The Internet TESL Journal

Using Minimal Pairs to Help with Pronunciation Difficulties

Cheryl Caesar
Institut Catholique de Paris (Paris, France)


Whether you are teaching full-scale phonetics and the International Phonemic Alphabet or just working on pronunciation, you have probably noticed how well students respond to minimal pairs (ship/sheep, tree/three). These not only allow us to target the phoneme in question, they also make it clear to the student how a tiny, sometimes unnoticed, change in pronunciation will actually change the meaning of their utterance.

Pairs and Beyond

For this reason, I like to expand the minimal pairs when possible, to trios or even quartets. Here is one that is popular, to practise both linking and the ship/sheep vowel pair:
If you want to keep going, add the s/z distinction with:
After modelling these and having students repeat, put them in pairs and have one partner say the phrases out of order to the other. The listener can identify the phrase heard, either by translating it (in linguistically homogenous group) or by number.

   S1 :    He’s ill.        S2 :    Il est malade.
   S1 :    His hill.        S2:    Sa colline.


   S1:     He’s ill.        S2:    Number one..
   S1:     His heel.      S2:    Number three.

Practise linking (and sensitise students to the intrusive /h/) with a minimal food trio:
Often you can easily mime the difference. For example:
Minimal pairs are a very quick way to sensitise a student to a difference she or he isn’t hearing. Using the L1, or a drawing on the board, or a paraphrase, elicit the pair you want like this:

    T: “What’s another way to say, ‘Select footwear’?”
    C: “Choose shoes.”

    T: “Recount a story.”
    C: “Tell a tale.”

    T: “The principal males.”
    C: “The main men.”

    T: “Consume this.”
    C: “Eat it.”

    T: “Suffering from holding a writing instrument too long.”
    C: “Pen pain.”

And so on. The students generally have fun working out the puzzle together.

Minimal Square

You can write on the board, in two columns:

    cheap        chip

    sheep        ship

Then invite them to say, in other words, “inexpensive French fries”, “boats for French fries”, “an inexpensive boat”, etc. Next put them in pairs and have them continue the activity.

My students enjoy these so much they are always requesting more, so if you have some of your own, I’d appreciate hearing them.

Further Sources

British Pronunciation

American Pronunciation

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 5, May 2008