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.

The Problem of Plagiarism: Where the Educators Come In - Part 4 of 5

In my prior post, I took a look at some of the research behind what kinds of factors and situations might give rise to inappropriate use of sources in student writing.  The list of possible motivations to commit plagiarism in all its forms is complex and, for me, a little daunting.  There is a multitude of pitfalls and potential issues that accompany responsible source use; as our student bodies grow more diverse and our technological and digital access to resources grows more intricate and comprehensive, these issues continue to multiply exponentially.  Acknowledging this, the essential question is, what do we as educators do about it? The effort from academic institutions and educators everywhere to fight what is commonly referred to as the "Plague of Plagiarism" is immense.  As Rebecca Moore Howard points out in her article, an entire industry based on retroactively catching instances of plagiarism has developed, with sites like and regularly devising new strategies for catching the culprits.  Software is being developed, articles are being written, books are being purchased. Teachers everywhere are cracking down on plagiarism.

The problem with this mentality and one of the myriad of reasons it has been relatively unsuccessful is that this approach is fundamentally retrospective.  The instances of plagiarism are detected after they have happened, leading to a predominantly punitive set of responses that does not even attempt to address the reason the student plagiarized in the first place.  Keith Hjorthshoj and Katherine Gottscholk acknowledge that this problem has arisen from the overwhelming complexity of the plagiarism problem.  "Because it is impossible to prevent all forms and cases of plagiarism, teachers often devote their attention to detection and punishment, partly in the interests of deterrence" (Teaching English 119).

Another significant reason for the lack of success in recent efforts to combat plagiarism has to do with our modern understanding of what plagiarism is, which is something I get into in an earlier post in this series.  Howard touches on this when she says, "We like the word 'plagiarism' because it seems simple and straightforward: Plagiarism is representing the words of another as one's own, our college policies say, and we tell ourselves, 'There!  It's clear.  Students are responsible for reading those policies and observing their guidelines'."  This kind of simplistic, but well-intentioned thinking about plagiarism does indeed simplify our responsibilities as teachers, but at what would seem to be too high a cost.

It's not that simple! Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Given the ineffectiveness of retroactive responses to plagiarism as well as a general sense of confusion surrounding what plagiarism actually is, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk suggest a better way.  They believe that a proactive approach to writing education has the ability to counteract many of the reasons students have for relying on inappropriate source use.  "To a great extent... prevention is possible and coincides with the goals of education" (Hjortshoj and Gottschalk Teaching English 119). For starters, this approach requires that educators take a moment to deepen and stretch their definitions of what constitutes plagiarism (feel free to use this post as a launch point) and consider the humbling possibility that some of the instances of plagiarism in their classrooms may have stemmed from teaching practices as opposed to student dishonesty or laziness.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain that, in order to successfully combat plagiarism in the classroom, "you need to understand what plagiarism is, in its diverse forms, why it occurs..., and what kinds of teaching practices make these violations of academic writing standards uninviting and unnecessary" (118).

The teaching practices that Hjortshoj and Gottschalk reference here as possible suggestions to head plagiarism off at the pass are not necessarily additional checklist items to squeeze into an already crowded curriculum.  Ideally, the kinds of practices that would help oppose plagiarism in the classroom would be the same ones that we would use to help students develop strong, flexible writing skills.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk state that, "most of the strategies we have recommended for orchestrating the research paper are also strategies for preventing plagiarism of all kinds" (Teaching English 119).  The Council of Writing Program Administrator's statement on best practices concerning plagiarism supports this by encouraging classroom strategies that simultaneously support students "throughout their research process" and "make plagiarism both difficult and unnecessary."  If educators could find a way to implement positive and rigorous academic writing instruction strategies that also directly undermined student motivation to misuse sources before that opportunity for misuse presented itself, the problem of plagiarism would shrink to a much more surmountable issue.  Student writing skill would grow, teacher anxiety would decrease, and the student-teacher relationship as it pertains to the issue of source use in academic writing could work towards a much more positive and healthy condition.

Howard aptly summarizes the crisis surrounding the problem of plagiarism by saying, "In our stampede to fight...a 'plague' of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal-police relationship."  Her statement concisely captures my motivation in posting this series on plagiarism.  Through this blog series, my goal is to propose that we fight plagiarism in a different way than we have been.  My goal is to encourage and explore proactive approaches that mentor and coach students into a flexible ability and skill level with source use, making plagiarism in the classroom obsolete. My hope would be to move away from the criminal-police relationship that governs the way we handle plagiarism in order to replace that relationship with one of mutual understanding, respect, and generative productivity.  As a teacher with limited experience, I am sure I have nothing more than a tenuous grasp on the staggering magnitude of this undertaking; however, in my next and final post in this series, I'll be calling on some much more experienced educators to help compile concrete ideas on how to practically bring this kind of an approach to plagiarism into the classroom.

The Problem of Plagiarism: Asking Why - Part 3 of 5

Courtesy of Creative Commons In my last post, I attempted to investigate and complicate the way in which we commonly define plagiarism.  It is impossible, however, to discuss a more multifaceted understanding of plagiarism without then going on to consider how that understanding complicates our assumptions as to why students plagiarize. When we perceive plagiarism to very simply be cases in which students "steal" the words or ideas of others in order to pass them off as their own, we reduce the list of potential motivations down to laziness and deceitfulness.  Either a student couldn't be bothered to complete her own work or she just wanted to cheat the system and get away with literary theft.  If, however, we are going to consider plagiarism as occurring over a spectrum, as we did in my prior post, then we must be willing to consider the corresponding spectrum of situations and rationales that might prompt students to engage in these different kinds of plagiarism.

In her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard captures the danger in a simplistic rationale for why students plagiarize, saying, "by thinking of plagiarism as a unitary act rather than a collection of disparate activities, we risk categorizing all of our students as criminals." It is not only demoralizing and harmful to minimize all our students in this way; it is also inaccurate according to the often-quoted-in-this-blog Keith Hjortshoj and his co-author Katherine Gottschalk.  In their own classroom experiences, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk found that instances of plagiarism did not "correspond with integrity among the students" (Teaching Writing 118).  Drawing from their time teaching, they recount many instances in which an ethical and motivated student committed some form of plagiarism.  When reflecting on the numerous occasions in which they had to respond to plagiarism in their classrooms, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk say, "while all of these cases involve misrepresentation, their motivations and implications can be entirely different" (Teaching Writing 118).

Several recent scholars and organizations have begun theorizing on what exactly some of these different motivations might be.  Based on their research, I have compiled a list of just a few alternative reasons students could have for committing some degree of plagiarism.

  • A General Lack of Ability: Jennifer Rabold has said, "I see plagiarism as an issue of students trying to enter the academic conversation unskillfully."  For a motivated student who wants very much to succeed in an assignment, but who does not have the skills to do so, it may be easy to either intentionally or unintentionally rely too heavily or incorrectly on outside sources.  As part of the process of further investigating this idea, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), Hjortshoj, and The Citation Project have identified a few specific skills-based pitfalls that students may fall into when attempting to incorporate outside information and voices into their writing.
    • Inability to Critically Read and Summarize Complex Sources: Work done by The Citation Project shows that, when citing sources in their papers, students summarized an outside work only 6% of the time, "indicating that they either could not or would not engage with extended passages of text."  The Citation Project's position on this is that plagiarism is unavoidable in situations where students are not able to critically read and interact with complex sources.
    • Lack of Established Personal Voice: When writing within the different academic disciplines, students are developing and exercising the ability to write using different voices and lenses required by the individual disciplines.  Students are being asked to write as experts in particular fields on particular topics, even though writing from that perspective and in that manner is very unfamiliar for them.  (I discuss this in more depth in my post on disciplinary literacy.) This lack of familiarity can cause students to lose track of where their ideas and words are original and where they borrow from outside sources.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain this by saying, "The difficulties novice writers face in establishing an authoritative voice and position can make the task of quoting and citing real authorities very confusing.  Many students therefore drift into minor forms of plagiarism because the approach they have used does not give them a sense of position from which they can easily distinguish their ideas and voices from those of other writers" (Teaching Writing 119).
    • Confusion Surrounding the Technical Mechanics of Citation: It doesn't take much more than a casual thumbing through the most current MLA or APA handbook to establish that the list of rules governing correct documentation of the ideas of others is overwhelming for developing writers.  The WPA's Statement on Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism acknowledges that "students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts."  A student writer may be genuinely overwhelmed or confused when trying to understand the guidelines and, as the WPA reminds us, "error is a natural part of learning."
  • Cultural or Language Difference: American school systems and academics have a very specific understanding of what is appropriate and necessary when attributing credit for ideas and words.  This understanding is not objective and it is not shared equally on a global basis.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk point out that "in some cultures... repeating what authorities say is almost a definition of learning."  It is understandably difficult for students coming from an international or multilingual background to understand what it means or why they would be asked to "take an independent or original perspective, especially when they truly have learned from others everything they know about the subject, including the language required to discuss it" (Teaching Writing 119).
  • Time Constraints:  The modern American student has more demands on their time and attention than ever before.  A 2008 New York Times article reported that a high-performing high school had to enforce a lunch period after their students became so entrenched in extra-curricular activities, AP classes, and part-time jobs that they were skipping their midday meals.  The expectations on students to build resumes and accumulate accomplishments at an overwhelming rate have only grown since this article.  The WPA points out that students may make time-management or planning errors and "believe they have no choice but to plagiarize" in order to meet important deadlines.

This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive.  My only goal is to offer some different options to consider when thinking about why students fall into plagiarism.  While I emphatically acknowledge that blatant and intentional literary theft does indeed occur and demands response, I am attempting to advocate for the increasing number of student writers who authentically struggle with the ethics and complexities of citing sources.

In my admittedly limited experience and untested opinion, students are generally trying to learn, create good work, and live up to the expectations that are placed on them. The increasing levels of plagiarism in the academic system are much less an indication of decreasing interest levels and morality among students than they are of a sharp incline in the complexity of navigating outside sources.  The internet's limitless access to an impossible range of sources makes choosing, interacting with, and incorporating those sources a very challenging task.  This challenge is layered onto the already-difficult undertaking of composing a piece of academic writing.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk identify that this process is, for almost all novice writers, characterized by "helplessness and confusion" (Teaching Writing 120).  Based on some of the research summarized in this post, it appears to be the case that this helplessness and confusion can fairly easily lapse into an incorrect use of the works of others.  I believe it is up to modern educators to remain sensitive to the variety of reasons students engage in different types of plagiarism.  This sensitivity is what leads to effective responses to plagiarism when it does occur, which is what I plan to address in my next post!

An Important Day

Today is my mum's birthday. My mum is a wild and free thing with an eye for adventure. She is a lifelong learner and a subject matter expert on kindheartedness in all situations.  She is a nebulous blend of social butterfly and introvert. She is also an accomplished ping pong player, although it is said that my sister can beat her. 


 Above all of these things, however, my mum is a teacher at her core. 

Before my sister and I even came along, she taught first grade at a small private school, where she was unilaterally adored. See below for evidence. 

When my sister and I were born, my mum homeschooled both of us while my family shipped around the world in a 52-foot sailboat. My mum filled our homeschool days with hands-on learning, creativity, and a passion for understanding. Somehow, my sister and I both came back to the states performing above our grade levels.  

When our church was in need of a high school youth leader, my mum shrugged and volunteered. Her young heart and passion for fun drew kids in and, within a year, youth group attendance almost doubled. 

My mum also teaches Sunday School at our church and has done so on and off for most of her life. Wrangling preschoolers anytime before noon on a weekend morning is a task I'm not well-suited for, but my mum is magic. She corrals them with laughs and smiles; they all learn and have a grand time together while most of the world is still fumbling for their morning coffees.

Outside the classroom is actually where most of my mum's teaching takes place. Her patient, humble, and silly heart naturally shares and encourages learning in those around her. She teaches forgiveness, goodnaturedness, and optimism to anyone lucky enough to spend time with her.

Every year at Christmas, my sister and I unwrap and hang countless ornaments addressed to 'Miss Oien' or 'Mrs. Hashem' from a small sampling of the innumerable students whose lives she brightened. And I think how lucky I am to have learned most everything I know from a teacher like her. 

How to Suffocate American Diversity: A Case Study

A particularly inspirational fellow teacher and blogger, Rusul Alrubail, posted recently in response to this article.  I found her post and this article to be so relevant and so heartbreaking that I wanted to dedicate my ever-so-tiny and modest far corner of the internet to this issue for a moment. The spark notes version of this article features a school in New York's foreign language department that arranged for the US Pledge of Allegiance to be recited over the announcements in a different language each day for one week.  After the day in which a school student recited the pledge in Arabic, the school received a barrage of complaints from students and parents.  Complaints ranged from individuals saying that they had lost family in the war in Afghanistan to the sentiment that it was disrespectful to the Jewish members of the school body.  The school issued an apology and declared that the pledge would only ever be read in English in the future.

Because that's America now.  You're welcome to be here, so long as you promise not to contribute any notable ethnic diversity or nonwhite culture to our system.

I have a few, fairly separate, but mercifully brief points that I would like to make in response to this.

1)  The people of Afghanistan do not speak Arabic.  Dari and Pashto are the primary languages.  But kudos on engaging in such a thorough and consistent level of ignorance.

2)  When we start designating languages as representative of racial conflicts that are distinct to both a specific time and location, we are going to have to make some serious system changes.  The day Arabic is offensive to the Jewish population is also the day that we will unfortunately have to start eyeing German suspiciously.

3)  If anyone thinks that the brave men and women who give and have given their lives in the service of this country do so in order for us to have the freedom to limit the cultural heritage and expression of school children attempting to participate and engage in American ideals, I take extreme offense to that.

I hope students everywhere feel that they can explore their identities as Americans in light of their cultural heritage.  This is one of the factors that has made and does make America a great nation.  My heart breaks for the students who see their identities as Americans forcibly divorced from and opposed to their cultural, racial identities.

"What makes you American is not the language you speak, but the ideas you believe in" - Andrew Zink 

The Genre of Hip-Hop Literature

I work in an urban, ethnically diverse school system.  My students have a more difficult time than most connecting with canonical classics such as The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, and 1984 for a wide variety of completely legitimate reasons. It is no big secret that I harbor something of a grudge against the exclusive use of canonical texts in the American classroom; more on this in a prior blog post.  I am a massive supporter of bringing non-traditional, non-Western, non-canonical texts into the high school curriculum whenever possible; I think it is an extremely important issue.  In general, this is why I am so excited by and impressed with Lauren Leigh Kelly's 2013 article, "Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom." Kelly's article explores the merits of using hip-hop texts in a high-school English classroom not just as a gateway into more canonical literature, but as a "genre worthy of independent study" (51).  In Kelly's opinion, using hip-hop texts as nothing more than a stepping stone to bridge the gap between student knowledge and canonical texts only further isolates many students from accepted canonical texts while privileging the predominantly white, Western culture of the canonical texts over the diverse, multicultural nature of hip-hop music.  In order to teach literature students, particularly urban and low-income students, to recognize the power behind their own individuality, personal experiences, and cultures, Kelly holds that it is necessary to teach hip-hop texts as a literary form in their own rights without juxtapositioning them against the traditional, Western canonical works.  Kelly argues that to deprive modern students of the opportunity to analyze and study literature from this genre not only deprives some students of the opportunity for identification and creation of ownership in a text, but it robs all students of the opportunity to learn about a relevant and culturally diverse art form that plays a major role in modern pop culture.

I am a big believer in using genre awareness to teach literature and composition; I also believe that it is important for students to explore genres outside of those seen as traditionally literary.  In order to understand the social and cultural nature of genre development, it is critical to analyze both academic and well-known literary genres as well as modern, more recent genres that play a larger role in pop culture.  Kelly's assertion that hip-hop literature is a genre in its own right fits well with the definition of genre that I hope to incorporate into my classroom curriculum.

Kelly stresses at several points that non-white students often feel disrespected and isolated in classrooms that focus exclusively on texts from a white, Western literary tradition.  Hip-hop literature finds its roots in a much more culturally diverse tradition that has the potential to appeal to a swath of students that may otherwise disengage from classroom activities based on their cultural heritage and feelings of underrepresentation.  In my future classroom, I would like to incorporate texts that offer students of non-white backgrounds the opportunity to see their own images and cultures portrayed in a literary work while also offering white students a chance to broaden their expectations for and experiences with literature and cultural traditions.  Hip-hop literature provides a culturally relevant and accessible way to do this.

Finally, hip-hop texts encourage students to exercise and develop fairly complex literary skills while engaging with material that appeals to their authentic, non-academic interest areas.  I believe that it is imperative to construct unit plans in a way that helps students take what they learn in the classroom with them once they leave the classroom.  An essential goal in teaching genre theory as a gateway to literary skill is to help students understand the social and developmental nature of genres and be able to apply that understanding to genres they see in their day-to-day lives.  Analyzing the genre of hip-hop literature provides a way for students to practice literary analysis on a literary art form that they are already familiar with, have a respect for, and interact with in their nonacademic lives.

Pay Me in Mangu

I don't think anyone goes into teaching for the cash. For those of you who were considering it, let me save you some hassle; it's not a particularly lucrative field.  While it has been daunting to watch my engineering paycheck dwindle into a high school teacher's salary, I can honestly say that, what my job lacks in financial incentive, it makes up for in a host of other ways. I am not entirely sure that it is possible to itemize or quantify the kinds of benefits that come packaged with this line of work.  They range from a kind note from a supportive coworker to snow day glee that rivals that of my own high school years.  Personally, I find my happiest compensation comes from my smart and hilarious students.  Sometimes they give me the best nicknames (O.G. Kelley - the Original Gangster, Elsa, Miss Frozen, D-Money, Miss K-Swag.  It's an embarrassingly long list).  Sometimes they abruptly understand something I say and ignite with possibility. Sometimes they stop by their local bodega on the way to school, pick me up some mangu for breakfast, and bring it to my first period class so I can try the breakfast they love.

Fact: this is my new favorite breakfast.

One of my major goals is to stay sensitive to the small, non-monetary ways in which I am compensated for my work.  My paycheck is minimal, but the love, fun, and community I enjoy with my fellow teachers and students would dwarf any paycheck anyways.  The list of ways in which my work is quietly and warmly rewarded is endless, but, in a way, I think the mangu says it all.

The Cool Kids

Every school has them as far as I can tell.  They are the super popular, sharply dressed social butterflies who stroll down the school halls like they own them.  And, in a way, they kind of do. I go back and forth on my feelings about the cool kids.  Sometimes they can use their power for good.  Sometimes they're a real pain.  It's just a mixed bag when it comes to adolescents endowed with an unmediated ability to influence the lives of their surrounding adolescents.  What I can say, though, is that I have my own, internal list of cool kids.

These are the kids that I get to know over time, during the quiet moments of the school day.  They are smart, funny, mature, and just really cool.  We can talk about books, movies, life, school, politics etc.  They understand things.  In a deeply ridiculous classroom moment of chaos or disorder, I can often meet their gaze across a room and share a "this is absurd" eye roll.  They are cool.

The crazy thing about these very cool kids from my internal list is that, more often than not, they fly well below the radar.  You probably won't find them center-stage.  I often see them reading alone at lunch or sitting quietly in the back of the classroom.  They aren't usually candidates for homecoming king or queen.  In fact, unless you seek them out or allow yourself to be available in a quiet moment, you probably won't even really get a chance to connect with them.  I don't know why this is.  I have some ideas, but I don't know.

What I do know is that the kind of cool that they have is made of something strong and rare.  High school is bizarre, but they have somehow found a way to carve out honest, creative, and unapologetic identities for themselves.  They just rock who they are and they mean business.  They pursue their interests and they don't try to change anything about themselves in order to fit societal or peer expectations.  They take school seriously, engaging in real learning, asking challenging questions, and pushing themselves intellectually.  They are kind, bold, and courageous.  They are also easy to overlook sometimes in the disorienting squall that is the high school social system.  In an environment where their brand of coolness isn't necessarily a high-value commodity, they are often lost in the shuffle, silently looking around for some reassurance of their coolness from someone outside the system.  I'm learning that I have to keep my eyes open for the quiet opportunities to pull up a chair, ask a question, and spend some time getting to know the cool kids.