Minimal Pairs Games

Alex Case
Fun pronunciation games using pairs of words that vary by one sound only

Minimal pairs are words that vary by a single sound only, usually meaning sounds that students often get confused by like the “th” and “t” in “thin” and “tin”. Using these to practise pronunciation is very common, but most practice activities are repetitive and boring. This article gives some fun ideas for games and activities.

Pronunciation Journey

This activity in the book Pronunciation Games is perhaps the only well-known game to practise minimal pairs. Students are given a tree-like diagram which starts in a single point and then splits into two, four, eight etc. The final (usually eight or sixteen) “branches” each has a name of a different place, e.g. “Paris” or “Croatia”, written at the end of them. Students start at the single point and take the left or right branch each time depending on which of the two target sounds they hear, e.g. left if they hear “pose” and right if they hear “pause”. When they reach one of the places at the end of the branches, they shout out the place name written there. The teacher then tells them if that is the right place or not, and where they went wrong. The game can also be played in pairs.

Same Or Different Pronunciation Journey

A variation on Pronunciation Journey above is students taking the left or right branch depending on whether they two words they hear have the same or different pronunciation, e.g. turning left if they hear “Feet. Feet” or “Feet. Feat.” and turning right if they hear “Feet. Feed” or “Feet. Fit”. As with these examples, the words which are pronounced the same can just be the same word twice, or they can be homophones. The minimal pairs could all vary in the same way, e.g. all including V and B. Alternatively, they could be a list of words chosen from the book or based on one topic, e.g. “grass/ glass”, “bush/ bash” and “hill/ill” for countryside vocabulary.

Minimal Pairs Pelmanism

Pelmanism (also called “pairs” and “memory game”) is one of the most well known TEFL games. Students spread a pack of cards face down across the table and take turns turning two cards over to find a matching pair. This game can be used for minimal pairs practice by making the cards words that vary by just a single sound, e.g. “rid” with “lid” and “den” and “deign”. Students must find pairs of cards that vary by only a single sound, pronounce them differently, and explain the difference. These minimal pairs words could also be mixed up with homophones and homonyms, with students also having to explain whether the pair is pronounced the same or different. The same games can be played with pictures instead of written words.

Pronunciation Same Or Different Pairwork

Students are given Student A and Student B sheets which have pairs of words that are pronounced the same (e.g. “fair” on Student A’s sheet and “fare” on Student B’s sheet, or just the same words on both) mixed up with minimal pairs (e.g. “fat” on Student A’s sheet and “vat” on Student B’s sheet). These words could be given as pictures, single words, words in idioms and other common chunks, or words in context in complete example sentences. Student A reads out their first word and then Student B does the same. Without showing their worksheets to each other or spelling them out, they have to decide whether their words are pronounced the same or not. They can then read out any phrases or sentences that are given to help them check. When they get to the end of the sheet the teacher tells them how many words pronounced the same they should have found. When they have found that number or given up, they can look at each other’s worksheets to check their answers. The whole class can then discuss how to pronounce the ones that are different.

Spelling Code Game

This is a general spelling game that can be very useful with minimal pairs. Students are given a list of the alphabet with a number next to each letter. The teacher says a word and students have to write it down on their scrap paper, convert each letter into a number, add up all the numbers, and then shout out the total. The first person to get the right total number is the winner. For example, the teacher shouts out “Shin” and the students convert it to S = 4 + H = 9 + I = 21 + N = 17 and race to shout out “Fifty one!”, with other students no doubt shouting out the different totals that they got by starting with the minimal pairs “chin” and “sheen”.

Minimal Pair Stations

Depending on which of two sounds they think they hear, students run and touch one of two walls in the classroom, e.g. the right wall for “vest” and “vet” and the left wall for “west” and “wet”. If running and touching walls isn’t possible or desirable, they could also do other physical actions such as holding up their right or left arm, touching their nose or knees, or holding up flashcards with the two sounds written on them. The last variation is also okay with adults, but the others are obviously more suitable for kids. As with Same or Different Pronunciation Journey above, you could have them reacting in the two ways depending on whether the pronunciation of the two words they hear are the same or different, e.g. stand up if the two words are pronounced the same and sit down if they are pronounced differently.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.