How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.

When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.

But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/  / and /s /?

Minimal pairs, minimal importance?

It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:

‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’

Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.

So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?

Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?

Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.

It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.

So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.

Functional load

Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:

Confusion/Confucian, azure/Asher, mesher/measure , allusion/Aleutian, glacier/glazier

I think we can probably all agree that the likelihood of students even using most of these words is pretty low, never mind getting them confused!

Minimal pairs with a high functional load would include:

/e/ and /ae/ , /p/ and /b/, /e/ and /I/

A full list is available in Brown 1988

Individual needs

With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/

Activity ideas

The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.

The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.

The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.

There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)

Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:

  • Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners  put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
  • Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
  • Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
  • For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
  • Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.

Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.

If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:



And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’

A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.

E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.

Individualised work

Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively,  learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites  (for example where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.


Filed under Differentiation, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Pronunciation

11 responses to “How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

  1. John Higgins

    I wonder if you have seen this site:
    and the discussion of functional load there.

    John Higgins

    • Hi,
      Thanks for dropping by. I have to admit I hadn’t looked at your site in any detail- just saw the first chart really. However, I’ve had a better look now, and can certainly recommend it for anyone who wants to go into a little more detail on the subject. The amount of information is truly impressive.

  2. Thanks for this. I was reminded of a presentation I attended on teaching phonics. The work on minimal pairs was something I’d never been exposed to before and my partner for the seminar was a NNS friend who’d lived in California and I considered fluent in English. I learned the most from watching her struggle through the “right hand/left hand” activity, getting every single one wrong. It changed the way I introduced listening skills to my classes. Your post provides even more food for thought and I agree that selective teaching of minimal pairs can be important – but not to the extent where it makes people like my friend feel inadequate. Thank you!

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right that being unable to hear a distinction can be frustrating..I had terrible trouble myself with the two ‘sh’ like sounds in Polish! Apparently being able to produce the right one makes the difference between saying ‘please’ and saying ‘piglet.’ (!) Not that I think there were too many situations when people actually thought I was calling them piglet…
      Like most pronunciation work, minimal pair work needs to be handled quite sensitively so as not to make the student feel embarrassed

  3. baggybird

    I have been reviewing the area of minimal pairs and pronunciation using classroom smartboards and the interactive phonemic chart. This adds a fun, kinaesthetic element to the lesson as learners can come to the board as you suggest put touch the sound and they and the class can hear it. This helps the teacher to focus on the problems that individuals are experiencing rather than being the one listening and modelling the sounds.
    Once you’ve done a bit of classwork on individual pairs then you can set minimal pair homework tasks – learners can access the chart at home and produce their own sets to test the class through team games etc.

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  7. Mohammad

    This is not actually a reply, but a question related to the topic. The terms ‘phonological awareness’, ‘phonemic awareness’, and ‘pronunciation awareness’ have made me confused. I wonder practice with minimal pairs improves which one of them.

    • As I understand it, phonology is the term used to cover every aspect of pronunciation: connected speech, intonation, word stress, sentence stress, etc. I’d say pronunciation was more of a layman’s term and is simply about how you say things. Phonemes are specifically the individual sounds of English, as found in the phonemic chart. So practice with minimal pairs concentrates on both raising phonemic awareness and the students’ ability to produce particular phonemes (which might not exist in their L1).

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