Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom
“For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”
―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer
English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.
A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner,” the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)
Of course, English language learners make these sort of “good mistakes” all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies.” Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r,” even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine,” “mines,” “mind,” or “miner?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem. Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. We must first admit that English is a crazy language.
If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.
The primary audience remains newcomers to the United States, recent and not-so-recent immigrants, who may be studying at an American high school, adult school, community college, or university. Focused on the aspirations – and needs – of intermediate English language learners, our new book shows a variety of ways to create and sustain authentic conversations with a developing English vocabulary. Compelling American Conversations challenges intermediate English language learners to reflect and speak about their lives and experiences on 15 topics in class and in English. Knowing English should include the ability to speak English.
Therefore, we deliberately chose to emphasize speaking skills and fluency in Compelling American Conversations. Each chapter includes:
Two sets of partner interview questions on each topic
Discussion activities to explore, explain, and clarify
Search and share online activities where students select materials on specific topics, summarize and evaluate the video/article, and introduce to small groups of classmates.
We also include academic vocabulary and more philosophical questions because American immigrants deserve the same level of sophisticated materials which international English as Foreign Language (EFL) students enjoy in the stronger international high schools.
Focused vocabulary for both practical and academic purposes
Paraphrasing American proverbs – and others from around the world
“Agree/Disagree and explain” reaction exercises to classic and modern quotations often used to prepare for TOEFL and IELTS exam
From our perspective, there is something profoundly disturbing in dumbing down of curriculum materials for English language learners in the United States. Compelling American Conversations seeks to introduce higher expectations for verbal skills and more authentic materials and relevant topics to the intermediate ELL and ESL classrooms. Students should be able to not only listen and understand, but speak and be understood.
Finally, the authors hope American English language learners begin asking more questions in classes, speak more in their workplaces, and create their own compelling American conversations – outside ESL classrooms.
How do you revise a conversation textbook designed for American immigrants and international students in the United States for high school English language learners in Vietnam? Carefully!
Naturally, the new version of “Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics” will emphasize aspects of Vietnamese culture, avoid taboo subjects, and include local folk sayings and proverbs. The chapter called, “Driving Cars” becomes “Riding Motorbikes.” Other chapters get deleted altogether. Religious quotes are lost and some touchy questions remain unasked. So it goes – even in the 21st century.
Today, after weeks of collecting proverbs, talking with EFL teachers in Vietnam, and editing my original ESL for a particular EFL audience, I have a close to finished version. I feel quite satisfied with Compelling Conversations for English Language Learners in Vietnam. The new edition will be out within a month!
What are your core beliefs? More importantly, what are your students’ core beliefs? How can you help English language learners improve their listening skills while exploring their own personal philosophy? Do you use radio podcasts in your English classrooms or ask students to write personal essays? If so, you might want to visit www.thisibelieve.org for excellent, fascinating authentic listening materials.
The “This I Believe” website includes a tremendous amount of free resources for teachers and students. Naturally, I also have a simple reproducible worksheet that allows students to find, summarize, and share their own favorite podcasts. Students can choose between thousands of essays and hundreds of podcasts on dozens of themes. In my oral skills class, students will present their own “This I Believe” presentation for the final assignment. Consider me curious about what they will choose to share.
English teachers can sign up for the free mailing list and download an exceptional discussion guide at the www.thisibelieve.org website. Check it out if you are looking for quality, reflective materials to enliven your ESL classes. Feel free, as usual, to use the worksheet below for your English classes. I’ve found this reflective exercise builds class rapport, develops speaking skills, and earns high marks from students.
—————————————————————————————————- This I Believe Homework Worksheet
Please select one radio segment, based on a personal essay, and read by writers. Find a story that resonates with you. Listen carefully. Take notes. Fill out the worksheet below. You will be asked to share your selection with classmates in both a small group and the entire class.
This I Believe Title:
Who is the author?
What’s the main idea?
Why did you choose this podcast?
Did you hear any new words or phrases?
Who do you imagine is the audience for this podcast? Why?
What is your reaction? Why?
You can also download a PDF of this worksheet from http://www.compellingconversations.com/worksheets/this-i-believe-homework-worksheet.pdf along with other free worksheets for advanced ESL and EFL speaking skills classes. Enjoy!
English Teaching Professional, a glossy magazine for ESL teachers and language school directors, gave a glowing review and strong recommendation to Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics.“In sum, Compelling Conversations is a recommended resource for teachers who want to make their conversation classes more learner-centered,” wrote reviewer Hall Houston. “It should be especially appealing to those who who to escape the confines of the Presentation-Practice-Production approach and do without a formal grammatical or functional syllabus. It reflects the authors’ considerable professional experience, and would be a notable addition to any English teacher’s bookshelf.” The review also features a large copy of the book cover. Wow!
Houston also writes, “In my own teaching, I have found questions and quotations to be highly effective in promoting student discussion.” The review continues. “Questions are useful in that they require a response from the listener. Asking them also helps students master the tricky rules of the interrogative.”
“Quotations are brilliant flashes of wit expressed in the shortest space possible, often just a sentence or two,” observes Houston. “The authors have compiled a formidable collection of quotations by famous people from Napoleon and Aristotle to Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone. Some will have the students roaring with laughter ‘My movies were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes because nobody can leave.’ – Burt Reynolds), while others require careful introspection (‘Love is not just looking at each other; it’s looking in the same direction.’ – Antoine de Saint Exupery).”
The reviewer goes on. “The authors also add some wise proverbs here and there. My two favourites were ‘Recite “patience” three times and it will spare you a murder’ and ‘When money talks, truth keeps silent’, which are from Korea and Russia.” Houston, by the way, is the author of the outstanding ESL textbook The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Book. Coming from Houston, these words are especially pleasing.
My co-author Toni Aberson also appreciates that Houston, an English teacher working in Luzhu, Taiwan wrote the review in a British magazine with British spellings about an English textbook published in the United States. This international element adds a special delight to a long, three column review. “I just love it!”, exclaimed Aberson. We certainly live in a wonderful time to be English teachers.
While I my copy of English Teaching Professional two days ago, the January 2009 issue has been out for at least a week. The review appears on p.44 in Issue 60. Subscribers can access the full review at http://www.ETProfessional.com.
This positive book review might help explain the recent surge of class set orders. It also helps explain the sudden collection of emails and calls from Vietnam, Russia, Italy, and Canada in the last week about Compelling Conversations and possible collaborations. The appreciation of fellow ESL professionals gives me additional confidence, joy, and popularity. Sweet!
Allow me to brag for a moment. Another five-star review for Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics showed up on Amazon. Consider me pleased!
Here’s the entire Amazon review:
5.0 out of 5 stars A wholesome learning resource!, December 4, 2008
By Erika Villafane “Erika” (Miami, Florida USA) – See all my reviews
When compelling conversations got into my hands I couldn’t help but to think: I wish I had this book when I was learning English!
As English as a second language speaker, I can really tell the difference that compelling conversations has with other ESL text books: topics richness that takes learning at a higher level.
Not only you will feel motivated to improve your language skills, but you will have a rich-provoking theme about life to discuss and share with your tutor or classmates. That in turn makes you grow personally and you certainly will remember the discussed matter here when need it to apply into a situation out of the classroom. You will appreciate American culture as well as other’s point of view.
The book is very well structured into four sections totaling 45 chapters. Each one of them is organized into conversations starters followed by vocabulary, proverbs and the indispensable quotations. One that really caught my attention was the Arab proverb “he who has health has hope and he who has hope has everything”
I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn while enjoying the process.
This review makes 14 positive Amazon reviews – all four and five stars – that various ESL teachers, writers, English language learners, and other fine folks have written. Not bad for a self-published book!
Three other bits of positive news about Compelling Conversations. A private language school in Chile made a large order, another community college in California adopted the conversation book as the course textbook, and Compelling Conversations has been added to an adult education center in Rwanda for advanced English class. Whether due to changes in the TOEFL test that require test-takers to actually speak, a strong word-of-mouth campaign, or just the belief that classroom conversations should go beneath the surface, sales of Compelling Conversations have gone up. These successes may seem small, but they all make me smile!