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November 11, 2014

Homophones: How to Choose Which One?

Written By: Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley
X Understanding Homophones - Which One to Use When

Understanding Homophones - Which One to Use When

I have a huge embarrassing secret. I almost can’t bring myself to share it, but I need to get it off my chest, so here goes. I made a spelling mistake in my dissertation. That’s right, in my dissertation for a doctorate in literacy with a specialization in dyslexia, I chose the wrong homophone.

This mistake wasn’t even buried deep within in the middle of the methods chapter, it’s right there in the beginning, it’s in the dedication. Yes, I hang my head in shame as I share it with you now. The sentence reads the following way, ‘thank you for peaking my interest in higher education…’ Do you see it? I was attempting to thank my dad for raising me on a college campus because he was a professor, but I chose the wrong homophone. But the mistake is a wonderful opportunity, one of which I took. I looked up peaked and piqued to understand why I made the mistake. I knew that they both had something to do with height, either physically or mentally. When we speak of an athlete at their ‘peak’ it means they are at the height of their performance. When we speak of ‘piquing’ interest, we are speaking of heightening interest or curiosity in something. So, my mistake was not important, what I learned as a result of my mistake resulted in my deeper understanding of the structure of my language and I am now far less likely to make that mistake again.


Everyone chooses the wrong homophones once in a while – everyone, and homophones are homophones for a reason. And despite the common belief that English is crazy, it is not. Those scribes hundreds of years ago knew what they were doing when they created, copied and/or modified homophones. So, let’s look at another example. Did you know that words that begin with <wr> have to do with twisting? So written language in script is twisted – that is why write is spelled with a <wr>, to tie it to the word family that includes: wrist, wrench, wrangle and wrap. When a student is made aware of the reason behind a spelling, especially a homophonic spelling, they are far more likely to choose the right homophone.

Ok, let’s tackle another pair. Think about know and no. It is usually taught that the <kn> is senseless. But that is not the case. In Old English they pronounced the <k>, just like in knife and knight. Now, the <kn> is a grapheme that represents /n/. But when it comes to the homophones know and no, we can teach students that content words have to have at least three letters and function words do not have such a standard. So, the word know has to be a least three letters and the k needs to be there to marks it history and evolution through time. What a great story to share and now it is less likely that the student will choose the wrong homophone again.

Content words vs function words

Let’s see what other homophones we can investigate. How about I and eye? This one is simple. There are function words and there are content words. Function words like an, the, is, etc take the smallest possible spelling, so <I> works for the pronoun. A little known fact is that content words need to have at least three letters, so <eye> was born. Simple, but logical.


The Five Step Homophone Investigation Process

  1. Show your student all the options for the homophone that was selected. For example: <hear> and <hear> or <I> and <eye> or <prints> and <prince>. Have the student read each homophone and to make sure they understand that <hom> + <o> + <phone> actually means more than one word which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. (Remember that these are words that share a pronunciation, not a spelling. Words that shares a spelling, but has variable meanings are homographs, like bow and bat.) Then ask the very important question: Why do think these words are spelled differently even though they are pronounced the same?
  2. Next, have a conversation about what each word means. Have the student use each homophone in a sentence to make sure they understand the meaning of each word.
  3. Now that your student has demonstrated that they understand what a homophone is, take a look at how to teach <write> versus <right>. Start by brainstorming other words that begin with <wr>. Together you might come up with: <wrench>, <wrestle>, <wring>, <wrestle> and <wrap>.
  4. Next it’s time to take those words and look up their stories, or their etymologies. For this, go to the free at and type in the words that you have brainstormed. What do they all have in common? They all have the act of twisting in common. So, now that you and your student have conducted this investigation together and the student understands the reason and logic behind one spelling over the other, it is unlikely they will choose the wrong homophone again…and if they do, they will certainly give pause before they do, because they understand the choice instead of relying rote memorization. For further investigation take a trip to the following two free resources:
  1. Lastly, create a homophone journal where students record all the homophones they notice which a column for their investigative notes.


Homophones are actually very fun to investigate. The most important point is to remember that choosing the right homophone is not the important part – it is the questions, investigations and conversations about English orthography that arise from choosing the wrong homophone that is important. That is where the learning occurs. The conversation about the choice is more important than the choice itself.


About the Author

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-owner of the Dyslexia Training Institute and a published author and researcher of dyslexia. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She is a trained Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process.

Dr. Kelli is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs.Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She created and produced Dyslexia for a Day and is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP. 



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  • AmyMyers
    November 21, 2014

    Thank you. This is quite interesting. I’m teaching homophones the week we come back from Thanksgiving. I will definitely be adding some information to my lesson!

  • KimLoreyHead
    November 14, 2014

    This is awesome.

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