Teaching students to distinguish between confusing words can be tricky. Internalization of strategies to distinguish between confusing words are learned over time through wide reading and authentic writing. As students learn that there are different spellings for words that sound alike and that there are different meanings for words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, they should begin to develop strategies to help them deal with these words in text, be it text they are reading or text they are composing themselves.
Click here to download a (free) printable graphic organizer for analyzing how to distinguish between confusing words.
The above image is from:
Labeling Confusing Words
Let’s first deal with these confusing labels used to identify the words in question. It helps to look at parts of words to help discern their meanings:
homo- is a Latin root word that means “alike” or “same”
hetero – is from the Greek heteros, which means “different”
phon – is a Greek root word that means “sound”
graph – is a Greek root word meaning “to write”
nym – from the Greek onoma, which means “name” or “word”; it is used when classifying or discussing relationships between words
Sorting Out The Terms
Synonyms– The word synonym evolved from a complicated past…let’s just say it came from two words that mean “with” + “name.” It is the terms used for words that mean basically the same thing–in the visual above the examples are settee and sofa.
Homophones are words that have the sound the same but have different meanings. There are two types of homophones:
- Those that are spelled the same are called homonyms, words spelled alike but different in meaning—in the visual above the examples are lie (untruth) and lie (recline).
- Those that are spelled differently are called heterographs, words spelled differently that have different meanings but sound alike—in the visual above the examples are too, two, and to.
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. There are two types of homographs:
- Those that are spelled the same and sound the same are homonyms—in the visual above the examples are lie (untruth) and lie (recline).
- Those that are spelled the same but have a different meaning and pronunciation are heteronyms–in the visual above the examples are desert (an arid region) and desert (leave).
There are also “identical words” to be aware of:
- Words that have different pronunciations but the same meaning and the same spelling. This is actually considered a pronunciation rule, so it doesn’t have a specific name- in the visual above the example is given of how the word the is pronounced with a long “e” before words that begin in vowels but is pronounced with a short “e” before words that begin with consonants.
- Words that have different spellings that actually indicate different meanings–in the visual above the example is given of gases (a plural noun) and gasses (a verb).
So That is Clear as Mud, Now What?
Well, certainly not teaching all these terms to students!
Sorting all of this out for this blog post reminded me that if something can be described, it has a name! Getting all these terms figured out is really an exercise in splitting hairs, and I certainly would not lay the extra burden on students for being able to label all of the different types of confusing words that exist in the English language.
Almost as soon as students begin writing, they will need to begin being made aware of differences between confusing words, both in spelling and usage. This will be an on-going pursuit as writing and language become more sophisticated throughout their school careers.
The best way to approach the study of confusing words is not to teach them in isolation, but rather to embed the teaching about confusing words into on-going reading and writing lessons. As the words are encountered, point them out to students. Make charts for the classroom walls to help them continue to differentiate between them in their reading (not usually the issue) and their writing (this is usually the issue). You may even want to have students devote a section of their writer’s notebook, or ELA class interactive notebook, to keeping helpful notes about confusing words.
Some Help With Teaching About Confusing Words
From time to time, mini-lessons on sets of confusing words will be helpful. Take cues from your students’ writing and demonstrated reading comprehension. The Never Stop Learning YouTube Channel is developing a bank of lessons to help students differentiate between spelling and usage of confusing words. If you have a suggestion for an additional video that you think would work well in this series, please leave a comment below! Your input is valued!
Here’s a video that demonstrates a lesson focusing on the parts of speech of confusing words to help understand their meanings:
In some cases, clues within words can help students know which spelling or meaning students should choose. In other cases, experience with those words, both reading them and using them in writing, will be necessary to develop proficiency in choosing the correct form or spelling. Here’s a sample that shows how to find clues in confusing words that can help students decide which words to use in specific circumstances:
Articulating similarities and differences between confusing words on a Venn Diagram is a tried and true approach to help students compare and contrast spellings and meanings of confusing words. Click here to download a free printable graphic organizer for differentiating between confusing words. Here’s a lesson that demonstrates how to use this type of graphic organizer to differentiate between confusing words:
Sometimes, confusing words aren’t homophones, homonyms, or homographs, but they are confusing nonetheless because their usages are similar. Here’s a sample lesson about the words who, that, and which:
Sometimes, students just need lots of examples to get spellings and usages straightened out. Here’s a fun lesson about lie (reclining) and lay (putting down), words that even adults often find confusing:
Please realize that helping students internalize the knowledge and strategies to differentiate between confusing words is a marathon effort, not a sprint! It will take time and repeated exposure to correct usages before your students will develop confidence and competence in choosing the right words and meanings!