Homophones - How not to teach them.

Last week I blogged about homophones and what they are. This week I want to look at how to teach and learn them and this can be summed up in one word - don't!


Danger! Homophone lessons.

It's true homophones can cause confusion but lessons on homophones can introduce confusion where there was none. By pointing out to learners that 'there', 'their' and perhaps 'they're' have (about) the same sound but different spelling, we may be drawing attention to a difficulty in spelling that they have never had - and it could even spark off that confusion. It could plant a seed of doubt that stops them automatically writing 'there' (in, for example, "There are four people in my family"). They may find they have to stop and think about it now, and may come to the wrong decision.

Sure, if learners are already confused, we can acknowledge that different words sometimes have the same sound. But lists of homophones, or gap fill exercises where learners have to choose between two homophones, are not going to help them.

So what's the alternative?

Focus on other words that LOOK the same rather than SOUND the same. And show how words that look the same are often related:

So show that:
  • here, where, there are all related to place and all contain h-e-r-e.
  • hear, ear, heard are all related to perceiving sound and all contain e-a-r.
  • two, twice, twin, twelve, twenty, between are all related to 2 and all contain t-w.
  • one, once, only, none, alone, lonely are all related to 1 and all contain o-n.

Wordle: Untitled Wordle: two 2

This is much more learnable than looking at these confusing homophones:
  • hear/here,
  • where/wear,
  • there/their,
  • heard/herd,
  • to/two/too,
  • one/won,
  • none/nun.
So beware! The internet is full of these lists and interactive games for practising homophones. They may be fun for good spellers but for the confused, being super-confused is no fun.


  1. I can see your point for spelling (and the examples of ones to do are great), but I find homophones is a great topic for pronunciation (students often try to pronounce sounds that don't exist, sometimes not even in their own language, to make distinctions they don't need to) and listening comprehension (knowing when and how to rely on context rather than sound differences to comprehend)

  2. You're right, Alex. I was of course just talking about teaching spelling, but certainly students need to use context to identify which meaning is appropriate. And yes, I have also used them for pronunciation. Telling learners that 'aren't' is pronounced the same way as 'aunt' (for me) is sometimes enough to shock them out of saying 'arrent'. It's just in spelling, especially with weaker learners, that teaching homophones is problematic.


  3. We say 'arrent' in Scotland!

    But seriously, I agree, Johanna. And not just regarding spelling - teachers and books that try to separate two easily confused something-or-others are just creating trouble there there was none before.