Patterns

Pattern Orthographic Shifts from English to Spanish Pattern Examples Other Examples
1.  Same—Miscellaneous English and Spanish words are spelled the same (accents don’t count as differences) area/área no/no, Mexico/ México America/América
2   Same – al, il words ending with al, il are spelled the same in English and Spanish animal/animal total/total, hospital/hospital
3   same – ar, or words end with ar, or are spelled the same in English and Spanish popular/popular,color/color motor/motor, actor/actor
4   same – able, ible words ending with able, ible are spelled the same in English and Spanish visible/visible terrible/terrible, possible/posible
5  Same—able, ible A, o, e may be added to the end of the Spanish work, letters may be dropped or changed fruit/fruta, group/grupo,art/arte grade/grado, American/Americano, class/clase

A great deal has been written about false cognates (amigos falsos) and how they may mislead Spanish-speaking English Learners about the meanings of words. Probably the best known is “embarrasado” which doesn’t mean embarrassed, but actually means pregnant. However, one doesn’t have to look very far back in history to see that being embarrassed about being in “an interesting condition” was the norm for many women. A brief study into etymology can often clear these misconceptions up.

So we know that cognate strategy instruction isn’t 100% effective. There will also be some “Spanglish” words like “caro” that doesn’t mean heart, but instead means an automobile. I firmly believe we still need to teach the cognate strategy and, like all strategies for building vocabulary and world knowledge or comprehension, it pays to tell children to use critical thinking when they use cognate strategy or any other strategy, for that matter.

Shira Lubliner at California State University and I were awarded IRA’s Elva Knight grant in 2007, and we used the funding to conduct a study using Cognate Strategy Instruction (CSI) in fifth grade classes in a very diverse Northern California school. Our pre/post assessments showed that CSI was successful in teaching students to use cognates to comprehend English text. Qualitative data we collected was similarly positive—students actively read for cognates and many Spanish-Speaking ELs were talking in class for the first time.

So watch for the book chapter. If you are interested in cognates and learning more about CSI, please post a response to this Blog. I would love to provide additional information about the cognate patterns in Spanish/English and their relationship to academic English. If you are using cognates in your classroom, please share!

Here are some websites to look over!

  1. (This website is under construction but will be active around mid-April).
  2. (This is the most frequently used academic language list from Averil Coxhead’s academic word list—done by families of words.)
  3. (This is the homesite for CALLA or Cognitive Academic Language Learning—an instructional model for English Learners authored by Chamot and O’Malley).
  4. (This is Jeff Zwiers’ Language and Literacy website, with lots of resources for teachers).


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.

Hiebert, E.H., & Lubliner, S. (2008). The nature, learning, and instruction of general academic vocabulary. In A.E. Farstrup & S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (pp. 106–129). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lubliner, S. & Grisham, D. L. (in press). Cognate Strategy Instruction: Providing powerful literacy tools to Spanish-speaking students. In J. Fingon and S. Ulanoff (Eds.). New research in literacy: Helping culturally and linguistically diverse students to succeed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nash, R. (1997).  NTC’s Dictionary of Spanish Cognates.  Chicago, Il: NTC Publishing Group.


4 Responses

  1. I particularly enjoyed this site because it gave you every possible part of speech to change a word into. I have and still do this is class- as a linguistic major and an English teacher I use the knowledge of morphemes(affixes) cognates all the time to enhance my students knowledge in the English language. I speak Italian so I use my knowledge of italian to enhance their knowledge and their understanding plus etymology is also a useful tool to use to teach. Most of the English language is borrowed from the Romantic languages and Greek(this language we use many of the suffixes such as ology).

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