Teaching Confused and Unfamiliar Words

Even for a teacher, teaching confused and unfamiliar words can be a daunting task. Teaching words is difficult, because the very idea of a word is such an abstract concept. Yes, students can memorize items like spelling and grammatical rules. But how do you really "teach a word," let alone teach a word that is confusing and unfamiliar?

Teaching Tips

Teaching confused and unfamiliar words can help a student differentiate between similar sounding words and words which are difficult to pronounce.

Here are some pointers:

Familiarize Yourself with the Words

Before you can teach students these types of words, you need to make sure that you are 100 percent certain of what the words are.

Some words that you might want to review include:

  • counsil/counsel

  • supposed to/suppose

  • quote/quotation

  • stationary/stationery

  • accept/except

  • apart/ a part

  • recant

  • concomitant

  • verisimilitude

  • paucity

  • corpulent

  • catechism

  • abase

For more of the most commonly confused words, check out the YourDictionary Battle of the Commonly Misspelled or Misused Words infographic for an easy-to-understand visual explanation.

Determine the Level of Your Students

Grade level will have an impact on what you decide to teach. For example, you are probably not going to be teaching first graders the difference between "quote" and "quotation," but they might very well understand that "apart" and "a part" are two different words. On the other hand, a high school student would most likely be able to understand all of the words listed above.

You also have to look at the reading level of your students. Do not introduce words or concepts that they are not going to be able to understand. That is not fair to the students and it will not lead to a productive class environment. If your students are advanced, try introducing "paucity" and "corpulent." If they are not, you might want to stick with "recant" and "catechism", since these words are sometimes used in every day speech.

Use Pictures to Visualize the Word

If you have ever read Saussure's theory of words, you will be familiar with the idea that words are very abstract little things! What that means is that the word "cat," for example, has absolutely nothing to do with what it means to be a cat. The word "tree" has absolutely nothing to do with what it means to be a tree and so forth. But once a student sees a picture of a cat or a tree along with the word, they are more likely to learn the meaning of the word.

Therefore, students are not going to remember "accept" or "abase" just because you talked about them during the lesson. As with all other words, these two words have nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the sounds produced. Show a picture of the word in use to reinforce the meaning of the word.

  • Using pictures is an extremely productive teaching strategy for introducing your students to these more difficult words. Even if the students are older, this is still a helpful learning tool.

  • Get out flash cards that show what the word means, so that students can make meaningful connections between the word and what exactly it means to be that word.

You can even have students draw pictures to demonstrate the differences between two words that, on face value, may appear to be similiar.

Practice Makes Perfect

The only way to get students to remember these words for good is to have them practice using them. Assign essays or short writing assignments throughout the semester, and provide a list of your target words.

Remember, you should not be teaching all of these words at once! Try introducing a few every other week. Distribute the list of the target words for that week or those weeks with the essay assignment. Tell students that they must include at least five or ten (depending on the length of the written assignment) of those words in their writing. Therefore, the students will have practice using these words without your assistance.

Teaching Confused and Unfamiliar WordsTeaching Confused and Unfamiliar Words

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