Minimal pairs pronunciation game helps students practice minimal pairs of vowels in a playful way. Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in one phoneme and have distinct meanings. This game helps practice minimal pairs that differ in the vowel sound: /ɪ / vs. /i:/, colloquially known as “short” and “long” “i”.
The fact that vowels in English have duration which may affect the meaning of words comes to many students as a surprise, mostly for those who can’t observe a similar tendency in their mother languages (such as Polish or Spanish). Practicing the pronunciation of long and short vowels is basically what helps your students avoid confusing such lovely minimal pairs as shit and sheet or bitch and beach. Before moving to the more colourful language, you may practice minimal pairs using plenty of other examples, which makes this game suitable for both teenage and adult students, levels elementary and above.
Step 1 Demonstrate the sounds
Start with the riddles. You might blow the image up on the board or distribute worksheets among your students. If you choose the first option, make sure you display one at a time. The minimal pairs you want to elicit are:
sheep – ship
bean – bin
heel – hill
cheap – chip (the riddle calls for plural chips, so once you have it ask your students for the singular form).
You might help your students giving them the first letter of each minimal pair. Don’t waste too much time eliciting the words if you notice students don’t know them (depending on the level heel might be problematic). It is a pronunciation game, not a vocabulary one. The words are there to provide you the material to work with later.
As you go through the riddles, your students will start noticing how similar the words sound, but they are spelled differently and have different meanings ( younger teenagers are especially quick to notice the sounds). Once you complete the riddles, show the second visual, where each word is underlined with a different line; long for long vowels, short for short ones.
Drill the pronunciation, making your students repeat the minimal pairs. Then, say one word from the pair and ask your students to identify whether it is RED (long vowel) or BLUE (short). As your students gain confidence, increase the pace at which you say the words and mix the order. Both kids and adults tend to get in the chanting zone and the element of surprise helps you check whether they are just automatically responding or really hear the difference.
With adult students, it might be a good moment to mention the shit vs. sheet situation to show them that pronunciation really makes a difference, which they usually really appreciate 😉
Step 2 Play the game
Now, it is game time. Once again, you have two options: the image on the board for everybody to see, or worksheets for students. I usually go with both; a trial run for everybody looking at the board, and then a couple more rounds with students using their individual worksheets.
- Have the list of minimal pairs ready on the board, long vowels on the left, short on the right.
- Tell your students that they need to listen to the words you say and choose the right direction to go in.
- If they hear a long vowel, they need to turn left, if they hear a short vowel, they need to turn right.
- There are 4 stations at which they have to make a choice ( START and these numbered 1-3).
- At the end of each round see where your students end up (letter A-P).
Start the game on the board first. Say the number and the word, wait for your students to tell you which direction to turn, make sure they hear the sound correctly, and move along the grid:
START: chip – short vowel – turn right
Number 1: hill – short vowel – turn right
Number 2: sheep – long vowel – turn left
Number 3: bin – short vowel – turn right
the letter you should be at is … N, am I right?
Depending on how confident your students feel you might play another round on the board or distribute the worksheets.
Once your students receive the worksheets ask a volunteer to guide the group through the grid as you did before. It is time for your students to practice the sounds by producing them. Some adult learners might be less eager to practice in front of their peers, so don’t spare encouragement and some pep. The student who says the words should be tracing their own route on the grid so that they know for sure where they are leading the group. The teacher should do the same, but according to what they hear. At the end of the round, see where the group have arrived. Play a couple of rounds with different students saying the words and guiding the group. Alternatively, for bigger groups, students might play in pairs.
To follow up, you might ask your students to write sentences / phrases using minimal pairs and then say them out loud paying attention to the pronunciation. Have some examples ready:
- A ship full of sheep.
- Put the bean in the bin.
- Don’t wear heels to climb hills.
- That’s a cheap potato chip (ok, might not be the most correct grammatically, I admit 🙂 )
This game is a brilliant alternative to the pronunciation section of any coursebook. I have been using it with all my adult groups (elementary and above) and kids aged 11 and older. The grid which I present here is pretty basic and allows the use of just 4 minimal pairs. It might be a good place to start for lower-level groups, but for those more advanced ones I usually draw a more elaborate grid on the board (for up to 6 minimal pairs, more than that gets too confusing) which they can trace in their notebooks. You might substitute the letters with anything: food items, animals, cities, colours etc.
This concept might be adapted to practice other kinds of minimal pairs. For Polish speakers, I especially recommend minimal pairs that contrast f and th such as: free/ three, fought / thought, fin / thin. Spanishspeakers will surely benefit from practicing the difference between v and b: vet / bet, very / berry, vote / boat etc.
This game combines passive listening and active pronunciation practice and, most importantly, gives your students THE REASON to practice: they need to arrive at some destination.
Riddles and solutions: MINIMAL PAIRS RIDDLES
Game: MINIMAL PAIRS GRID