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All About Homophones
Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3
Objectives: Identify homophones often confused in writing and learn to use them correctly
What You Need: Whiteboard, markers, student notebooks, Internet access
What to Do: “The concept of homophones is not unfamiliar to most of my students,” says Ebony Martin, a middle school literacy specialist in Jonesboro, Georgia. Still, she says, they need practice. Martin posts anchor charts with sample sentences for homophone word families, such as there/their/they’re and its/it’s, and she has students keep a list of homophone sets. She also engages them with an exercise on texting, something middle schoolers know a lot about.
On the whiteboard, post a text-message exchange with homophone mistakes for students to correct:
Andrew: I’ll be their in to minutes.
Kate: I’m the only won here. What if nobody wants to join a Shakespeare club?
Andrew: They will! Witch classroom are you in?
Kate: Room 325. It’s door has a picture of Shakespeare on it.
Andrew: I’m hear!
Check for understanding, noting which errors students miss, and then go over the answers. Ask: “Why can’t you depend on your phone to correct these mistakes?” (They are not spelling errors; they are usage errors.)
Next, divide the class into three or four teams for a homophone-writing game. For each round, have one student per team go to the board. Explain you will dictate a sentence that contains at least two homophones. The student who writes the sentence correctly spelling all homophones first gains a point for his or her team.
Finally, challenge students to create a video that teaches viewers to distinguish between a tricky pair of homophones. For example, students might create a video in which somebody gets confused after reading a sign or text message containing the wrong form of a homophone. To spark ideas, share a lighthearted video that teaches about then and than.
A Turn of Phrase
Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5
Objective: Research word origins to gain a deep understanding of commonly confused expressions
What You Need: Internet access and/or etymology books, writing paper
What to Do: To gauge students’ familiarity with some commonly misused expressions, take a quick poll. Ask, “Which is correct: It takes two to tango or It takes two to tangle?” [the first] “Is it scrapegoat or scapegoat?” [the second] “Landlubber or land lover?” [the first].
Tell students that each of these expressions has a backstory. For example, Paul Brians explains the origin of the phrase two to tango in his book Common Errors in English Usage: “A 1952 pop song popularized the phrase…and it was quickly applied to everything that required two parties, from romance to fighting.” Brians says that because the phrase is often used to describe conflicts, some people mistakenly replace tango with tangle.
Explain that knowing the origin of a word or phrase ensures that you pronounce and use it correctly. Have students work in groups to research the origin of each of the following expressions: two to tango, scapegoat, landlubber, sour grapes, kowtow, and wunderkind. (They can search merriam-webster.com or brians.wsu.edu/common-errors.) Then, challenge them to incorporate all six expressions into a story, poem, skit, or song. Have the groups take turns sharing their work with the class.
Finally, ask students to consider whether it is important to know how to use these expressions. Ask: “Does it matter if someone says land lover instead of landlubber or scrapegoat instead of scapegoat? How would you feel if someone corrected you for confusing an expression? Would you correct someone else? Why or why not?”
Where’s the Rabbit?
Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.1
Objective: Identify prepositional phrases and understand subject-verb agreement
What You Need: Whiteboard, markers, writing paper, copies of news articles or book passages, highlighters
What to Do: “I remember telling students that a prepositional phrase shows the relationship between two nouns,” says Marsha Z. Dollinger, who taught middle school English for 24 years in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “And that really didn’t mean anything to them.” So she came up with a deceptively simple way to introduce the concept.
Begin by sketching a rabbit and a tree on the board. Note that the rabbit is under the tree, and write down that phrase. Review that under is the preposition, and tree is its object. Make a list of phrases that describe where the rabbit is in relation to the tree. Change the tree’s position to get more responses (behind the tree, in the tree, etc.). Finish by having students identify prepositional phrases within a sentence that you write by placing parentheses around each. For example: (In the great, green forest) (under a giant oak tree) sat a rabbit (with big, fluffy ears). Finally, in pairs, have students highlight prepositional phrases in a news article or a passage, and share with the class or in small groups.
Once students are clear on what prepositional phrases are, you can extend this lesson to work on subject-verb agreement. Dollinger suggests giving kids sets of sentences and challenging them to eliminate the phrases to find the subject and the verb and make sure they agree. For example: Each (of my friends) plays a different instrument. Recognizing prepositional phrases can also help students use the correct pronoun, something that befuddles many adults. Explain that only object pronouns (e.g., me, him, her, us) appear in prepositional phrases. Ask which is correct: My aunt got concert tickets for my cousin and I or My aunt got concert tickets for my cousin and me? [the second] Since the pronoun in question is the object of the preposition, it has to be the object pronoun me. (I is a subject pronoun.)
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