Differentiation, literacy

6 ways to use cognates to support second language literacy

I like to teach my students that every time they learn something new in the language we’re studying, it helps to think of it as a tool. The more tools you have, the more communication you can build. The visual of using language like a tool helps to reinforce that there is a purpose behind how and why we put words together, and that we build communication in a certain order, starting with the foundation and working from the ground up.

For beginning language learners, cognates are one of the easiest tools to recognize. Cognates build bridges between languages, and help students take advantages of relationships that exist between languages. Cognates are pairs of words (one in one language, one in another) that have similar spelling, meaning and pronunciation in both languages. These pairs of words frequently occur in languages that are related to one another and developed from the same or similar origins.

Most of my FSL (French as a second language) students speak English as their first language, or have a relatively high level of fluency in English. Even for those who speak it as a second or third language, the cognates that connect English and French are easy to see. From a student viewpoint, cognates are easy to recognize and understand, and their usefulness in understanding text needs no explanation. What’s less clear is all the other ways these words can be used to support communication. As a teacher, learning how to use other ways to use cognates has expanded my instructional planning and helped me to support developing L2 literacy much more effectively.

Using cognates to support reading

For my FSL students, I refer to cognates as les mots amis (friendly words). When we look at a block of text, these words represent one of the first access points for most students, and the first thing that can transform a page of text in an unfamiliar language to something that has some recognizable landmarks. In French, there are many cognates which are spelled exactly the same as their English counterparts, making these true cognates. Other cognates might be spelled similarly, might play a slightly different role in sentence structure, or may have a related meaning that is not identical. These close cognates are still helpful in decoding text and reducing the mental load of translation that beginning students often struggle with. This list gives an idea of the sheer number of words that students can understand without the help of dictionaries, just by using their background knowledge of English. The more extensive their English vocabulary, the more French cognates they will understand.

Using cognates helps enormously with basic comprehension of a text. In texts about everyday life, people and communities, often about 30% of the words can be considered cognates. However, our goal is not just to help students understand and then move on. A list of cognates alone doesn’t communicate anything, and doesn’t transfer easily to long term memory. In order to help students transfer new information to their long term memory, they need to make connections, interact with the ideas, and see the words as an interconnected web, not a list.

Start with identification

There are many ways to do this in a second language class, but an important first step is to make sure that all learners can identify cognates. Not all students will be able to recognize them just based on a definition, and students with a limited range of vocabulary in English will need support in order to use cognates as an effective bridge between related languages. Teacher modelling is a good beginning strategy here, to show learners that connections exist in spelling, sound, and meaning of cognates. If needed, students can practice identifying cognates in another piece of text, working individually or in partners, and then discuss their findings with the larger group before working independently.

Build relationships between words

Once students know what they are working with, it’s critical that they interact with the words in a range of ways that invite students to explore relationships between cognates. The goal is for students to create mental map of the new language they’re learning that looks like a network, not a list.

  1. Talk about the cognates within a text as a separate group of words. Ask students whether they see any patterns? Are there any words that appear more frequently than others? Why is this? Are they connected to the main idea? Questions like this encourage thinking about the relationships between words. It can be useful to help students visualize the words and think about how often they come up in a text.
  2. Engage students in the process of figuring out similarities and differences between words. Use a differentiated word sort activity (video explanation here). This activity works really well in collaborative groups.
  3. Use a semantic mapping activity (video and explanation here). Using cognates is a great way to introduce this activity so that students become familiar with it and can then use it with less familiar vocabulary. In this activity, students will explore relationships between words based on their meaning, and can yield really interesting results.
  4. Working individually or in partners, students can group the cognates from a text. A range of grouping strategies can be used to explore different aspects of language. Students can group words according to spelling or sound, grammatical function (if they know this), or create categories for themselves that show how these words connect to the main idea in the text. A good follow-up activity is to pair groups together and ask them to share their thinking, discussing what grouping strategies they used and why.
  5. Use a word cloud generator to map the words in a text and discuss the results. For example, this is a word cloud produced with the Word Cloud Generator add-on for Chrome, and a text I have used with students early on in French 8. When the words are rearranged in this way, our brains don’t have to read them integrated in lines of text, and the different colours help us to see words as distinct. This could also be used as an activity inviting students to predict what a text will be about, just by using the words that appear most prominently. 
  6. Make sure that students are able to connect sound and spelling. In most cases, there will be similarities between the two languages in spelling and meaning, but differences between them in pronunciation. There are lots of ways to do this too – reading out loud to students, choral reading, reading to partners, using technology like the How to Pronounce app (iOS only), Duolingo, Memrise, or Google apps like this one for French pronunciation. Purposeful practice with focused attention on this aspect of word knowledge will help set students up for success with speaking and listening tasks.

The more students do with words, the more they will learn them. Cognates are a great support for beginning readers, and using them to teach pronunciation and comprehension will form a strong base for literacy as students practice their second language.

Cover image credit: Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

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