Activities to Teach ESL Students Homonyms

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Homonyms are fun to teach because they get students learning about different meanings of a word. This lesson offers activities to allow ESL students to demonstrate they understand the different meanings.

Understanding Homonyms

Your ESL students can feel overwhelmed once they find out that a word with the same spelling and sound can have more than one meaning. To help your students understand, ask them if they have ever met other people who have the same first name as theirs. Your students can have fun talking about it and you would emphasize that, while two people can have the same name, each person is unique.

You could then provide a list of some common words we use in daily conversation, e.g., arm, cell, habit, sheet. The best way to illustrate the different meanings is to show images to our students. For example, show a person's arm and then a gun for arm. If you include verb homonyms, give your students a context that clearly reveals the different meanings. To illustrate, for the verb spell you can say, ''My students learn to spell new words every day,'' and then another sentence would reveal it as a noun, e.g., ''The witch casts a spell on the princess.''

Now, let's take a look at some activities to help your students practice homonyms. For these activities, your students either have to produce examples using homonyms or come up with the different meanings a homonym can have.

Filling in the Blanks

This basic exercise allows students to analyze the context of the sentences in a handout to fill in the blanks. For each homonym, students would have two or more sentences where the homonym can be placed. The homonyms list should also be included in the handout. Once students finish filling in the blanks, make sure the whole class gets this exercise right. To do so, ask your students to say the answers aloud and to clarify the specific meaning of the word.

For example, if Pablo says, ''The girl sent a letter to her grandmother'', he must clarify that letter refers to a document we write to communicate with someone as opposed to a printed symbol that is part of the alphabet and represents a speech sound. The latter meaning is used in a sentence like this: ''The word is wrongly spelled because it is missing a letter. ''

Revealing Meanings

For this activity, ask your students in advance to bring a dictionary and then give them a list of homonyms. Your students can work in pairs to come up with two sentences that reveal the different meanings of a homonym. The importance of this exercise is that it allows students to produce language as they use homonyms in the context of sentences. Have your students look up the homonym in a dictionary to learn its different meanings and then they can write the sentences. Since this activity is fairly independent, make sure to monitor students' understanding by walking around the class. Here is a list of homonyms you could provide:

  • Article
  • Band
  • Calf
  • Cricket
  • Dive
  • Exhaust
  • Fat
  • Host

Identifying the Homonym

This activity is great for intermediate or advanced students who are able to deduce what the correct homonym is. Your ESL students get a list of sentences and they identify the homonym based on the context. Here are three examples that show what your students get:

Example 1

  • John needs to make a _____ at the hotel.
  • There is more than one Indian _____ in Arizona.

The answer is reservation.

Example 2

  • I would like a _____ of milk.
  • The entire candle holder is made of _____.

The answer is glass.

Example 3

  • Carolyn is a little _____ tired.
  • The child got _____ by a mosquito.

The answer is bit.

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