Minimal pairs are very similar words and vary by a single sound. For example, when we say the words seat and sheet out loud, we make identical sounds; the only difference is the /s/ and /sh/sounds at the start of words.
Minimal pairs are usually introduced to children in EYLF or having speech therapy and will be expanded upon as they learn more about phonemes and digraphs in their phonics lessons.
In the classroom, minimal pairs can be used to highlight different sounds in a meaningful context and can also be used to help children understand why pronunciation is essential. Playing games with minimal pairs can help accentuate this to children and give them a chance to practice saying words out loud.
Minimal pairs can be tricky for some speakers, and this can also impact their written work. When they struggle to differentiate the sound or pronunciation, it is much more likely that this will translate to misconceptions in spelling. It isn’t to say that children who make misconceptions about speech will then automatically struggle with spelling or vice versa, and it is essential to note for some, it will be a speech issue that may indicate a need for speech therapy. But, again, you can speak to a speech pathologist to get advice on how to help the child.
How do minimal pairs activities help learners?
Minimal pairs activities are essential for developing speakers – whether young children or those learning a new language – as they help the student differentiate sounds and words. Of course, many children will learn differences as they learn new words. But it is easy to pick up misconceptions this way. It is also common for children learning English as an additional language to get confused by certain words or minimal pairs. But don’t worry; there are many ways to help correct any issues!
Isolating essential sounds that pupils are struggling with can mitigate this. However, there are many minimal pairs in the English language. While many will be taught in the course of primary school, once misconceptions are in place for individuals, it can often need focused attention to ensure these misconceptions are corrected.
Where the minimal pairs differ in pronunciation can come in any part of the word. Sheep and cheap are minimal pair words, but so are sheep and ship. Other examples include:
- Sheep and sheet
- Slip and ship
- Seat and beat
Minimal pairs and English as an Additional Language
Some sounds are pronounced differently across languages. One essential part of helping a student learn English pronunciation is picking up the misconceptions that can occur when sounds from a native language differ from English. Many new English learners will also learn from listening to English speakers, but this can cause issues. Native English speakers are likely to sputter, with accents and their errors or dialects. New English speakers may fill in the blanks from what they have learned and come away with slight errors.
Equally, vowel sounds can be different in other languages. In Spanish, for example, there are five vowel sounds, one for each vowel. On the other hand, there are around 20 distinct vowel phonemes in English – and that is before we tackle accents!
Picking up these misconceptions and doing simple activities can be hugely beneficial. It is essential to remember that while older learners may struggle with similar sound issues as young EYLF learners with their phonics, they are much further along in their development. With focused attention to misconceptions, explanation, and visualization, they can quickly pick up the issues and understand how to use their learning across the language.
Are minimal pairs essential?
Yes! Simple as they may sound, they are essential to spoken and written language. They are most noticed when spoken but may also cause repeated spelling errors.
Some students cannot hear the difference between words, some will have learned incorrectly, and their misconception will have become ‘fact’ for them.
While it’s not quite as obvious a difference between a ‘boo’ and ‘Boo-urns,’ there are prominent examples where minor mistakes lead to a world of difference. For example:
“The crowd cheered the speaker.”
“The crowd jeered the speaker.”
In this example, the words ‘cheer’ and ‘jeer’ are a minimal pair, yet the simple difference makes the antonyms of the word (words that mean the opposite of each other).
By getting minimal pairs mixed up, you can change the entire meaning of a sentence, which can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication.
How can I teach minimal pairs in the classroom?
Looking for some tips and tricks for teaching minimal pairs? Twinkl’s got your back! Here are some interesting and helpful ideas and activities you can try:
- Dictation. Not as helpful for showing the children and leading by example, but an excellent way to pick up misconceptions. Read their work, look for errors, use this in your next session and find the sounds causing struggles.
- Reverse dictation. Instead of you dictating and the student/s writing down your words, switch the roles. As they speak, you will write their words on the board, giving them a perfect example of how they should be spelled and the letter combinations that make up their words.
- Tongue twisters! A fun and silly way to look at language and notice the patterns and sounds of words. An excellent example of/s/ and /sh/ sounds are when she sells seashells on the seashore. The shells that she sells are seashells, I’m sure!’
- Reading aloud, together. It can be done in pairs, as a class, 1-2-1 with the teacher. It can be led by them, by a teacher, or as a group, with peers reading alongside each other.
- Repetition. It’s simple and boring, but finding the misconception and being almost relentless in helping them practice the correct pronunciation can still work. It’s no fun for anyone involved, though