The Importance of Spanish Cognates for English Language Learners

Have you ever noticed that there are words in Spanish that look the same or nearly the same as their spelling in English?  These are called cognates and are an important bridge for our English Language Learners.  Cognates are words that are  the same or similar in two languages and have a common origin.

Examples of these are: accident – accidentecircle – circuloelephant – elefante

Cognates are often helpful for English Language Learners because they support background knowledge. As educators, one of our primary goals is to establish long-term results. We do this by ensuring that foundational concepts have been established so that current concepts can be taught.   This is more commonly known as activating background knowledge and it is a critical part of the learning process. 

The same concept holds true when it comes to the use of cognates in second language learning. One simple and effective way to establish long-term English vocabulary in second language learning is through the magic of cognates. Cognates are magical in that they produce immediate connections for comprehension and, in turn, produce long-lasting results.

It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Spanish- English cognates (Nash, 1997). These Spanish cognates may account for as much as one-third to one-half of the average educated person’s active vocabulary, indicating that instruction in how to use cognate knowledge can be highly beneficial to ELLs who are native Spanish speakers. Research by Nagy and colleagues (Nagy, García, Durgunoglu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993) indicates this to be the case. 

There are three types of cognates:

  • Perfect Cognates which are spelled exactly the same such as actor/actor
  • Slightly Imperfect Cognates which are spelled slightly differently such as action/acción.
  • Imperfect cognates such as cancel-cancelar. No matter the subtype of cognates, they all provide the same meaning for every word.  

The magic of Cognates can be seen in several ways. 

  1. In building vocabulary from background knowledge.
  2. In providing long term learning through its interchangeable trait of meaning for both student and teacher.
  3. In enabling reading and writing through its similar spellings. This enables instant word recognition, word use and word expression.
  4. In increasing confidence of word use in the second language, by providing a more enjoyable and relatable experience in acquiring the English language.


A few things to remember…

This connection of cognates can only be effectively used for students learning the English language at an older age. They must already have a pre-existing vocabulary established in their first language in order to make the connection in their second. 

Additionally, these shared cognates will not be applicable tonative speakers of non-Latin-based languages.  In these cases, direct instruction in the morphology of these Latin bases has been identified as an effective intervention.  

It is important to be cognizant of false cognates such as embarrassed/embarazada. The first word means embarrassed while the second means pregnant. Similar spellings or pronunciations can be deceiving. Although spelled similarly, they do not share same root origin. 

Interested in supporting your EL learners in the classroom? Our team would love to collaborate with you! Reach out to



Hiebert, E.H., & Kamil, M.L. (Eds.). (2005). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary: Bringing Research to Practice (1st ed.). Routledge.

Grigorenko, E., & Takanishi, R. (2012). Immigration, diversity, and Education. Routledge. 


Authors: Rachel Hawthorne; M.Ed, Bilingual ESL, Jen Knapp; M.S., CCC-SLP