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Spanish-English Cognates in the ELL Classroom: Friends or Foes?

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help Spanish-speaking ELL students differentiate between true and false cognates?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students use the Visual Thesaurus (and its Spanish database) to look up different English-Spanish cognate pairs to determine which are true cognates (sharing similar meanings) and which ones are false (with different meanings).

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • learn the definition of cognate
  • discuss false cognates they have discovered in their daily interactions
  • use the Visual Thesaurus and its Spanish database to differentiate between true and false cognates


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Cognates: true or false?" sheets (one per group) [click here to download]


Sharing false cognate moments:

  • Ask students to briefly describe in their notebooks a time when they thought they understood a word in English because it looked or sounded similar to a Spanish word, but then they discovered that they were mistaken. Where were they when this happened? How did they figure out that the two words had different meanings?
  • Elicit students' false cognate stories, and write the English-Spanish false cognate pairs that they mention on the board.


Defining true and false cognates:

  • Explain to students that there are thousands of words in Spanish and English that share the same roots and therefore may appear or sound very similar in the two languages (cognates). Usually, these words have similar meanings and are therefore considered "true cognates." However, as students have discovered, some words that appear to be similar in the two languages may have different meanings (i.e., "false friends" or "false cognates").
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for cognate and reveal the definition that relates to language ("a word is cognate with another if both derive from the same word in an ancestral language").
  • Add Spanish words to the word map display for cognate by clicking on the word "EDIT" above the word map, and then clicking on the "Display" option for Spanish in the settings panel.

Modeling use of the Visual Thesaurus to investigate cognate pairs:

  • Model the process of looking up noun and verb cognate pairs in both English and Spanish on the Visual Thesaurus (with the Spanish "Search" feature enabled), making sure to point out the true cognate pairs that share definitions and at least one false cognate pair that does not share a definition.
  • For example, you could model investigating the false cognate pair fabricfábrica. Look up the word fabric in English (with the Spanish display enabled) and point out its definitions and related Spanish words (tejido or tela). Then, you could click on the "EDIT" button and choose the "Search" and "Display" options for Spanish before looking up fábrica [defined as a factory (or factoría)].


Sorting true and false cognate pairs:

  • Organize the class into partners or in small groups of three and distribute copies of the "Cognates: true or false?" sheets [link here].
  • Direct students to use the Visual Thesaurus to determine which of the twenty English-Spanish word pairs listed on the sheet seem to be true cognates by sharing at least one definition and which pairs are false cognates, having little or no meaning in common.
  • As students are looking up cognate pairs with the Visual Thesaurus and its Spanish database, circulate around the room and assist students who need assistance with navigating back and forth between the English search function and the Spanish by using the Settings Panel. There are explanations for how to use these setting options in this online instructional video: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/educators/training/settings/.
  • Have students explain each false cognate pair of words on the bottom half of the sheet.


Sharing cognate lessons:

  • Go around the room and ask each partnership or small group to share their assessment of a cognate pair from the  "Cognates: true or false?" sheet. How did comparing and contrasting the Visual Thesaurus word maps help them in this exercise? Which cognate pairs were the most difficult to classify and why?
  • A great way to re-enforce this lesson on English-Spanish cognates would be to create a word wall display that is divided into two sections: one for true cognates and one for false. (To read more about how the Visual Thesaurus can enhance word walls, read "Build a Word Wall.")

Extending the Lesson:

  • A fun way to extend this lesson would be to ask students to create cartoons or skits that depict a funny misunderstanding caused by false cognate confusion.
  • Another way to extend this lesson would be to have students research common Latin and Greek roots that are related to English-Spanish cognate pairs. For example, the words auditorium (English) and auditorio (Spanish) have the Latin root aud (meaning hear) in common; and, the words biography (English) and biografía (Spanish) have the Greek root bio (meaning life) in common.


  • You can do a quick assessment of students' answers on the "Cognates: true or false?" sheets by looking to see if the crossed-out false cognate pairs form a capital letter "F" on the grid.
  • Assess students' explanations on the second part of the sheets to see if they accurately recorded the different definitions of the English and Spanish words contained in the false cognate pairs.

Educational Standards:

Foreign Language Benchmarks
Standard 5. Understands that different languages use different patterns to communicate and applies this knowledge to the target and native languages

Level III  (Grades: 5-8)
2. Draws conclusions about the relationship among languages (e.g., based on cognates and idioms)

Level IV (Grades: 9-12)
3. Understands similar and different meanings of cognates in different languages and how this relates to the evolution of language       

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 6th 2010, 3:14 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Once the Board of Directors came to Spain to visit their new enterprise in Spain and the Spanish management offered to show them the new "locals". A false friend!
"Locales" in Spanish are what the English call premises. And locals for the Brit are pubs conveniently located near a persons' home, or office.
Tuesday March 22nd 2011, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
The true/false cognate story, which you describe as if it were a dichotomy, is actually a continuum. Becaue Spanish derives mostly from Latin, whereas English derives from a combination of Latin and Germanic languages,very few words are true cognates.

Take 'enter/entrar' for example, which can be a true cognate. But there are many situations where 'enter' would be a very poor translation of 'entra', and where 'come in' would be right. Are 'history/historia' true cognates? Yes, sometimes, but sometimes not.

This is perhaps more of an issue for Spanish speakers learning English, where a choice between a Latin word and a Germanic word has to be made, and the choice would depend on context and level of formality as well as simple meaning, than it is for English speakers learning Spanish, where both 'enter' and 'come in' could be translated as 'entre', and the issue in terms of formality would be about the choice between 'entre' and 'entra' - a more difficult concept for English speakers, as there is no clear equivalent in English.

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