For English language learners, the road to language fluency is challenging. Even advanced students who grasp complex English grammar and mechanics are not immune to errors involving false cognates. Cognates are useful tools for developing English vocabulary skills, but false cognates trip up ESL students and have the potential to create embarrassing accidental translations in writing and speaking. Exercises with false cognates rely heavily on memorization, but a variety of interactive activities can keep students engaged.
Cognates are words with the same meaning that are spelled and sound similarly in two different languages. They form a useful framework for building English vocabulary from the students' native language. False cognates are words that are spelled and sound similarly in two languages, but do not have the same meaning. For example, a native Spanish speaker may read the English word "embarrassed" and draw an association to the Spanish word "embarazada," which translates to "pregnant" in English. Recognizing false cognates spares ESL students from confusing or embarrassing errors in translations and communication.
Worksheet exercises are particularly useful for teaching false cognates because students can read the word, say it out loud and write it down to reinforce their understanding of the false pair. For beginner learners, a simple two-column worksheet that features the native language cognate on one side and a line for its English language false cognate on the other is a useful starting-off point. Beside each English false cognate, ask students to write definitions of the English word. For more advanced students, a fill-in-the-blank exercise with English sentences and missing vocabulary provides a challenging task. Provide both the appropriate English word and its commonly misused native language cognate. A sample sentence may be, "Pass me a tissue for my (cold/constipation)" because the Spanish word for "cold" is "constipado."
Pictorial representations of vocabulary are frequently employed as strategies for ESL classrooms. Once your students have a basic understanding of false cognates, challenge them to demonstrate their knowledge through art skills. Drawing false cognate pairs both imparts knowledge and engages students in a playful activity. Instruct students to select a false cognate pair and create a three-panel drawing of the false cognate and the actual translated English word. For example, a native French speaker may include one drawing of a $100 bill and the French term "cent" on the first panel, and a single penny on the middle panel with the English word "cent." In the third panel, the student would write the word English word "hundred" and a second $100 bill to show the appropriate English word for the French "cent."
Classroom games engage students in active learning while promoting peer communication skills. Promote student learning and interaction through a false cognate challenge game. One option for structuring the game is to call out the false cognate in the students' native language. Student teams then must call out a buzz word like, "Cognate!" or "First!" and then provide both the false cognate in English and the correct English word for the meaning of the term. Another option is to time pairs of students as they brainstorm a list of false cognates and their definitions as quickly as possible. The team with the most correct false cognates wins a prize like a homework pass. Post the lists around the classroom for later reference.
- "Practice Makes Perfect: English Vocabulary For Beginning ESL Learners"; Jean Yates; 2006
- "Easy & Effective Writing Lessons for English Language Learners: Scaffolded Writing Assignments That Help ELLs Succeed in the Mainstream Classroom"; Marilyn Bogusch Pryle; 2010
Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.