Strategy for Learning Vocabulary: Building Confidence with Cognates

This week in my adult education Spanish class, we delved into vocabulary building, focusing on cognates. The students enjoyed themselves and “got lost in the learning”.

By the end of the class, they had created their own vocabulary lists and were energized to learn more words. Here’s an overview of the activity:

Define the word “cognate”

Cognates are words that look or sound the same in two or more languages and have the same, or a very similar, meaning.

Give examples of common cognates

For English and Spanish, there are loads of cognates. I chose examples in both masculine and feminine, as well as singular and plural:

el chocolate – the chocolate

la música – the music

los elefantes – the elephants

las naciones – the nations

Give them an authentic language example

Especially with adult learners, what they learn needs to be relevant and useful. Sometimes standard textbooks provide vocabulary that will be of little use to them in their everyday lives. (I mean really, do adults need to know how to say how many pieces of chalk there are in a classroom? Especially in today’s world? And yet, the textbooks we use still have vocabulary such as this in the introductory chapters. I think this is mostly because “that’s how it’s always been done”. From my experience, I can see my learners’ eyes glazing over with boredom when we have to learn vocabulary by rote that really has no relevance to them as working and professional adults who want to travel or do business abroad.

I keep to balance what we need to cover in our textbooks with real life examples of words they might encounter during their travels.

For this activity, I have a selection of magazines in a variety of topics including news, business, science, fashion, home and garden and even mechanics. There are enough magazines so that each student can chose one.

Have them seek and identify cognates

The students are challenged to find as many cognates as they can in their magazine in a given time period. I usually give them 5-10 minutes. I challenge them to find at least 10 new words – and hint that they can probably find 30 or 40, maybe more. Giving them a time limit keeps them on task and focussed.

Record the cognates

Students write down the words they can pick out and recognize. I tell them to add el, la, los, or las in front of the word to remind them of its number and gender. This turns the passive activity of identifying the cognates into an active activity of building their own vocabulary list. The act of writing it down engages them more and personalizes the learning as they build their list.

Share their cognates

Since each person has a different magazine, each will have identified and recorded different words. Once the time is up, students then work in pairs or groups of three to share their magazines and vocabulary lists. Each can add to their own list by learning from their peers.

Large group debrief

Once the students have shared in small groups, we debrief the entire activity reflecting on the process itself, as well as the new vocabulary lists they have built in a short period of time. Students inevitably report heightened feelings of confidence and interest as they find they can identify words from authentic materials. They become aware of the process involved in building their own vocabulary, recognizing that writing the words down will help them remember.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

2 Responses to Strategy for Learning Vocabulary: Building Confidence with Cognates

  1. After I originally commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

    • I have been searching for how to do this since you left your comment. I wasn’t able to find a clear cut answer. What I was able to do was to disable the button that said, “Show a ‘follow comments” option in the comment form”, so it should not happen to anyone else. I know that probably does not help you much, so I will keep looking for an answer.

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