Using Cognates to Expand English Language Learners' Vocabulary

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.48.59 PM As part of my RETELL training (see more about this here), we have been discussing different ideas and techniques for making academic content more accessible for English language learners (ELLs). Recently, in response to an assignment, my friend and colleague, Megan from Breaking Grad(School), called attention to the idea of using cognates to help students connect new vocabulary words in English to familiar words in their native languages, which I think is a beautifully simple and genius idea. Whenever a pedagogical strategy honors and relies on students' prior knowledge, I'm always predispositioned to like it. So I decided to do some resource hunting on the topic and, as always, I learned a few things!

Just so we're all on the same page, I'll define cognates as words from two different languages that are derived from a common linguistic root or ancestor, causing them to share similar meanings, spellings, and/or pronunciations. Cognates almost always have the same meanings as one another, although not every time; however, they appear to be extremely similar on paper. The idea here is that, if we can teach ELLs to identify cognates or if we can give them lists of cognates in their primary language, they will more quickly and easily be able to acquire the corresponding cognates in English. For example, when teaching a Spanish-speaking ELL the word "abbreviation," a quick and easy shortcut is to point them to the Spanish cognate of that word, "abreviación," which has the same meaning.

Obviously this strategy is more helpful in some languages than in others. English shares very few cognates with languages like Chinese or Arabic. However, according to research by Colorin Colorado, 30-40% of all words in English have a Spanish cognate. That works out to around 10,000-15,000 English words that a Spanish-speaking ELL most likely has easy access to. This handy Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages (MATSOL) factsheet tells us that over 50% of ELLs in Massachusetts speak Spanish. So, when working with Spanish-speaking ELL students, which, statistically speaking, will be more often than not, the use of cognates to build vocabulary is a useful tool.

Like I mentioned earlier, I love this strategy because it takes advantage of knowledge that students already have in a language that is comfortable for them. It can also be a tool to boost ELL student confidence in an environment where they feel disadvantaged when compared to their English-speaking peers. In a webcast interview, researcher Diane August points out that the many Spanish-English cognate pairs are actually made up of what is a very commonly-known, basic word in Spanish and a fairly high-level, Tier 2 or 3 word in English. This means that a simple, commonly-used word in Spanish might actually have an SAT-level cognate in English, giving Spanish-speaking ELLs an advantage in vocabulary acquisition.

A small catch to this idea is the existence of false cognates, which are words that are spelled and pronounced very similarly to one another, but do not actually share a common meaning. An example of this would be the words "actually" and "actualmente." Relying on the cognate trick, an ELL student might assume these two words share a meaning; however, in Spanish, "actualmente" means "currently" and "actually" best translates into "en realidad." When using cognates to teach ELLs new vocabulary, it's a good idea to make sure they are aware of the possibility of false cognates so they aren't caught off-guard when they meet one. Fortunately, statistics from show that only around 5% of cognates in the English language are false; so ELLs will benefit more often than not from assuming a familiar word is a cognate.

Another slightly larger catch to this idea is that the teacher of the class has to actually know which cognate to point to to help build vocabulary. Since my foreign language knowledge is definitely insufficient to meet the diverse needs of Massachusetts ELL students, I found a few great websites that identify some common and helpful cognates in a variety of languages.

Ultimately, as with most things, the usefulness of this strategy can only be determined on a case-by-case basis; however, it's definitely an idea I'll keep in my toolbox just in case.

Helping Students Focus when the Sunshine is Calling 

The warmer weather is rolling in and the attention spans are waning.  I include my own attention span in this assessment of the situation.  The severity of things struck me between the eyes this balmy and golden Friday when my period 4 class looked like this for the vast majority of the period:

I can relate; it's been a long winter and the cabin fever was real.  Now we have bright green baby leaves sprouting and everything smells alive again.  How is anyone supposed to resist the urge to toss the papers in the air and take off to the nearest beach?

During my surprise period 4 free time, I spent some time reflecting on this question and also talking to a few of my wise veteran teacher friends.  We came up with a few ideas as to how to help squeeze the last drops of available productivity out of the remaining school year without making our students want to jump out the windows any more than they already do.

  • Shake things up!  If the weather and summer funtivities are calling their names, try to call their attention back to the classroom by breaking your normal routine.  Sometimes a new assignment or a different seating arrangement is enough to help students resist hitting that end-of-the-year wall.
  • Use an assignment or a project that takes advantage of a new space.  Have class in the computer lab or in the library.  This is another way of breaking routine and redirecting the already-wandering attention spans.
  • Consider decreasing the homework load.  Allowing students to unwind and unleash some summer crazy at home can sometimes help them return to the classroom more prepared to engage and focus.
  • Try to find a way to get students outside for some or all of a class period even if it is slightly less productive in that moment.  Whether it be for a work session in the sun or a lesson that incorporates the outdoors, students usually recognize and appreciate your efforts to work with their summer jitters.
  • Capitalize on incentives.  If students need a little something extra to motivate them, try setting rewards for accomplishing tasks or reaching goals.  Incentives can include homework passes, snacks, extra points, or maybe even some time outside.
  • Set the tone with your own attitude during the final stretch!  As tired and battle-weary as you are, continue pushing for creativity, dedication, and passion in your classroom.  Be motivated with your own timelines and efficiency so that you can ask students to do the same.

These are just a few ideas, but if anyone has any additional contributions, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I need them!  And I would venture to say everyone else does too :)

The Video Composition of a Multimodality Convert

As promised in my last post on the importance of incorporating multimodal assignments into the classroom, I am dedicating this post to a multimodal composition of my own!  I thought that, since I am wrapping up my blog series on 21st century literacies, it might be time to blog about something a little more interesting than my own general thoughts and research on said literacies. This is also the blog post in which I confess that it was not so long ago that I would have stood with the crew that said things like, "Seriously?  A video project? This is why modern students can't write; because we assign things like video projects."  Composing multimodally was totally foreign to me. I had no experience with it and, because of that, I had absolutely no meaningful knowledge of the process that went into it. This was mostly prior to my taking the majestic Tanya Rodrigue's digital writing class, in which I was asked to complete this assignment as well as fundamentally challenge my understanding of what it meant to compose something.

The assignment is called "Concept in 60" and was designed by Dr. Scott DeWitt.  The task is to create a 60-second video that illustrates a concept, any concept you’d like. Your video may take a critical, reflective and/or interpretive approach to the subject matter, but you need to follow these rules:

1. Your video MUST be 60 seconds–not one second more, not one second less. 2. You must strip your video of all actual/matching audio. You may layer audio in your project as long as you avoid all video/audio matching. 3. You must include a title screen somewhere in your video. You must also give yourself credit as the video artist/composer somewhere in the video text. 4. You must secure permissions for all materials used in your project by their rightful owner or use creative commons and public domain material. Also, you must include a works cited page for all materials used in the project.

I came up with this:


I love it and I loved the process of making it, as I imagine most high school students would.  Videos are cool; everyone loves them.  However, the thing that made this assignment productive for my personal composition skills was the accompanying reflection paper.  In this paper, I was asked to think about the choices I had made when composing this video project and tie those choices back to some very literary strategies and scholarly research.  I was asked to become aware of the process I went through, concretizing some of my relatively savvy (if I do say so myself) decisions.  This involved me thinking critically about how I identified my purpose, structured my argument, appealed to my audience, and concluded my thoughts.  I noticed points in which I used symbols and how those symbols made my composition more effective.  By the end of the whole reflection, I was aware of how complex and intentional my process had been; it was very essay-like and I hadn't even noticed.  I began to think how equipped I would be if someone then asked me to write an essay outlining the idea of home.  I was prepared to write something fairly complex and compelling.

As a writer, I learned so much from this process.  I believe that the secret to strong multimodal assignments in the classroom lies in the reflective paper.  Modern high school students are smart; they can often toss together a compelling video or audio project with minimal guidance.  Let's not dismiss that as irrelevant, but let's also not accept that without analysis.  Let's channel their abilities and ask them to reflect on what strategies they are using to compose something effective or powerful.  If our assignments ask this well, students will learn how those strategies can be applied to other types of compositions, making multimodality an invaluable classroom tool.

Digital Writing Assignment Ideas!

This is my third post in a mini-series of posts I am writing on 21st century literacies in the modern high school classroom.  My first post explored the idea behind what it means for a student to be literate in today's post-high school environment, focusing on the roles of technology and globalization in current academic and career workplaces.  My second post focused on digital writing in particular, discussing the worth and complexity involved in rhetorically sophisticated digital composition as well as how those digital compositions can be used to teach writing in the classroom. For this post, I'd like to lighten up the heavy mental lifting for a bit and discuss some practical and accessible assignment ideas for bringing digital writing into the classroom.  I found several of these ideas in Joan Lange, Patrick Connolly, and Devin Lintzenich's article in the English Journal; their article stresses the idea that digital assignments "build essential skills for success in college: developing curious minds and an ability to analyze and synthesize ideas to communicate insights with an audience."  Their article focuses exclusively on the use of digital writing in teaching Shakespeare; however, their assignments are relevant for use with most readings!

  • Text Message Paraphrases - This assignment asks students to select a portion of a play or dialogue in a novel and paraphrase the conversation into a text message conversation.  Emojis and gifs are fair game.  The goal is to have students connect with the literary dialogue and make it their own by putting the words into a conversational diction in which they are fluent and comfortable communicating.  This activity encourages close, careful reading of a text as well as exploration of tone and emotion behind the words being said.  It also makes sometimes removed or complicated texts feel real, personal, and relatable.
  • Facebook Profile Page for a Literary Character - In this assignment, the teacher will have created or found a Facebook profile page template.  Students have to choose a character and create a profile as if they were that character, selecting which bands they like, their favorite quotes, a profile picture, and their bio.  Lange explains that "this exercise challenges students to emulate tone and diction associated with a character."  It also pushes students to insightfully analyze an author's characterization in order to make decisions and assumptions as to what that character would like or dislike, who their friends would be, or what they would sound like.  Jane Mathison Fife has actually written about how Facebook pages are fairly sophisticated meaning-making devices, making strategic appeals and communicating messages about an individual to a wide audience.  She holds that using Facebook as a classroom tool in order to get students thinking critically about the strategic, communicative functions of social media has the potential to connect the study of literature and rhetoric with their daily lives. This assignment asks students to perform a literary analysis of a character within the situational context of a popular and familiar social media site. (The esteemed Megan of Breaking Grad(School) has shared this perfectly suited Facebook profile page template for classroom use with this assignment!)
  • Tweet a Summary - Any tweet on Twitter cannot exceed 140 characters.  This is a fairly limiting constraint; and yet, Twitter is frequently used to express complex political, philosophical, or social sentiments.  In this assignment, students are asked to summarize a recent reading in one paragraph.  Once this has been completed, students are asked to review their summary and condense it into a tweet.  This tweet would capture the main idea and heart of the reading in 140 characters. This asks students to identify the main message or purpose in a composition and put it into their own words in a conversational genre with which they are very comfortable and familiar.

Lange's article discusses many of these digital writing assignments as helpful pre-writing activities.  They encourage students to slow down, search for textual clues and connotations, elaborate on their ideas about a text, and develop complex, textually-supported trains of thought that they can then proceed to use in more traditional writing assignments.  When working with students who are not particularly comfortable with the text at hand, assignments like these, which rely heavily on literacies that students are fairly fluent in, can give students the confidence they need to wrestle authentically and connect with a new text.  These assignments also build digital and computer literacy, which, for high school students, is an increasingly invaluable skillset.  Not to mention, they just look like a ton of fun!

Pop Sonnets: What Happens when Katy Perry Meets Shakespeare

My classmate, fellow teacher, and blogger friend from Inside the Gradebook opened my eyes to this hidden Internet gem recently and I have not been able to look away. There exists a Tumblr account that publishes Top 40 radio hits rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets; every Thursday a new "pop sonnet" is published.  Expect to see such classics as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper and "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry adapted into 14 lines and iambic pentameter.  Time Magazine even thinks this whole thing is worth noting.

Not only is this an incredible way to investigate literary interpretation and adaptation in the high school classroom, it is also a great addition to any study into the affordances and constraints of the Shakespearean sonnet as a genre.  The pop sonnets follow the genre norms flawlessly: three quatrains and a couplet following the abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyme scheme, 14 lines, and iambic pentameter.  The author uses Shakespearean vocabulary, turns of phrase, and register, making these pop sonnets a fun and creative way to get students who are new to Shakespeare used to his style and language.  The practical classroom applications for these creative and funny poems are extensive.

We'll never know for sure, but I think Shakespeare would be a huge fan of pop sonnets.  He looks like the kind of guy who would have gotten a real kick out of all this.

Source: Creative Commons

Getting to Know You: A Fun Idea for a Writing Assignment

In one of my classes the other day, we were discussing writing assignments.  What makes them good or bad?  What's the goal of a good writing assignment?  How can we generate an assignment that will draw out different styles, personalites, and comfort levels within a class? How can we structure assignments help us get to know our students better? These are the kinds of questions we were batting around.  Unfortunately I am not bold or smart enough to attempt to answer those questions in this post; however, I will share one my favorite ideas for a medium-stakes assignment that came out of this class discussion. The following is a poem by Ted Kooser:

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

I love this poem and I think it is a fun and achievable way to encourage close reading and inference.  An assignment that we thought would be fun to accompany this poem would be to ask students to compose their own poems about a place that they spend a lot of time in.  What would that space say about them?  What things would a stranger find that would provide hints as to what they valued, excelled at, or struggled with?  Just to toy with the idea, I came up with a stanza for my own poem:
She is messy, say the little heaps of clothes from the floor
But she is careful with her books, point out the shelves full of neatly ordered volumes.
A row of colored glass bottles in the window throw colors around the room
While telling all about how she loves beauty and colorful designs.
She has a big dog, says the giant brown dog bed from the far corner of the room
But the white hairs in the bedsheets chime in to say that she prefers the dog to sleep with her.
She likes to be alone, the white door quietly suggests
while a wall of framed photos points out that she loves many different faces.
It is not too lonely here, say the dog hairs and the photographs.

It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be! The assignment could be used in a variety of different ways.  It could be used to get to know students better, to encourage regular writing and self-expression, or to investigate the genre of poetry.  I'm going to file this one away for a rainy day :)

Learning Spaces: Part Forethought, Part Frivolity

As an illustrious tutor/substitute/paraprofessional at Lawrence High School, I have yet to truly lay claim to my own classroom space yet, but I am just ITCHING for that sweet sweet day.  Because I have some pretty badass classroom decor ideas, if I do say so myself. I know that everyone learns differently, but, for me, the space I am in plays a major role in how I learn.  My belief is that a stimulating, comfortable, and academic-feeling (definitely a real thing) classroom environment sets a tone for the students that enter.  I would like my classroom to set a tone of creativity, appreciation for beauty and peace, respect for work that has gone before ours, celebration of the work that we create and the different learning styles represented, and a certain reverence for reading and discovery. In my ideal and totally wishful world, my classroom would feel like some vintage and cosmopolitan library in which a mad scientist was storing up all her findings about life as it is and was and has been.

As any studious, dedicated, and partially insane future-teacher would, I obviously started a Pinterest board for this momentous future event.  I've included some of the highlights below, but I would LOVE to hear from current or aspiring teachers on your experiences with classroom design, how you see it affect your students, and what you have done that you feel worked!

And now, for my unrealistic classroom decor dreams that I will work with irrational dedication to achieve:


Because the more globes you have, the smarter your students are, right?

I am weirdly convinced that writing in chalk on a board framed with reclaimed wood would inspire some pretty beautiful thoughts.

My dream is to have a very inviting and relaxing reading space.