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How to Use Minimal Pairs to Teach Pronunciation

Alex Case
Minimal pairs are underexploited. This article looks at how teachers can teach pronunciation with minimal pairs, with some specific ideas for classroom use.

Although the idea of using pairs like “ship and sheep” in class is hardly new, I still think that minimal pairs are underexploited. This article will look at the many different ways minimal pairs can be used and give some classroom ideas.

Selecting minimal pairs

Minimal pairs can be defined as two words which only differ by a single sound, such as “tree” and “three”. This potentially huge list of words is usually cut down by limiting it to words that differ in ways that students often misunderstand and/ or cannot produce. Which sounds, and therefore which words, are relevant can often be guessed from students’ first language, e.g. choosing “bat” and “bet” for Korean students. The list of sounds that people find difficult can often be further cut down by eliminating ones that they don’t in fact have (many) problems with. This could be due to their own dialect or other languages they speak having both sounds, or borrowing of words with that sound into their language.

You can also prioritise based on who they will be speaking with. For example, if they are focussed on American English there is little point spending time on the “cap” and “cup” distinction. In the same way, a Spanish person working for a Japanese company is unlikely to gain much from being able to distinguish “ban” and “van”. You can also make more general judgements based on students’ need for “English as a Lingua Franca”.

More minimal pairs

Once you have cut down on and prioritised the minimal pairs, you can start thinking about building their use up beyond what is given in normal pronunciation books and coursebooks. To start with, many useful minimal pairs for particular nationalities, such as the “cheek” and “teak” pair for Koreans and Japanese, are rarely if ever mentioned in internationally available books. For many nationalities, you should also probably add words which are defined by an extra sound rather than different sounds. For example, many students have problems with hearing and adding vowels on the end of words that end with consonants in pairs such as “compute” and “computer” and “church” and “churchy”. The same is true with adding sounds to consonant clusters in pairs like “supine” and “spine”. These are not strictly minimal pairs but cause the same kinds of problems and can be dealt with in the same way.

Other ways of expanding the definition of minimal pairs is to include combinations of words that sound the same as minimal pairs of single words would, such as “a load” and “allowed”.

Finding minimal pairs

Now that we have an expanded group of sounds to deal with, we need a set of words to use for minimal pair activities. You can start doing this with a brainstorming stage. On a piece of paper, write all the English vowel sounds in a column down the middle, preferably in phonemic script. In the same way, write all the consonant sounds in English twice, once on the left hand side of the vowels and once on the right. Add common combinations of sounds in those positions (e.g. /str/ before the vowel and /mp/ after the vowel) and delete sounds that never go in that position (e.g. “ng” before the vowel). Circle the two sounds that you want to find minimal pairs for, and use this table to brainstorm all the single syllable words with those sounds, writing down any pairs that you find.

You can then check online lists and pronunciation books and textbooks for any that you missed, e.g. longer words. The list can then be divided to be used with particular classes, e.g. to make lists by level, language point (e.g. contractions or past forms) and/ or topic. For lists related to particular topics and language points, you can also take the opposite approach of brainstorming or finding a list of useful words (e.g. family words or a list of irregular past tenses) and then trying to think of words that they could be confused with (e.g. “cist” and “sister” or “bought” and “boat”).

Minimal pair activities

Now you have plenty of sounds to practise and plenty of words to practise them with, you will need lots of classroom activities to make so much work on minimal pairs varied and interesting. Most books have endless activities where students circle which of the two words they hear. As you can imagine, this can very quickly get boring. Allowing them to look at the teacher pronouncing the word can be more useful and realistic, as they can often use the mouth position to help them guess. This can be taken further by asking them to guess while the teacher silently mouths the words.

You can also allow them to use the context to guess with sentences like “I don’t like beans” and “Please put it in the bin”, rather than the “There was a bin on the table” and “There was a bean on the table” pairs that many books use. If those sentences contain common collocations with either or both words, all the better.

You can also introduce minimal pairs without having a dedicated part of the lesson for it. One obvious way is to use minimal pairs when correcting pronunciation, for example by writing up the word that the student was trying to say along with other words that what they said could be misinterpreted as. In a similar way, when you introduce a word you can write up any words that students should be careful not to pronounce it as, e.g. “Teem = Team, like seem. NOT Tim NOT Teen”. If you have made a list of minimal pairs arranged by topic, you could even give them the list before you start the unit and tell them to be careful not to make those mistakes.

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Written by Alex Case for
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers