I, like every language teacher, impress on my students the importance of listening carefully to what they hear. My students, like most language students, generally follow my advice and listen closely in order to hear subtle differences in the words we use. This is good practice and serves them well, until we have extra difficult words. Case in point: homophones.
Homophones are their own special brand of torture, in my opinion. Words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings? The only thing that’s worse is homonyms! At least homophones have the decency to have different spellings! Homophones are just one of the many reasons we spend a lot of time in my class working on context clues (see other posts, such as Contranym Context Clues, for information about some of the ways we practice this skill), but sometimes we need to practice distinguishing between specific sets of homophones.
Finding activities to practice distinguishing between specific homophone pairs/triplets can be frustrating at times. It’s not that specific activities don’t exist, rather that they are generally geared towards younger learners (which makes sense since homophone instruction begins as early as kindergarten). As a teacher of older learners (formerly middle school, now adults) who are also new to English, I need to help my students with these basic skills, but I don’t want to bore or insult them with the activities we do. This is why I often find myself making my own supplemental practice activities–not because I have terribly new ideas, but because my students need something I haven’t been able to find elsewhere.
I generally find the hardest part of creating these activities to be thinking of practice sentences/questions. It’s easier when I have a theme, and I’ll often take my theme from the unit the activity was originally created to accompany, but sometimes my theme choice is a little more…well, let’s call it creative. This is one of those times. I don’t completely remember why I was thinking about the homophones your and you’re, but as I was considering them the third version (yore) popped into my head. My immediate thought was, “Well, at least we don’t often use that one.” But the thought was there and ultimately lead to my theme: historical facts and customs. This activity is one I use almost exclusively with beginners and low intermediate students, so I saw no reason to include the actual word “yore” in the practice exercises.
Similar to my Am, Is, Are Triple Play activity, the task card set I designed for your vs. you’re can be used in multiple ways: to play Slap, as individual response cards, as straight task cards, or as clip cards. For a description of how to play Slap, use response cards, or use task cards for Scoot activities, see the blog post To Be: In The World Series. Since this particular activity is themed around history, not baseball, and therefore “triple play” doesn’t have a double meaning, I’ll explain a fourth way of using the task cards.
Using the task cards as clip cards is exactly what it sounds like: students use clips (clothes pins) to indicate which homophone (your/you’re) correctly completes the sentence. This is a great way to use task cards as center activities (yes, centers are beneficial for older learners too). I simply put a large basket of clothes pins in the center along with several sets of task cards (print on different colors of cardstock for easy sorting later). Students can work on the task cards and then check one another’s work. If they cannot agree on an answer, or are unsure, they can ask or check an answer key I provide (place inside a manilla folder so they don’t accidentally see it).
While my students and I all enjoy Slap, Scoot, and the other paper activities, I find that I often don’t have time in class, especially with my adult students, to work on such discrete skills as specific homophone pairs. For these skills I need to be able to provide students with practice activities they can do on their own, usually at home, and that automatically provide feedback regarding the accuracy of their answers. I don’t want them to have to wait for me to check their work, and (to be quite honest) I don’t have time to check more work.
Digital task cards are always an option, especially self-grading digital task cards, but we already use those quite a bit in my classes. Something my middle schoolers loved, but I never used much with my adults, is mystery pictures. A couple of semesters ago my adults were struggling with identifying the number of syllables in a word, so I offered them a syllable mystery picture as extra practice. The next class they all told me how much they enjoyed it and asked if I had any others they could try. Remembering that experience, I decided to make a digital mystery picture for practicing your vs. you’re. (Step-by-step directions, written and video, for creating your own digital mystery picture activity are available in this blog post.)
For me, the most difficult part of creating a mystery picture is the creation of the picture itself. I am not an artist, so my abilities are limited to simple shapes. Once again I started thinking about the third “yore” and how my students would feel/react when they eventually learned of its existence. That resulted in the picture you see above, an annoyed emoji-like face with the words, “There’s a third!” The students love it and tell me how perfect it is.
The other feature I included in this particular mystery picture is drop down answer choices (step-by-step directions for creating this feature are in this blog post). In my experience, my beginning level students’ greatest struggle with these independent digital activities is the spelling of the words. If even one thing is off about their typing, the answer is marked as incorrect. By providing them with the opportunity to simply click on the answer from a menu this problem is eliminated (and they get practice reading the different spellings of the homophones).
Homophones are not going anywhere. As much as I’d love to help my students and remove this particular torture from the English language, it’s just not possible; but I can provide them with interesting, and age-appropriate, practice activities/sentences. Student response to this particular sentence set has been overwhelmingly positive, and more than once I’ve found students spending more time discussing their thoughts about a particular custom than doing the actual activity (speaking practice!). Middle school boys seem to especially enjoy the sentence about an ancient Japanese form of suicide in which you slit your own stomach open; and the women often react to the one about coloring your teeth black to enhance your beauty. While the teacher of beginning level students in me still cringes a bit at the inclusion of the word “yore” (even in the title) in the activity, the side of me that loves playing with language is still stronger and so it has stayed. It hasn’t resulted in any real confusion and the students are exposed to a new vocabulary word. Happy teaching, everyone!
Looking for more homophone activities? Here are some to consider:
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