5 Minimal Pairs Activities for Your ESL Pronunciation Class

Minimal pairs are one of the most helpful tools for any pronunciation teacher. They have been proven to help significantly with the perception of unfamiliar phonemes. And since perception of a phoneme is required before production can occur, minimal pairs can also help students when they are ready to speak.

Before you dive into minimal pair training, you should have first done some kind of needs analysis of your students. This could be a done with diagnostic test, or something as informal as listening to the phonemes that your students mispronounce. It’s also possible to predict what types of phonemes your students will have problems with based on their native language – Arabic speakers will often have difficulty with the /p/ phoneme, Japanese speakers will often struggle with /l/ and /r/, etc.

Once you’ve identified phonemes that you want to practice with your class, then you’ll want to either create or find lists of minimal pairs. Here are a few different sources:

I like to gather pairs from different lists for my classes and it’s best if you can incorporate vocabulary that students are already learning.

So once you have your needs analyzed and have some good lists of pairs for the relevant phonemes, it’s time to start practicing. Here are my favorite minimal pairs activities.

Color Cards

Let’s say you’re working with the minimal pair /??/ (unvoiced “th” sound) and /s/ and you have 12 students in class. Draw a big “??” on 6 pieces of green paper, and draw a big “S” on 6 pieces of red paper. Hand all the pieces of paper out to your students.

Now read words from your list of minimal pair words. If you read a word that has a /??/, the students with the green pieces of paper them should hold them up. Or if you read a word with an /s/, the students with red papers should hold them up.

This activity is active listening and perception. The students have something to do (hold up the papers) and they can get some help from others (by looking around at the other students holding papers) if they’re not sure of themselves.

As a teacher, you get good feedback. You can make sure every student is participating, and you can easily see which students are catching on. If a student is hesitating and looking around before putting their pieces of paper up, you know they need a little bit more practice. The goal is for every student to hold up the correct piece of paper as quickly as possible.

Pronunciation Journey

Pronunciation Journey is a game that almost every one of my pronunciation classes has loved. It also works on perception and it’s individual, challenging, and fun.

This page has the instructions and worksheet needed to play it. You might want to make some modifications to the worksheet. You can either create your own in Word or otherwise modify the pdf your computer. What I usually do is simple: cover the bottom words (the “cook-cookie”, “eight-eighty”, etc.) with a piece of white paper and photocopy it. Then you have a journey worksheet that can be used for any list of minimal pairs, rather than just the ones on the page. For example: “go left if you hear a /b/, go right if you hear a /p/.

So once you have your worksheet, you play. You will want to do one round as a class (“Ok first word: ‘potato.’ Should I go left or right? Yep, go right”) so that everyone understands how to play. Then the teacher can call out the next rounds on their own while the students trace their “journey” on their on papers, and then check to make sure everyone made it to the correct city at the end. To help yourself as a teacher, you can make up a list of different word combinations (taken from your minimal pair lists) that lead to different cities. Here’s an example of one that I’ve used for theta and eth and their minimal pairs (kind of a mishmash of minimal pairs, but you get the idea). If you get a good list together, you can give it to a student and have them call the words and lead the class.

I really encourage pronunciation teachers to try this game out. It can take 2 minutes or 20 (with different minimal pairs, different callers, etc.) and it’s always useful and always fun. I use it several times throughout the semester when I teach pronunciation and students never get bored of it.

Choral Repetition

Once your students have practiced enough passive perception, they can move on to some controlled production.

Choral repetition is a super common way of teaching pronunciation: it’s just “repeat after me”. The teacher says a word, and everyone in class repeats it.

  • Teacher: “Sheep”
  • Class: “Sheep”
  • Teacher: “Ship”
  • Class: “Ship”

Students can practice hearing the difference between the two phonemes, and then practice saying the difference between the two right away.

A good addition to choral repetition is pictures, if it’s possible. The Pronunciation Pairs textbook has great minimal pairs with corresponding pictures so students can look at their book as they read, connecting the visual, sound, and writing. You could also have a Ship or Sheep webpage up on an overhead connected to the computer – same idea.


Depending on the demographics of your class, many of your students might have smartphones. You can utilize them to practice minimal pairs.

Most smartphones have a “voice-controlled personal digital assistant“. Siri is the most famous. Cortana, Google Now, and Amazon Echo are some others. Basically, they listen to what you tell them and follow your command. Although, of course, your command has to be pronounced correctly to get the right action from them.

Here’s a fun activity to try. Hold down the button on your smartphone (if you have an iPhone) and tell Siri, “Show me a picture of a rock.” You should get six pictures of different rocks. Then say “Show me a picture of a lock” – six pictures of locks. Then tell your students to say the same two sentences to Siri and see if they get the same pictures. If they’re only getting rocks for both, they need to keep practicing.

This example works if your class is practicing the /l/ and /r/ minimal pair. It could also work for vowels (“ship” or “sheep”) or other consonants (“bear” and “pear”).

As we all know, technology is never foolproof. You’ll have to be even more careful with what minimal pair words to choose for an activity like this. Abstract ideas and most verbs will not yield good image results. The results for some nouns could also be surprising – “pear” and “pair” are indistinguishable for Siri, so the text shows “pair” but the images are of pears. Strange, but it works. Make sure to try out the words you plan on using with your class before you give them out.

Unlike a game like Pronunciation Journey, where you need a lot of different words to keep the game fresh, you only need a few minimal pairs for Siri because your students will practice again and again until they get the pronunciation right.

Pair Sentence Reading

Another great way to practice production with minimal pairs is with pair sentence reading. There are two ways to do this.

The first way involves a sentence that has two options for one word. Hard to describe, so here’s an example, taken from this long list:

This pan/pen leaks.

One student is a reader, the other is a listener. They each get a sheet with several of these types of sentences. The reader should randomly select either the first or second word and underline what words they will say. Then they read them to the listener, who circles the words that s/he hears. After all the sentences have been read, the students check to see if they’re pronouncing/hearing the same thing. Then they switch, and the speaker becomes the listener and vice-versa.

This activity can be tricky because there might be an error in perception on the part of the listener, or an error in production on the part of the speaker. Still, if there is a discrepancy between what is said and what is heard, there is a problem somewhere. The teacher should be floating around and checking in on each of these groups to address such problems.

Students can get through these quick, so it helps to have a lot of sentences on hand. The problem is that they’re difficult to write – you have to be very creative to come up with sentences that have two meanings with a minimal pair that both make sense. Aside from the link I posted above, two textbooks have good exercises like this for many phonemes (both affiliate links):

Conclusion: Make it Useful, Make it Fun

Students usually like working with minimal pairs. They help students clearly see where their problems are. After just a little while working with them, it’s easy for students to see how useful they are.

The other benefit of minimal pairs is that they lend themselves to lots of fun activities. Even if some of the activities above don’t look like “games,” students will enjoy practicing their minimal pairs because they are simple, yet challenging. Try to find ways that you can use minimal pairs in your classes and your students will improve and enjoy it.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Bhavishya Goel

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