Is the Horse, Hoarse, Just a Horse, or a Hoarse Horse?

Have Fun with Your ESL/EFL Students while Scaffolding Acquisition

Are you a non-native SPEAKER of English? 
Are you a non-native TEACHER of English? 

In either case, do you ever avoid using or teaching certain new words because you are not sure how to use them? If you are a student you don’t want to look foolish and if you are a teacher you don’t want to teach something that may not be correct. It is very natural to feel this way.

Here is a tricky little quiz for a fun vocabulary word:

When and how would you use the word HORSE?
When and how would you use the word HOARSE?
Do you tend to pronounce these words differently because of their spelling?

HORSE and HOARSE are homophones, two words that are spelled differently, pronounced the same, but have different meanings. A non-native  EFL teacher in one of the discussion groups I follow recently posted a very interesting question. He wanted to know how to present the word HOARSE to his students. He wondered if it was best to say, “His voice is hoarse” or “He has a hoarse voice.” Of course both ways are correct, but native speakers would simply say:

“He is hoarse.” 

So sorry to hear you are hoarse!
This fresh grass will cure your hoarse voice.

Since HOARSE sounds exactly like HORSE, when non-native teachers want to teach the word they might hesitate to teach students to say, “He is hoarse”. To avoid confusion they want to attach meaning to the word like using ‘voice’ as a way of explaining the word they are teaching, rather than to teach it as a simple new adjective.

This is not a problem but when teachers do this, they are losing a great opportunity to multi-task. If you teach students to say:  “He is hoarse,” you will be supporting four aspects of language acquisition. 

The trick here is that when you hear the words hoarse by themselves you don’t know the meaning by the sound alone. The only way you can understand the meaning is by seeing the spelling or by the way it is used in a sentence. Basically you can only understand that it means a raspy voice by spelling or usage in a sentence. Usage or function is something students need to acquire to improve their comprehension.

The only exception in this case would be if the speaker said, “I am Hoarse” meaning his name is Hoarse. In this case the listener might answer, ‘That’s a very interesting name! How do you spell it?’ Or “Nice to meet you, Hoarse, I am Veronica.”

Four things your students can learn from the sentence: “He is hoarse.”

First, comes the most obvious skill. Students can learn two different spellings for two words that sound the same but have different meanings. Spelling is a very useful skill when writing! By learning that the new word, HOARSE is spelled differently than the familiar word, HORSE, students will know which way to spell it, to show the meaning they want.

This also make students aware that in English spelling can vary a lot, for no apparent reason. If they make special note of this, their spelling can improve and they can have fun memorizing spelling words. They will not make a mistake like writing DEER teacher, instead of DEAR teacher, for example. 

Spelling in English is crazy, use spellcheck! 

2. Adjectives
Second, students will learn word function. They will recognize that HOARSE is an Adjective.

***”In “He is hoarse” hoarse, describes: ‘He’ (his condition).
***”In “He has a hoarse voice” hoarse describes the condition of his ‘voice’.
Students will learn that hoarse is functioning as an adjective compliment for ‘he’, showing his condition is one of having a raspy voice therefore: ‘He is HOARSE’. 

Adjectives are words that describe nouns (persons/places/things). 

3. Nouns
Third, students will understand a very important core skill: Without a determiner such as ‘A or THE’, hoarse CANNOT be considered the noun HORSE, even if it sounds just like the animal, or the student does not know how it is spelled, horse. Students may not be able to depend on spelling but they must know that without a determiner the word CANNOT be a noun. This is a fundamental skill for English students.

Whereas if the sentence were said: “He is A horse” there would be no doubt that it meant he is the animal, horse, regardless of how the word was spelled. Without the A the listener should understand that the word is referring to a raspy voice.

Singular nouns need an article or determiner to prove they are nouns!  

4. Fun
Fourth, and maybe the most important of all students will have fun with this word. Any way you look at it, when you teach students to say: “He is hoarse”, it will be a lot of fun. Even though the student knows it means he has a raspy voice it is a lot of fun to say, “He/she/ is hoarse.” In fact, s
tudents will have so much fun saying that someone is hoarse that they will never forget that particular vocabulary word. It will be stowed away as a ‘right brain’ memory (joke about horse/hoarse) that will permit them to acquire the new vocabulary word and not forget it.

It is simply much more fun to say: ‘He is hoarse’ than it is to say he has a hoarse voice!  


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