M is for Minimal pairs

8 10 2017

The story of the Australian pig farmer whose livestock were decimated by floods has been circulating on the Internet recently. A reporter misheard him say that ‘Thirty thousand pigs were floating down the river’, and reported it as such. In fact, what he had said was: ‘Thirty sows and pigs…’.  A nice example of how a minimal pair mistake can cause problems even among native speakers.

Just to remind you, here’s how minimal pairs are defined in The New A-Z of ELT:

A minimal pair is a pair of words which differ in meaning when only one sound (one phoneme) is changed. Pair and bear are minimal pairs, since their difference in meaning depends on the different pronunciation of their first sound: p versus b. However, pair and pear are not minimal pairs, since, although they differ in meaning, they are pronounced the same. Minimal pairs are widely used in pronunciation teaching to help learners discriminate between sound contrasts, particularly those that don’t exist in their L1, for the purposes of both recognition and production.

On the MA course I teach for The New School, I set the students a task in which they describe how they might exploit this kind of minimal pairs activity (from Baker 2006):

ship or sheep 2006

Here’s my feedback on the task:

As I suggest, such activities may have limited usefulness. Indeed, does anyone still do them?


Baker, A. (2006) Ship or sheep? (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




37 responses

8 10 2017
Chris Ożóg

Interesting as ever, Scott – thanks for writing/speaking. Your final line wondering if anyone still does such activities chimed with me. I was helping a trainer just last week as she looked for minimal pairs activities in various coursebooks to demonstrate these to our CELTA group. After 15mins of trying, we gave up and went to Ship and Sheep. This is hardly scientific and I probably won’t seek to publish these findings, but the lack of MPs activities suggests they’re out of fashion.

I myself, on the other hand, do use them in my teaching when a pronunciation issue causes intelligibility problems. I teach in Japan and just last month had a class in which the pair /ʃiː/ and /siː/ came up (I know these are syllables, rather than individual phonemes, but that’s how Japanese works – L1 Japanese speakers can say both /s/ and /ʃ/ but struggle with /siː/ as to my knowledge it doesn’t exist in Japanese). I can’t remember the exact word that caused the breakdown now, but it will have been something like “sheet” vs “seat”. Anyway, I noted it and made up my MPs list before looking at it at the later in the class, first as recognition, then as the learners producing for me, then for each other (so pretty much the classic procedure your video describes).

So, how useful was this? At the very least, the class now know that /siː/ and /ʃiː/ are different in English. With a couple of the group, there was a discernible improvement in both recognition and production. With a couple of others, recognition seemed to improve and production with serious concentration. And with the remaining three or four, it seemed to make no difference at all. This is another not exactly scientific account here, but if it made a difference for a couple in one lesson, then you’d think that with focus and revision over a series, there would be greater improvement.

9 10 2017
Vera N

Chris, I agree. Whenever I teach my students minimal pairs in class, it works ok. However later I notice they keep on making the same mistakes in pronunciation. And I can understand them thanks to the context. So I don’t really feel the necessity of this kind of drilling.

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris, for that interesting comment. I suspect that one reason (global) coursebooks don’t include much in the way of MPs activities is because the problems learners have tend to be specific to particular language groups: your Japanese /s/ and /ʃ/ issue being a case in point.

Incidentally, you mention ‘making up your own MP list’: I wonder if you’re aware of this compendium of ALL the minimal pairs in RP:


Higgins lists 219 /s/ and /ʃ/ pairs, although only a few of these are /si:/ and /ʃi:/, sealed and shield being one of the less useful perhaps!

8 10 2017

hi Scott
i agree that in class uses are limited (though i think the graphics Mark Hancock has produced can be nice intros to students), the real benefits are for students to train themselves to discriminate phonemes, one of the the programs – Minimal Bears – i mentioned in this post [https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2016/01/20/hvpt-or-minimal-pairs-on-steroids/] is slowly being worked on, you can see current development here [http://www.minimalbears.com/]; the crowd sourcing record feature looks great

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mura – I checked out Minimal Bears (always been my plan to write a book or app called Minimal Peers, since the pairs/peers distinction has largely collapsed in NZ English – the collapse happening after I left, such that when I go back I am always somewhat disconcerted to hear flights for Ear New Zealand being announced.)

And I used the crowdsourcing feature (on Minimal Bears) to record examples of my own (now outdated) accent. 😉

9 10 2017

hehe : )

8 10 2017

Hi Scott and Chris,

The minimal pairs exercise alone is basically lip service without actual knowledge and ongoing practice with producing target phonemes in isolation, in words and then in a (short) bit of connected speech. A lot of the time learners know the phonemes *are* different; they don’t always know *how* they are different.

So, yes, I use minimal pairs on the fly on Focus on Form activities, but in the above sequence, with sagittal adiagrams (cross sections of the vocal tract) to help.



9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Marc – I tend to agree although sagittal diagrams only real help with the consonants, don’t you find? There used to be a great site whch had sagittal animations, but now you have to buy the app – it’s still good value, in my opinion:


9 10 2017

Thanks Scott. The sagittal diagrams are OK-ish with diphthongs, I find. For monophthongs just simple feedback – more spread/round/closed/open, and tongue back/forward does wonders. I like that site, but out of necessity use chalk.

Thanks a lot!

8 10 2017

In my own experience as a language learner I have found that minimal pairs practice has no discernable effect on my normal speaking, but does mean that I can say the sound when I concentrate, for example when I know the next word could cause communication problems in the context or when I see confusion and try to repeat more clearly. More importantly, as with pronunciation practice generally, I really feel that minimal pairs practice, including oral practice, helps with listening comprehension.

When it comes to Ship or Sheep itself, I would say that it is still useful (and often better than the similar exercises in the old Headway Pronunciation books, which I think might disappeared, if so proving Chris’s point about unfashionability). However, there are often higher frequency pairs available. And obviously there are lots of different possible activities such as pairwork where they pronounce two homophones or minimal pairs from Student A and Student B worksheets and then try to work out which it was, or running and touching two walls with the phonemic symbols on them in young learner classes.

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Alex. Another activity included in some materials is the maze that the learner has to navigate according to whether they hear ship or sheep etc, choosing the appropriate next step in the labyrinth.

8 10 2017
James Chamberlain

Thanks, Scott, for taking me back down memory lane: I first encountered Ship or Sheep while doing my RSA Certificate back in 1987. I used the concept of minimal pairs frequently with beginners at first, and although the students enjoyed the game-like character of many of the exercises, I was never able to achieve any long-lasting improvement in my students’ pronunciation through them.

I abandoned using minimal pairs entirely after reading Adam Brown’s critique of them in the ELT Journal (Volume 49, Issue 2, 1 April 1995, Pages 169–175). Here’s his conclusion from that article:

“Minimal pairs immediately spring to most teachers’ (and students’) minds when the topic of pronunciation is raised. However, important though they are, they should not be overemphasized at the expense of other aspects of pronunciation, such as stress, rhythm, intonation, and voice quality.

Where pronunciation is concerned, locally-produced materials covering problem areas for specific students are generally more relevant than all-purpose international drill books.” (p. 174)

Nowadays I mostly teach learners at level B2 and upwards, and many of them are quite motivated to eradicate some of their fossilized pronunciation inaccuracies. So to answer your closing question: No, I don’t use them anymore, but I’m starting to think that I should.

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James – and thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Brown article – perhaps I should add this to the reading list for the MA I teach. Mind you, I think the ‘minimal pair’ principle, when applied to ‘higher’ levels of processing, i.e. intonation, sentence stress, even grammar, works well to sensitize learners to differences that might not be expressed the same way in their L1. E.g. asking students to choose the appropriate continuation of these utterances:

I’m not taking Pat to the dance.
I’m not taking Pat to the dance.

Where the continuations are

a. I’m taking him to the cinema.
b. I’m taking Kim to the dance.

8 10 2017
Danny Woodruffe

I find Russians can’t say /w/ and Thais can’t say /v/ and I have both in my classes in Pattaya. I find minimal pairs useful when Russian-Thai student pairs have to ask each other for minimal pairs, as in, “please pass me the veal”….”what? This wheel? You need to see the pictures:

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Danny: yes, I think a lot of fun can be had with TPR-type games involving illustrations of minimal pairs, e.g. stick the whale on the board. Put the veal next to it. Give Iwan the van, and so on. How communicative this is anyone’s guess!

8 10 2017
Heidi A. Karow

I’m teaching lower level students, who need support to develop literacy.

In addition to grasping A-B-C phonics, they also need to hear how these letters produce sounds that sometimes are very similar… and eventually say them correctly.

I definitely incorporate acvtivities and demos to distinguish some minimal pairs. Most of my current students are originally from Syria, almost all speaking Arabic at home.

I do things active like play a game with teams competing to correctly hear the phoneme as I randomly say one word or another. Did the teacher say “pig” or “big”? Then they toss a ball into the appropriate labelled bin. This is followed by cheers or groans each time.

Incidentally, when I was a Kindergartner I was sent for speech therapy (1967) because I couldn’t distinguish “ch” from “sh” apparently. I guess I had picked up a bit of a German accent from my parents. In retrospect, I’ve often wondered about the need for this intervention. (I’m sure I didn’t sound like Lawrence Welk!)

In general, however, an awareness of the need to distinguish minimal pairs is a good idea. Sometimes this really can lead to significant miscommunication. I have one student who, consistently, still keeps confusing “p” and “b”. So, with this gentleman, there are many opportunities to teach minimal pairs (at least with “p/b”) in context and he does need extra, ongoing help.

12 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Heidi – I love the ball-throwing idea! With regard to teaching phonics (which is the teaching of sound-spelling relationships as a preliminary to developing reading and writing skills) I’d want to distinguish this from teaching phonemics, which is training learners to hear and produce sound differences that impact on meaning – i.e. it’s a listening and speaking skill. When you are teaching phonics, you assume that learners have these distinctions in place: they know the difference between mouse and mouth, but they don’t know how to spell it.

8 10 2017
Tony Penston

I have used the ‘flyswatters’ game to good effect (adapted from Pfanner, N. ‘Kill the words’ Voices 246 2015). Minimal pairs on separate cards are mounted on the wall (in random positions) and two students (one from each team) endeavour to ‘swat’ the correct word/phrase when heard from the teacher. This doesn’t include production of course, for which I have drilled minimal pair lists, minimally, and used other activities such as role play in the main.

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tony – sounds like a lot of fun!

9 10 2017

Hello Scott !
I have always been a fan of Ann Baker’s “Ship or Sheep”series ! I acknowledge my debt to these books and a lot of other ELT books from the British Library that have contributed to my teaching over the years.
Glad to read what different teachers do with minimal pairs . After finding minimal pairs helpful for students, I used some exercises for a teacher’s workshop too.

Giving some slides below : (Unfortunately only the plain text is visible here. Can anyone suggest how to preserve the original italics, bold, varied colour scheme from my ppt on this site ?)

1a) Read the sentences:
i)Do you have a pen ?
ii)Name the latest trend among students.
iii)Wait a moment for the ink to dry.
iv)How was the test ? There was no paper .

IDENTIFICATION of problem of pronunciation Pure vowel vs dipthong: ɛ /ei/
Demonstration of accepted pronunciation
A: Do you have a pen ? (*/p e…e n/(pen /pain) ?
B: (Confused : No reply)
A: ??? (ACTION)
B: Oh /pɛn/ pen ? Here !
(write ‘M’/ɛm/ not ‘aim/eim / on the edge /ɛdʒ /, not age/eidʒ of the form)

Pronunciation of letters of the English Alphabet with /ei/
A = [eɪ], H = [eɪtʃ], J = [dʒeɪ], K = [keɪ]
Substituting with short vowel leads to misinterpretation
Etch [etʃ] (word) vs Letter H = [eɪtʃ]
With ɛ Pronunciation
word with
corresponding dipthong Pronunciation
L [ɛl] ail [ɛil]
M [ɛm] aim [ɛim]
S [ɛs] ace [ɛis]
X [ɛks] aches [ɛiks]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

1b) Short vowel vs Long vowel /i//i:/
Read out the following sentences once with the first word in bold, then using the alternative bold word:
q)He isn’t going to live/ leave.
r)Try not to slip/sleep.
s)How are you filling / feelingtoday ?
(Follow up with Practice of numbers from 13 to 20 to tell the time/dates)

Practice Test: Read the dialogue
A: How many chairs do you need here ?
B: */sikstin/ (Sixteen / Sixty)
A: So many won’t fit in this room !
B: But last time we arranged 2 rows of 10 each comfortably in this room.
A: But this time you’re asking for 3 times more !
B: No I’m asking for less. Only Sixteen/ sixty
A: You mean/siksti:n/ sixteen ?
B: Yes………. 4 times 4 !
(Further Practice: Time tables of trains or flights)
1c)Confusing of Consonants /dʒ/ vs /ʒ/
A: The employees must get */lədʒɛ(r)/ ledger / leisure time to be effective.
B:But they are not getting into finance !
A: They must not get tired or stressed out. They need free time !
B: Do you mean */ləʒɛ(r)/ leisure ?
( My pleasure to check your major /meidʒər/ not measure /mɛʒər /needs.)
1d) Mispronunciation ( influence of spellings/mother-tongue)
Which month is suitable ?
J a n e w a r y */dʒa:nɛwəri/? dʒænjuəri (January)
A p r ei l ? /ˈeɪprəl/. (April)
No w h ember (November) nəʊˈvemb ə(r) noʊˈvembər ]
Practise giving birthdays of people.
• Mispronunciation of past tense verbs:
• They wanted /’w ɔntid/ (not /wɔnt eid/want aid) to help people.
The value added/ædəd/ (not /æd eid//add aid) benefit .

[Sulabha Sidhaye (India)]

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for sharing (shearing?), Sulabha. 😉

9 10 2017
Justin Willoughby

In my experience teaching in Madrid, I have given up on trying to get students to pronounce ‘cat’ and ‘cut’ differently. Mind you, I have had successes with other minimal pairs like ‘bear’ and ‘beer’ using recognition, discrimination and production activities.

9 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. Incidentally, Higgins has 100 bear/beer pairs (peers?) which makes me wonder why a regional variety like NZ English should choose to conflate the distinction (see response to Mura above).

9 10 2017
Justin Willoughby

I am not sure, but being Australian, I have been exposed to a lot of the accent through popular media and actual interactions and certain features of the accent have always stood out, including the one you mentioned. I think many people find it endearing and in fact it has become quite popular in Hollywood.

9 10 2017
Kyle Smith

For anyone keen to follow it up, I first heard about the ‘30,000 pigs’ story via this 2011 Mediawatch episode: http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3132383.htm

The full episode is well worth watching and available here: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/tv/mediawatch/mediawatch_2011_ep01.mp4

12 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kyle. I hadn’t realised the story had been around so long!

9 10 2017

Thousands of teachers still use them.

9 10 2017

Whether or not they bring about learning is a different matter. That said, the transition from the cognitive to the associative stage in skills acquisition requires abundant, focused, repetitive practice in a resticted environment. Minimal pairs (and other activities we love to hate, like tongue twisters), can actually provide this critical practice.

12 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Indeed, Robin. As a proponent of ELF, though, are you concerned that the kinds of phonemic differences that are focused on have very little impact on intelligibility? And/or they may have more impact on receptive rather than productive skills?

11 10 2017

Scott and readers of this blog, Greetings. This topic arrived dead on cue for me. [ I get to my question in about line 16] I’m a volunteer on Nick Bilbrough’s “Hands Up!” project and am currently tutoring a parent-teacher plus 13-year-old child once a week via ZOOM. I was asked to help with the child’s pronunciation and although realising, of course, that BED/BATH, TIN/TEN, SIT/SH….. [ a mistake a private, pupil, a professor from South Korea used to make habitually] would not get us very far I did, for quick diagnosis, use some of Peter MacCarthy’s Practice Book of English Speech, OUP ,1945 glorious, mainly one- phoneme- per- sentence examples like: “The cook took a good look at the pudding and put sugar on it.” “The noise of the boys’ voices annoyed the employer.” “Fit six thin bricks into this big tin lid.” “My head got better when I went to bed at ten instead of eleven.” [I must try that.] “Tuesday’s too soon to move the new music stool into the school.” “Without a doubt you’ll get soused by a shower if you go out now.”[ Soused?] “It appears that he got the queer idea that the beer was inferior.”


My serious question is: *QUESTION* How would you recommend I go about helping this thirteen-year-old to improve their “pronunciation” – where the inverted commas signal awareness that more is involved than satisfactorily performing comprehensible phonemic distinctions – though, how would you recommend going about that, too? , Dennis

12 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Big question, Dennis. I was hoping someone else (like Robin Walker!) would wade in. You’d first need to identify what the learner’s particular problems are – with regard to those features of his/her speech (his/her spontaneous speech, I would add) that impede intelligibility. Chances are these will be suprasegmental rather than segmental, i.e. issues of rhythm, prominence etc. But these may not be easily dealt with until the learner him/herself has a critical mass of words and grammar to achieve longish runs – i.e. fluency. You may also identify some segmentals (i.e. individual sounds) that are a barrier, and you could work on these using the kinds of tongue twisters you quote, as well as traditional minimal pairs activities, starting with ear-training followed by production. .

12 10 2017

Hi Scott and thank you for your post!

I heard a lot about minimal pairs during TEFL and CELTA courses since they’re an inevitable part of the curriculum. And I’ve actually used them once! I had a private student very keen on pronunciation and accuracy of speaking; she really wanted to pronounce all English sounds correctly so she appreciated drilling and minimal pairs.These kinds of activities are not communicative indeed but as you can see it depends on learners’ goal. I might use them again in class if all students struggle from mispronouncing some particular sounds. However, one thing you should really focus on is the cause. You can practice minimal pairs until your head starts buzzing but unless students can actually understand how the sound is pronounced they can give little help I think. In the case of that students I mentioned above I also used animated pronunciation pictures (or what should I call it) so that she could see the position of the tongue, etc. and fake it until she’d make it.

12 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Lina – for animated pronunciation pictures I totally recommend this app: http://soundsofspeech.uiowa.edu/index.html#english

12 10 2017
Alex Jara

Scott, I’ve been reading your posts for over a year and always find them useful and at times what you say triggers lots of thoughts in my head and they stay there until I go in the classroom or do some research. I have 11 years of experience, I rarely do/use minimal pair activities. I don’t like those activities, which are, in my opinion, ineffective and somewhat or absolutely pointless.

My students, coming from over 35 countries, rarely make mistakes like the ‘thousand pigs’ reporter. I take great pride in that, in them!

14 10 2017
J.J. Almagro

1989, travelling from Madrid to San Francisco. My friend and her parents picked me up at SFco airport, sort of starving after a long stop-over in NYC, straight to a diner, waitress approached, talked about specials and asked about our choice of soup or salad. I was so hungry I understood SUPER SALAD: “Yeah, the big one for me!”, I said. Family blushed and explained. Still teasing me after all these years.

Minimal chunks, Scott?

15 10 2017
Alex Jara


I think you’re talking about intonation here. ‘Soup, or salad? Starts with a rising tone and ends in a falling one / \.

17 10 2017
J.J. Almagro

Hi, Alex. Yeah, there’s an intonation angle here as well, but I was focusing on the segmental features instead, and got carried away with cooking up a new term: minimal chunks, homophone chunks (Am E)

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