The Key: Working with Minimal Pairs
A great way to fix problems with English pronunciation is to work with minimal pairs. A minimal pair is two words that differ only by one sound, such as she/see or berry/very.
Step 1: Choose the correct minimal pair list
Listen to your students speak and isolate their problem(s). If they are Japanese, they will most likely have problems with /r/ & /l/, /s/ & /ʃ/ (sh), /b/ & /v/, etc. Koreans will have problems with /z/ & /j/, /s/ & /ʃ/, and Spanish speakers with /j/ & /y/, etc. Each group will its own problems related to their first language. For a list of problems per language group, take a look at this PDF.
Once you’ve isolated the problem, find a list of minimal pairs by googling “minimal pairs /s/ /sh/” for example. This website by Caroline Bowen also has a great list of minimal pairs. Here is a minimal pair list for /r/ & /l/ that we can work with as an example:
For the sake of the student, it’s beneficial to choose words that have the target sound in the beginning, middle, and end of the paired words.
Step 2: Teach mouth positioning
This can be done in several ways:
- opening wide and showing the students how your mouth moves
- drawing a mouth on the blackboard and showing the tongue/mouth/lips position
- with the hands: using one hand to represent the upper jaw, and the lower hand to represent the tongue
Mirrors can also be useful when teaching pronunciation so students can contrast how they are moving their mouths to how they should.
Also, pay attention to whether the sound you are focusing on is voiced (using the vocal chords) or not. For example, with the /f/ and /v/ distinction, you should notice that if you place your hand on your throat and say “fa”, there is no vibration. However, if you say “va”, you can feel the vocal chords moving. This means /v/ is a voiced consonant, while /f/ is not. If you are teaching a voiced sound, have your students place their hands on their throats so they can feel the movement.
Step 3: Ensure students can distinguish difference in sounds
With the minimal pair list on the blackboard, say one of the words (‘arrive’ for example). Have your students tell you whether the word you uttered is on the left or right column.
Step 4: Have students practice in pairs
Using a handout or the blackboard, have the students do the same thing in pairs. One should will say a word on the sheet, and the other must indicate (by pointing or verbally) which word was said.
Telephone Number Activity for Pronunciation
Next, number ten words in the minimal pair list on the blackboard from 0-9 like this:
Instruct students to relay their telephone number to their partner using the above code. For example, if their phone number were 212-7898, they would say “arrive alive arrive, light right lair right”. The other student should listen and write down the number they hear.
This is a fun activity. When students have had a chance to do it once or twice, pick one or two students to do it in front of the whole class.
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From start to finish, this pronunciation lesson plan will take from 30-45 minutes, depending on your pace. A lesson plan like this is great to clear up pronunciation problems. However, if you are teaching students over a longer period of time, I wound recommend routine pronunciation practice (e.g. 5-10 minutes per class with tongue twisters or minimal pairs) instead of occasional longer lessons such as these. Students need regular practice so their mouth/tongue/other muscles can become accustomed to articulating a new sound.
Do you know any other good pronunciation activities? If so, please share them below.
– Matthew Barton / Creator: Englishcurrent.com