Even though it’s not entirely accurate, media reports that it is true: ESL blogger Tim Torkildson got fired for writing about homophones. Why? Because his employer feared “homophones” sounded too cozy with “homosexuals.”

His boss may also have been concerned that "Tim Torkildson" is an anagram for Lord Oink Mitts. (c) http://ow.ly/zSRZ5

His boss may also have been concerned that “Tim Torkildson” is an anagram for Lord Oink Mitts. (c) http://ow.ly/zSRZ5

To make sense of this senseless situation, let’s look at two things:

(1)  The story’s root (or technically what comes before roots): prefixes.

(2)  How learning prefixes for numbers 1-10 gets you understanding unfamiliar words.

That homophone story sure is crazy! What’s… a homophone?

The issue here isn’t homophones but how someone’s (apparent) confusion about the prefix homo- affected someone’s life.

Confusion and lack of knowledge about prefixes also affect children’s lives: unfamiliar words derail comprehension and subsequently the willingness to read.

But when children are “word solvers,” they can decode new words within a context.

Give me an example.

Okay, I will.

For example, kids learn triangle without thinking about (i.e., being taught) its meaning. So they know a triangle has three angles/sides but then get tripped up on tripod.

But once they understand tri– means three, the sentence “He put the camera on the tripod” now gets decoded. (“What would he put a camera on? Maybe that thing with three legs… Ah! Tripod!”)

I guess this would also make sense.

I guess this would also make sense.

Knowing this tri– prefix demystifies words such as trio, trilogy, triceratops, tricolour, triple, triplets, triplicate, trilingual and trilateral.

I like to be smart. Can I learn these “number prefixes” before Big Brother comes back on?

Yes, you can. You actually know about half of the prefixes below. To remember the others, you just need a hook. (Prefixes are modified so they’re easier for children.)

Prefixes 1-4

One to four is all wheels.


Prefix Meaning Hook Question
uni one  Think of wheels: unicycle. What does unilingual mean?
bi–  two Think of wheels (again): bicycle. How many bodies of water do you border if you’re bicoastal?
tri three  Think of wheels (thrice): tricycle. How many stripes on a tribar flag?
quad– / quar four Think of wheels (last one): quad bikes/ATVs. (Also, quadrants and quarters.) How many kids make up a quadruplet?


"'Quad' means 'three,' right? Just making sure before the quadruplet jump."

Quad means three, right? Just making sure before I leap the quadruplets.”

Prefixes 5&6

I pair off the next two prefixes — penta and hexa — and ask kids to think of the associated shapes.

Prefix Meaning Hook Question
penta five  Think of a pentagon. How many letters in penta? Five. Pentagons have 5 sides. How many events are in a pentathlon?
hexa six  Think of a hexagon. Hexa has an x. So does six. Hexagons have 6 sides. How many tones in a hexachord?


The modern pentathlon involves jumping a seahorse over a revamped Sobeys logo.

The “Modern Pentathlon” includes ramping a seahorse over a revamped Sobeys logo.


Prefixes 7-10

The final four revolve around a sea creature. Octopus gets learned early (short o sound) and all kids know it has eight legs (tentacles). For this run of prefixes, I encourage children to think through the order of months: September, October, November, December.

Prefix Meaning Hook Question
sept seven  Seven in French: sept – 
octo– / octa eight  An octopus has 8 legs. Octagons have 8 sides. How many performers in an octet?
novem– / nona nine  –  – 
dec ten  Decade. It has 10 years. A decagon has 10 sides.  What is a decapod?

By knowing octo– means eight, they can roll up from October to December to recall the prefix for 10. (September is seven and November is nine but those prefixes appear almost never, especially compared to decimal, decimetre and decade.)

As for why those four months don’t actually match their numeric prefixes, that deserves its own article.

Can you wrap this up? I think they’re evicting Amber tonight.

Knowing prefixes means you’re not isolating words in your memory. You can crack many unfamiliar words by knowing basic prefixes.

The most important numeric prefixes here for kids (to me) are the first four. Those prefixes appear significantly more frequently in children’s texts than the others.

Thanks for teaching me about homophones!

You’re… welcome.

Good luck in your future endeavours, Tim Torkilson (a.k.a. Mild Rink Toots). (c) Facebook

When that blogging job gets posted, I hope Tim Torkildson reapplies as Mild Rink Toots. (c) Facebook

If you want the MS Word file of large-print prefix reminders I use in my classroom, send me a message and I’ll email it to you.


Want to get ESL/EAL students talking? Engage them with discussion prompts.

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Written by Peter Cullen

Peter Cullen loves to teach children. He specializes in literacy (elementary level) and has a lot of fun creating games and activities for class lessons. He also writes, manages social media accounts and announces roller derby games.

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