Word match – a minimal pairs game for teaching pronunciation

minimal pairs gameThe aim of this minimal pairs game is to get learners to notice problems they have with different but similar vowel and consonant sounds and to practise reproducing the correct sound.

Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in only one phonological element, for example, a vowel change such as in bed and bad or a consonant change such as bad and bat. Because every language uses different sets of phonological elements, learners often have difficulty hearing and/or pronouncing certain unfamiliar sounds.

To give some examples, German speakers often have a problem distinguishing the words bad and bed due to the absence of the /ʌ/ vowel sound in their own language. Similarly, a native Spanish speaker might have problems distinguishing the words yolk and joke because the letter J has the same consonant sound as the letter Y in the Spanish alphabet. Therefore, for this minimal pairs activity try and find groups and pairs of words that your students tend to have a particular problem with.

There is a list of common pronunciation problems by nationality listed at the bottom of the page.

Stage 1

Choose four or five similar minimal pairs and write them on the board in two columns, for example:

1
heat
sheep
beat
seat
2
hit
ship
bit
sit

Say one of the words from the board and have the students tell you whether you gave them a word from column 1 or column 2. Repeat this a few times and then have students do the same in pairs.

Stage 2

You will need a set of around 20 cards that contain examples of minimal pairs that you wish to practise (or you can use one of the card sets provided below).

Put students into pairs. Each pair will need their own complete sets of cards. They will also need to set up a barrier between them so they can lay out their cards without the other student seeing them. A course book propped up on the table will usually do the job.

The first student chooses eight cards from their set and lays them out on the table behind the barrier, the other student should spread out their cards on the desk so he or she can see them all. The leading partner now clearly speaks (and repeats if necessary) each of their chosen words and the listening partner attempts to lay their matching card. After all 8 cards have been laid, remove the barrier and see whether the listening student has managed to match all of the speaker’s cards correctly.

It’s a good idea to rotate pairs so that students are exposed to different speakers. You could also do this activity in groups of four with a pair on each side of the barrier.

Printable minimal pair cards

minimal pairs – vowels
minimal pairs – consonants
minimal pairs – consonant clusters

Alternative paperless minimal pairs activity

You can play a version of this minimal pairs game even if you aren’t able to cut out all the cards needed. Instead, copy the words from a set of minimal pairs onto the whiteboard and go through their pronunciation with the class, drilling where necessary. Now ask students to pick five words from the board and write them down in their notebooks. Students should now read their words either to the class or to a partner. The listeners should write down which words they hear. After the words have been given and repeated if necessary the listener(s) compare their lists with the original list. Or the teacher can write their own list of perceived words on the board to compare with the student’s list.

Quick tip

Students can use the Google voice recognition feature of their smartphones to check their pronunciation at home. Give the students a short phrase which they have to practise until Google can recognise it correctly. For example, the pet cat sat on the red rat.

Additional activities

As an additional activity, you could have pairs or groups of students make up a story or dialogue using the words from the cards. Or they could create simple tongue twisters to challenge their classmates with.

 

Common pronunciation problems for different language learners

English language learners of different backgrounds may have problems differentiating some of the following vowel and consonant sounds.

Arabic

Vowels
Consonants

Chinese

Vowels
Consonants

French

Vowels
Consonants

German

Vowels
Consonants

Indian

Vowels
Consonants

Italian

Vowels
Consonants

Japanese

Vowels
Consonants

Korean

Vowels
Consonants

Russian

Vowels
Consonants

Spanish

Vowels
Consonants

Thai

Vowels
Consonants

 


Turkish

Vowels
Consonants

Vietnamese

Vowels
Consonants

See this Wikipedia article for further information on common English learner pronunciation problems by nationality.

5 thoughts on “Word match – a minimal pairs game for teaching pronunciation

  1. Thank you for some great ideas for my Adult ESL class. I had to adapt some for USA and multilevel, but they work!

All feedback is welcome!