Homophones in the EFL Class
Reasons to use homophones in teaching English and lots of ways to do so
You might be surprised to hear that I think homophones are one of the top three most useful things to tackle in my EFL classes. Hopefully by the end of this article you will understand why I would say that, or even agree.
The list of things you can teach with homophones is huge and includes:
- Contractions (e.g. “we’ve” being pronounced exactly like “weave”)
- Spelling rules (e.g. “magic E”, different ways of spelling vowel sounds, and different pronunciations for vowel combinations)
- Teaching the alphabet (e.g. Spanish students can stop getting I and E mixed up if they learn that the first is pronounced just like “eye”)
- Teaching the pronunciation of words in a memorable way, and without needing the phonemic chart (or introducing the phonemic chart in an accessible way)
- As a distractor when teaching minimal pairs and other common pronunciation problems (e.g. “Which one is pronounced differently – there, their or dare?”)
- Teaching students to understand words from context (e.g. guessing if the word is “bear” or “bare” when they hear “He had bare feet”)
- Teaching stressed and unstressed forms (e.g. “In this sentence, is ‘to’ a homophone of ‘two’ or not – ‘It’s ten to twelve’?”)
- Silent letters (e.g. with “climbs” and “climes”)
- Textspeak (e.g. “CU 2moro”)
- Common spelling mistakes that are not picked up by spellcheckers (e.g. “I should of done it”, because unstressed “of” and “’ve” are homophones)
Of these, contractions are probably the most useful of all. Most students seem unable to really make “they’re” into one word, and can end up making up whole new vowel sounds as they attempt to make it unlike “they are” but not quite “their”/“there”. As is often the case with homophones, being told to just pronounce them the same comes as a relief.
Sample homophones lesson plan
Choose a list of ten to twenty homophone sets that you’d like to go through with your students. They could be contractions that your students often don’t recognise, ones with spelling rules that you want to present or practise (e.g. different pronunciations of “ch”), or homophones of words in the book. Dictate that list of single words to the students and ask them to write them down on their own. Ask them to compare with their partners, then dictate them again for them to check. Go through the answers as a class, hopefully surprising them that they were often both right even when they spelt them differently. Ask students how it is possible to identify which of the words is being used when people are speaking, and elicit that it is through context. Read out some sentences with those same words in context and ask students to write down which one it is. Then ask them to write similar sentences where it could only be one of the homophones and test other groups with them.
A good percentage of the words in any list of homophones are not in fact homophones for all native speakers. For example, “Pa” and “par” are only pronounced the same for non-rhotic speakers (those who don’t pronounce an r at the end of a word), and some people pronounce the h in “where”, making it different to “wear”.
Although I think this is worth pointing out to students, I don’t think it really is that much of an issue if you approach homophones the right way. I present homophones mainly as a way of simplifying pronunciation for students who are desperately trying to make a distinction between “I’ll” and “isle”, and they therefore usually take the existence of homophones as an aid rather than as a complication.
Another issue is that some words are only homophones in their stressed or unstressed forms. For example, “he’ll” can sound like “heel” when stressed and more like “hill” when unstressed. In the same way, “of” is only a homophone of “’ve” when unstressed, and “for” is only a homophone of “four” and “fore” when stressed. Again, I teach this as a simplifying factor rather than as something we have to tackle. For example, “ten to two” is both difficult to pronounce and to recognise as a time when stressed on each word as if it was “ten two two”, and so it is much easier to understand and say in its correct “ten tattoo”-like form with “to” unstressed.
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.