The Essential Cognate Instruction

Jun 18, 2013 by

Emily Godenschwager
George Mason University

As you walk in an elementary school with a highly diverse population, you are bound to hear students speaking more than one language. The most common second language in U.S. schools today is Spanish. Although it may appear that English speakers and Spanish speakers are integrated in classrooms, they are not necessarily absorbing the instruction in the same way. English Language Learners(ELLs) come to U.S. classrooms with rich linguistic backgrounds, which with good teachers, can develop their meaning-making strategies by tapping into their knowledge of Spanish. Research shows that ELL’s who receive Spanish-English cognate instruction outperform ELL’s who do not receive it. And, it is widely known that Latino ELs who do receive Cognate instruction will receive better test scores and a better understanding of the English language as a whole. Spanish-English Cognate instruction is essential for ELL’s in elementary school.

There have been many studies completed on the benefits of Spanish-English cognate instruction for ELLs. Evidence from a recent intervention study (Kelley, 2012) suggests that the cognate strategy is effective in resolving meaning for challenging English vocabulary items that are Spanish-English cognates. This means, that ELLs who experienced the intervention exhibited higher levels of metalinguistic awareness.

A study done (August, 2011), which consisted of assessing fourth grade ELLs on a multiple choice English vocabulary test, showed that most of the Hispanic bilingual students who were tested were able to explicitly recognize cognates in text and distinguish between cognates and non-cognates when given simple instructions. Performance on this English multiple-choice test was highest in those cases in which the student both knew the word in Spanish and was able to identify the English word as a cognate.

Some people may think that putting ELLs in an English only classroom ‘throwing them into the fire’ is enough influence and instruction in English so they will learn quickly. But the fact is that all students, not just ELLs, learn much faster when they have a connection to make with knowledge they already have. ‘Throwing them into the fire’ creates anxiety for students and can lead to even more confusion.

You might be asking yourself, How could we possibly train all the teachers who need to be trained in a short period of time to teach his or her ELL students this strategy? There is so much research on this topic that proves that the Spanish-English cognate strategy is beneficial for ELLs. It is imperative that we get our teachers trained in the U.S. on this type of instruction. This will allow teachers to actively engage his or her students in the classroom.


August, D., Carlo, M.S., Dressler, C., Snow, C. & White, C.E. (2011). Spanish-speaking students’ use of cognate knowledge to infer the meaning of English words, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14 (2), 243-255.

Kelley, A. & Kohnert, K. (2012). Is There a Cognate Advantage for Typically Developing Spanish-Speaking English-Language Learners? Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, 43 191-204.

Durgunoglu, A.Y., Garcia, G.E., Hancin-Bhatt, B. & Nagy, W.E. (1993).Spanish-English Students’ Use of Cognates in English Reading. Journal of Literacy Research. 25, 241- 259.

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