ELI5: Difference between Homographs, Homophones, and Homonyms

The English language is full of surprises and complex words that can make anyone scratch their head. While some may essentially be as simple as the word BE. But even BE has a relative-sounding word that sounds the same but has a different meaning. For example, BEE (honey bee). Imagine if such words baffle us, then what could it do to a student with a learning difficulty? 

While every language has its share of yin-yangs, fretting about a subject is never helpful. Addressing this, there are words for these similar-sounding kinds known as homophones, homographs, and homonyms. But remembering the difference between these three can be challenging. Therefore, in this post, we’ll define them, break down the differences, and provide examples to simplify the overall understanding of the same. 

In this post, we will dig deeper and distinguish between the three terms so that you have a clear picture by the end of the post. 

What are homographs, homophones, and homonyms: Definitions explored

What is the difference between homographs, homophones, and homonyms? This may seem like a difficult question to answer, but with a little bit of explanation and clear examples, it becomes much clearer. So let’s dive deep into the three terms that lay the foundation of all similar-sounding words in English. By understanding the differences between these three types, you will be able to use them more effectively.

1. Homographs

Homonyms that have the same spelling are called homographs. In other words, words that have the same spelling as another word but with a different meaning are homographs. They are usually pronounced differently from one another.

For example, the word “bow” can refer to a type of knot or a weapon for shooting arrows. Similarly, the word “lead” can refer to a metal element or the act of going in front of others. While homographs can be confusing, they can also add richness to the English language. By understanding homographs, we can more fully appreciate the many shades of meaning that words can have.

2. Homophones

The -phone in homophone means “sound.” So homophones are words that sound the same but always have different meanings. However, they may spell the same or different. For example, the words “they’re” and “their” are spelled differently but have the same sound. This is because the contraction “they’re” means “they are,” while the possessive pronoun “their” indicates belonging to someone. Although homophones can be tricky for learners, understanding the -phone meaning can help clarify its usage. The phone in homophones also embarks the birth of phonetics in language.

3. Homonyms

A homonym is a word that has the same pronunciation but has a different meaning. For example, “flower” and “flour” are homonyms. If you were baking a cake and mistakenly used a flower instead of flour, your cake would not be edible. But if it is properly baked using flour and the right ingredients, then the cake is a treat for all.

While homonyms can be complex to understand at first, they can also be fun to use. For example, the phrase “I’m on a roll” is a play on the homonyms “roll” (meaning “a small loaf of bread”) and “roll” (meaning “to move forward or onward”). So, when you say that you’re “on a roll,” you’re saying that you’re making good progress.

Homonyms can be crafty, but they can also add an extra layer of meaning to your language and everyday conversational skills. 

Homograph vs Homographs vs Homonyms:  Explaining with examples

Homographs are words spelled the same as other words but have different meanings. For example, “bark” can refer to the sound a dog makes or the protective outer layer of a tree. “Lead” can refer to a metal element or the act of guiding someone. Homographs can be pronounced the same way (homonyms), or they can be pronounced differently (heteronyms).

Homonyms are words pronounced the same as other words but have different meanings. For example, “left” can mean the opposite of right or leaving something behind.” Light” can be the weight of an object or signify rays coming through nouns like sun, bulb, tube light, headlight, etc. Homonyms can be spelled the same way (homographs) or spelled differently (heteronyms).

Homophones are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings. For example, “break/brake.Sam is on his lunch break. He will be back soon.” Similarly, “Jacob didn’t press the brakes on time and hit a tree.” 

There can be multiple meanings for a single word, but each meaning is typically related to one of the following. Adding further, here are some more examples for you to consider:

  • two different parts of speech (e.g., “I” can be a pronoun or the letter I)
  • two different senses (e.g., “left” can mean “opposite of right” or “to leave something behind”)
  • two different pronunciations (e.g., “read” can be pronounced as /red/ or /reed/)

The standard pronunciation

When multiple pronunciations are possible, one is typically designated as the “standard” pronunciation, while the others are considered nonstandard, vernacular, or colloquial. 

For example, the word “read” is typically pronounced /red/ in North American English but can also be pronounced /reed/ in some dialects. In British English, however, the /reed/ pronunciation is considered standard.

For example, the word “pear” can be either a fruit or a unit of measure. The word “minute” can refer to either 60 seconds or a very small amount of time. In these cases, the different meanings of the word are not necessarily related to one another.

Table of Comparison: Homographs, Homophones, and Homonyms

FeaturesHomographsHomophonesHomonyms
DefinitionSpells the same but have different pronunciations and meaningSounds the same but are spelled differentlySpells and pronounces the same but may have multiple meanings
Examplebowwindleadto/ tooflour/ flowerbare/bearfairscalepen
MeaningDifferentDifferentDifferent
SpellingSameDifferentSame
PronunciationDifferentSameSame

How can educators teach these concepts to help learners learn better?

Going out of the way and pushing the creative buttons to teach homographs, homophones, and homonyms are essential to help students understand these concepts. However, this may typically vary from the perspective and the sensory development of a child with dyslexia. If homographs, homophones, and homonyms can confuse a layperson, then they’re sure perplexing and troublesome to the ones with learning disabilities.

Therefore, it’s crucial that while beaming light onto regular kids, kids with disparity under the concepts of language learning gets equally covered. As per research, students with dyslexia were evidently seen succeeding with homographs, homophones, and homonyms using proven strategies and activities to make them learn the same. The results were imperative as children with special needs may perform equivalently better than commoners if handled and taught well. To address this, let’s explore ways to teach these concepts to students. 

1. Give examples

One of the best ways to explain homographs, homophones, and homonyms to little learners is to give them examples. Explain that homographs are words spelled the same but have different meanings, such as “they” and “flower.” Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings, such as “where” and “were.” Finally, homonyms are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings, such as “bass” (a type of fish) and “bass” (a low-pitched sound).

2. Use pictures

Another great way to explain these concepts is to use pictures. For example, you could show a picture of a flower but ask the students to make a sentence with the word “flour.”. For homophones, you could show a picture of a berth but ask the students to make a sentence around the word “birth.” Similarly for homonyms, you could show a picture of a “baseball bat” but ask the students to make a creature with the word “bat.”

3. Give them time to process

When introducing new concepts like this, it’s important to give little learners time to process the information. For example, give them a few minutes to think about it or discuss it with a partner after explaining what homographs, homophones, and homonyms are.

4. Encourage them to ask questions

Encourage little learners to ask questions if they’re unsure about anything. This will help them to understand the concepts better, and it will also show you which parts they’re struggling with.

5. Get them to sort words

A great way to consolidate learning is to get little learners to sort words into homographs, homophones, and homonyms. This will help them see the different features of each type of word and give them some practice in using the words.

6. Get them to write sentences

Another way to consolidate learning is to get little learners to write sentences using homographs, homophones, and homonyms. This will help them see how the words are used in context and give them some practice in using the words.

7. Give them feedback

Finally, don’t forget to give little learners feedback on their progress. This will help them to see what they’ve done well, and it will also motivate them to keep learning.

Conclusion

Homonyms have the same pronunciation as other words but have different meanings. The same goes for Homophones and Homographs as well. These three sets of language footing can be difficult for students to master, especially for younger kids, but understanding them is important in reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Once students master them, they are potentially ready to use them as poetic devices. But while so much of it is said and done, tutors and parents must use methods and practices that are easy and convenient for these budding minds. Instead of pushing them to learn these concepts, try fun activities and games as added above to give an overall understanding of these core language concepts.

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