Minimal Pairs are pairs of words (and sometimes phrases) which differ in their sound by just one element.
They are an incredibly useful tool in the TEFL teachers’ bag and if you haven’t started yet, you should learn about them and use them!
Mostly minimal pairs are used as pronunciation practice where the meaning of the word is not really important at all – it’s the sound which counts.
For example, these are minimal pairs:
bus – but
haul – hole
baking – making
If you say them out loud and listen carefully, you’ll hear that each pair differs in just one sound (or phoneme as it’s technically known).
In the TEFL Classroom
Minimal pairs are incredibly useful in the classroom when you are looking at the pronunciation of certain words and sounds. They are used to isolate the single sound differences so that your students can concentrate on the problem area without getting distracted by other noise.
If you have a good store of minimal pairs at hand (see below) then you can bring an appropriate few out as and when they’re needed. Say, for example, you are teaching the difference between /ɪ/ and /iː/ you could use words like:
find – bleating
However, here the student has to contend with several different sound differences between the two words. It is far better to use two words whose only difference is /ɪ/ and /iː/ such as:
ship – sheep
Of course problems with pronunciation vary with the student’s mother tongue. Japanese students, for example, have problems with /f/ and /h/ (because Japanese does not have the /f/ sound) so a minimal pair like
fat – hat
is useful in this case. Likewise, Greek students have difficulty with
show – so
because Greek does not have the /ʃ/ sound.
an example in practice
Let’s suppose you’ve identified a pronunciation issue with your class. You find that they often mix up /k/ and /g/ for example.
First explain the problem and then demonstrate to them the difference between the two sounds. For this it might help if you can draw a diagram on the board. Your students first need to understand the mechanics of the problem.
Then it’s time for practice. Useful minimal pairs for this could be:
cane – gain
Kent – Ghent
kiddie – giddy
coat – goat
cut – gut
Notice how the spelling has nothing to do with the pronunciation in several cases here; for this reason it’s often best not to write the words up on the board but only to say them clearly to the class (you don’t want the writing to confuse the class).
Now it’s time for practice. When you’ve identified the problem sounds make a list of minimal pairs which cover those sounds. For each word in the list, make 3 flashcards and print the word on it.
In the classroom, shuffle the cards and deal them out to all the students – make sure they don’t show anyone else what cards they have. Get the students to stand up and mingle. They need to go around the class trying to collect pairs, asking other students, “Do you have a sheep?” for example.
If the other student does, they must hand it over. If not, they move on. The game continues until all the cards are made into pairs.
Are Minimal Pairs Important?
Why? Partly because some students are not able to hear the difference between two words which may – to them – sound exactly the same but which may have completely different meanings.
Look at these two sentences:
Who will chair the conference?
Who will cheer the conference?
A student may think they have understood the sentence, but in fact they could easily come away with the wrong impression of what was said.
Common Minimal Pairs
Not all of these will apply to your class but they can give you a good idea of what minimal pairs are all about and examples of what you can use.
Phonemes in English – these are the sounds which make up words
Pronunciation Snake – a pronunciation game with minimal pairs