Help with homonyms and other trouble words

Gil Fowler | Arkansas State University

Over the past few years I have created a number of lists of homonyms that I use in my writing classes to help students learn about words, how they are spelled and their meaning. As one knows, homonyms are words that sound alike but are spelled differently (principal vs principle ? capital vs capitol). I began collecting words that I saw misused some years ago and compiled them and others into 15 lists of roughly 60 words each. I then began to find ways to associate students with those words while allowing them to have fun and learn. Not all words on the lists are homonyms.

In my classes, for example, I give out one list each week for each of the 15 weeks in the semester. Students are then given one week from the initial handout distribution to study those words and their definitions before they are tested over them. On the appointed day, at the beginning of the class I typically begin by having students take a word test. I usually give them 10-12 definitions and they are responsible for giving the appropriate word, correctly spelled. Yes, I often give 2-3 bonus definitions as well. After the tests are taken up, we then take a few minutes to talk about the words on the list that they were not familiar with that were on the list. I also usually have one word on one list during the semester that I "intentionally" misspell and give the first student who calls it to my attention a bonus of "5" or "10" points for the spelling tests for the semester.

To reinforce their learning, I build many of those words into style exercises, story exercises, or even use them in oral instructions during the semester. I use and emphasize these words (sometimes using them correctly and other times not). The students can certainly refer to their list and/or a dictionary as virtually all exercises are open-book and open-note. The key is to sensitize the students to many words that they may not be familiar with. They now know to check words that have multiple spellings/meanings.

Most, but certainly not all, students seem to enjoy the competition and before the semester is over many have brought examples to class from headlines, cutlines, or stories where professionals/teachers have misused a homonym.

My lists of words often confused - as well as journalistic terms, legal terms and broadcasting terms - are at left.

Also check: Alan Coopers Homonyms

Activities for ESL students

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