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There are many difficulties that face candidates in the IELTS exam, but one of them is the issue of homophones. This refers to words that sound similar and so it can affect those sitting the listening test or even answering questions in the speaking exam.

Read on if you want to find out how to get a better IELTS score by avoiding the problems associated with homophones.

What are homophones?

First of all, before we look at IELTS exam tips to avoid being confused by homophones, let’s discuss what they are. Homophones are simply words that sound like each other. The word comes from “homo-” meaning “the same” and “phone” meaning sound: “the same sound.”

Some of the most common homophones in the English language are:

  • I/ aye/ eye
  • Hear/ here
  • Red/ read
  • Bare/ bear
  • Won/ one
  • By/ Buy
  • They’re/ their/ there
  • To/ too/ two

We can also consider words that are similar but not exactly the same:

  • Which/ witch
  • Affect/ effect
  • Accept/ except

Basically, these words can cause some confusion because they sound the same or similar to one another. For learners of English this can be a big problem, but below I will explain a few IELTS exam tips that will help you deal with it and excel in your IELTS exam.

1. It’s all about context

At first thought, homophones seem quite difficult to deal with. The words “I” and “aye” and “eye” all sound exactly the same. This seems needlessly confusing, right?

In fact, English speakers would never be confused about this because these words would never be used interchangeably. They all refer to completely different things, so we would not easily mistake them.

If you heard someone say “I enjoy going to the theatre,” you would not be confused about “eye” or “aye” because these would be impossible to fill that gap.

Likewise, “I read a book” could not be misunderstood for “I red a book” because the latter is not grammatically possible. Thus, when we apply some basic rules of logic or grammar to a sentence, we can overcome the difficulty of a homophone.

Sometimes this might be more difficult, though. If you are in the IELTS exam and listening to a recording, you might not hear enough to get the grammar perfectly noted. Thus, you are forced to rely upon the few words that you heard. In this sort of situation, you can rely less on grammar and more on logic.

Let’s say we heard a conversation between two people and they are talking about a competition. You hear a word that sounds like “one” or “won” but you don’t know what it was exactly… In this case, you can logically deduce that “won” is more likely because a person could have “won a competition.”

2. Subtle differences in sound

Oftentimes, there are subtle differences in sound that can give away the difference between two words that sound very similar. If you cannot rely on context, which is surely the best means of differentiating words, then noting the difference in pronunciation can help.

The words “accept” and “except” sound very similar and – out of context – even a native speaker might have a little trouble distinguishing between them. However, there is a difference. Just as they are spelled, the sound changes from “ah” to “eh” at the start of the word.

Other words do not sound similar to native speakers but do sound similar to some learners. Many people struggle to hear the difference between “fill” and “feel” or “ship” and “sheep.” This is because the vowel sound here is peculiar to English and thus unfamiliar to some learners.

If this sort of problem affects your IELTS exam training, then you should invest some time in learning the difference between these sounds. It will help both your listening and speaking skills.

We also have words in English that are basically the same except they have verb and noun forms. For example, “project” could be a verb or a noun, but it stressed differently depending on the context. We say “PRO-ject” for the noun but “pro-JECT” for the verb form. Knowing this can help you figure out what was meant.

3. Asking the examiner to repeat the question

If you encounter a homophone or any sort of misheard word in the IELTS speaking test, you can always just ask the examiner to repeat or rephrase the question. Whilst some candidates are afraid to do this in case it lowers their grade, it is actually not a problem at all. In fact, if you ask properly, it can even help you communicate better and increase your score.

Let’s say the examiner asked this question:

  • What is more important for companies – profits or social engagement?

You might hear the word “profits” and think of the word “prophets.” If you heard the latter, you might be a little confused. In this case, it fits grammatically into the sentence but it is a little surprising from a logical perspective. There is no difference in the sound of these words, so what can you do?

The best thing in this situation is telling the examiner what you feel or asking them directly to rephrase the question. You might want to say something like:

  • I’m sorry, but what do you mean by “prophets”?
  • Could you please rephrase the question? I did not quite understand the word “prophets.”

If you did this, the examiner would realise the ambiguity of the phrase and then state it in a new way:

  • What is more important for companies – making money or engaging with people?

In this case, you would have a much better understanding because “making money” is clear. You would probably realise that the original word had been “profits.”

You should not feel embarrassed about asking the examiner to do this. As long as you ask politely and in correct English, it will not lower your score for the IELTS exam and will give you a better chance of success.

Conclusion

Homophones pose a real challenge for IELTS candidates, particularly in the listening and speaking tests. However, with the right strategies, it is possible to avoid being tripped up by them. The best thing to do is think what word logically and grammatically fits the context, but if you can’t do that then pay attention to the precise sounds or, in the case of the speaking test, ask the examiner to repeat or rephrase the question so that you can have a better chance of understanding it correctly.

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