Thursday, September 5, 2013


How NOT to teach minimal pairs

There's a bad moon
or there's a bathroom?

 I am still on a pronunciation kick from the most recent blog carnival! I am also thinking about the ELT Research Carnival where I wrote about the importance of bottom up skills in listening. This post mixes those two ideas with minimal pairs.

Minimal pairs can a fun way to test a students pronunciation or listening skills.

A common activity is to give students a worksheet and have them circle the word that they hear.

For example, "I really love to eat ( bears / pears )."

Do you see the problem with this?

It doesn't really require any listening skills. Most (normal) people would answer pears. They know that contextually eating bears is not something that happens, or at least not where I live in Mexico or where I grew up in San Diego.

Compare this to the Credence Clearwater song, "There's a bad moon on the rise." Many people hear, "There's a bathroom on the right." Both sentences make sense! That's why it can be tricky.

The other thing some teachers overlook is the types of minimal pairs. My Mexican students have no problem pronouncing (or hearing) the difference between l and r. Giving them activities using words like lice and rice wouldn't help them.

Of course, if you have a mixed class you can include activities which focus on all students needs, but if you are teaching a class with speakers of similar backgrounds be sure to pick sounds they will struggle with.

If you aren't sure what your students need to practice, that's OK. This is when I highly suggest picking up a copy of Swan's Learner English. A book I found beyond valuable when I first started teaching, and I still reference when I am exposed to speakers whose languages I don't know.

On TPT I put a free worksheet that I made for my TOEFL students. It focuses on the sounds that my Mexican students needed to practice. There are three activities:
  1. Two stories use minimal pairs that are interchangeable in the sentences. This can be read to the class with students selecting what they hear (as a purely listening exercise) or with students in pairs taking turns. One student would read the first story making sure to carefully enunciate, and the partner would try to guess what they were saying. Then they would switch for the second story. 
  2. There's also a BINGO board for some fun practice. 
  3. Finally there's a writing activity where students make their own. After they can read it to the class and have students try to guess what they said. 
I've talked about other ways to practice minimal pairs like jokes, and comics and I still standby those as great techniques. Just make sure to keep the few tips this blog talked about.

What about you? What do you think teachers should keep in mind when working on minimal pairs (or any pronunciation) with students?


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting! I am so glad to know that you found this blog helpful :)

  2. Thanks! This is great. I also own the Learner English book. Although it is pretty "heavy linguistics" for most, I find the information useful. Did you know that you can order a CD-Rom for audio to accompany it?


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