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Minimal Pairs

  • Minimal Pairs

Since 2005, VESL (the Volunteer ESL Tutor Training Project) has supported the professional development of volunteer ELL tutors throughout the city of Calgary. The project is funded by Calgary Learns and is the collaborative effort of three Calgary ELL service providers with long standing volunteer programs: Bow Valley College, the Calgary Public Library, and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. 

The following blog post was written by Charlotte Beaubier, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. This blog post is a follow-up to the pronunciation workshop that Charlotte planned and facilitated for volunteers in the spring of 2016. 

Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ by only one sound, for example sheep and ship or meet and met. They are considered to be a staple in the teaching of pronunciation. They are most commonly used to show a contrast between two similar sounds to help a learner distinguish between hearing and pronouncing the two sounds. Aside from just saying them, what are some other possible activities that you can use them for?

Minimal Pair Activities

Here is an extensive list of minimal pairs to help you plan these activities.

Fill in the blank

You can use them in ambiguous fill in the blank sentences that the listener will have to listen carefully and choose the correct word. For example: I need to buy a new _________________ at the store.  pin/bin


Bingo is another popular activity using minimal pairs. Just fill in the squares with words from a minimal pair list. As learners hear the words, they will cross them off until they get a line.


You can also make dialogues using the words from the list and have the learners practice saying them. Alternately, higher level learners can create and practice their own dialogues using the words.

Three words

Another possible activity is that you can give three words and see which one doesn’t belong. Have them listen to you say three words and then circle the word with the different vowel sound. For example: heat/hit/meet  or  bot/boot/caught

Go Fish

Finally why not play the card game Go Fish? This will take a little prep, but if you do it once you can use it a lot in the future.

  • Make cards with a word from the minimal pair list on each card.
  • Make about 30 or 40 cards depending on how many people are playing.
  • Give each person five cards and then put the rest in the middle mixed up.
  • When it is your turn, you will ask someone if they have a card that is the minimal pair of one of your cards. For example, "Do you have the minimal pair for ship?"
  • If they have it, they will give it to you. If not, you will take one from pile on the table.
  • Once you have no cards left, you win!