Cognates: Cleaning up the ‘catch-up’ label

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According to the U.S. White House initiative on Educational Experience, one in four Americans is Latino — but this demographic also has the lowest education attainment levels in the country. 

Uniformly, teachers assume that the responsibility for the literacy gap lies with the students: “It’s their problem, not mine.” Often, young children and parents believe this too. 

However, “catch-up” labels should not be automatically assumed. The main reason for Latino literacy gap is the language disconnect at the ABC entrance. We believe this problem can be reduced through a curriculum based on cognates, which focuses on similarities between English and Spanish.

Two major hurdles stand in the way of ABC attainment by Latino students. One is that Spanish, unlike English, does not emphasize the beginning sounds of words. Instead, students naturally listen to ending sounds to recognize masculinity/femininity. This causes difficulty when the English curriculum focuses on beginning sound recognition.

Furthermore, confusion arises because ESL curriculum intrudes upon learning the alphabet and their beginning sounds. Rather than focusing on the 26 letters, ESL curriculum forces students to memorize vocabulary words. This means that students study many examples such as “A is for apple/manzana,” which confuse beginning letter sounds and cause students to diminish their self-confidence. Simply, a five-year-old gets lost in all these requirements when trying to learn the sounds of the alphabet.

We believe that the difficult ABC learning process can be simplified using cognates. Cognates are examples that begin with the same letter sound in both Spanish and English. For instance, students could learn that “A is for airplane/avion.” They could even use live names as examples: “A is for Anna/Alberto,” “P is for Pablo/Peter,” etc. — so that every time they see a classmate, they could associate a familiar face with a letter sound. By connecting new English words with similar-sounding Spanish words or familiar names, students can more easily learn to recognize beginning letters and gain self-confidence. In this manner, the ABC learning process could becoming significantly more manageable for kindergartners.

The ABCs should not be difficult for Latino kindergartners from Spanish-speaking homes. After all, students from these homes are already familiar with many shared letter sounds (d, r, t, m, etc.) and are enthusiastic to learn more. It is our responsibility to provide them with curriculum that sustains their success in school. 

Cognates is one approach that could be the means to achieve this purpose.

— Estelle Leisy

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