What are Minimal Pairs and How to Use Them
Minimal pairs are a teriffic way to teach children awareness of sounds and helps them to see that changing one sound in a word can completely change what they are saying. Minimal pairs are words that differ by only one sound such as “Wing”/”Swing”, “Rake”/”Wake” and “Can”/”Tan”. I often encourage parents to use them when practicing with their children.
To use minimal pairs you first need to find the right set of pairs. The first word in the pair should be the error that your child is making. The second word would be how to say the word correctly. For example if your child says a “D” sound for “G” you would want to use word pairs such as “Deer”/”Gear”.
If you search for minimal pairs you will find many lists. One great source is Caroline Bowen’s site. She has lists of minimal pairs that compare every possible sound combination. Find the pairs that you need and find pictures that go with each. If you search for something like “minimal pair pictures for ___ and ___” you should find what you need.
You can use these pairs in many ways. If your child isn’t ready to practice saying the sound or repeat back words yet they are a great way to increase awareness. Simply play a speech game but you say the words and have your child listen. Here are some Games to Play When Working on Speech Sounds. When you use the pairs you would always want to say the word that shows the “error” and then say the word that “fixes” it. For example if you are working on S clusters you would say “Tar” and then say “Star”. Using a hand gesture that goes with the correct way to say the word will make your child even more aware. Here are Gestures for Speech Sounds.
If your child is ready try a matching game. Copy two sets of minimal pairs and cut one apart. Give you child the picture that shows the error, say the word, and have your child match it to the other picture. Then do this with the card that “fixes” the error.
When your child is able to start practicing saying the sounds use the minimal pairs as your practice words. Have your child say the error word once and then say the fixing word at least five times. If your child makes a mistake you can show them what you heard. “Opps, I heard “tan” that is this word. You were trying to say “can”. Try again.” This simple task of saying a word and then “fixing” it so incredibly powerful. You child gets to control what they are saying and learns the importance of every sound they say.
A bit more of a challenge would be to have your child sort out the pictures. Cut the cards apart and mix them up. Pulling them out of a bag makes it fun. Make one pile that has all of the “errors” and another that has all of the “fixes”. Have your child say the words as he pulls them out. You can also do this a puzzle where you try to find the pairs that go together.
Another fun way to use minimal pairs is to play memory. Cut the pairs apart and turn them upside down. Take turns looking for the pairs. Once you find a pair say each word. Be careful to not play too many games where the pairs are cut apart. The power of minimal pairs is in contrasting one word with another.