Minimalist Minimal Pairs: /ɪ/ vs. /i/ and /s/ vs. /ʃ/ vs. /tʃ/ English Pronunciation Class. For small groups of any age, any level!

27 02 2013

I write three words on the board:


The students tend to snicker, recognizing these as problem words. They often try to pronounce one or all of the terms. I give them a moment to consider the words, then point to SHEEP.

“What’s this?”
“And this?”
“And this?
—“Ni idea.
Sorbo. Sorbito.” (mime it and make slurping noise)
— [giggle giggle]

“Ok. Oveja, barco, sorbo. Can anyone say all three?”
Someone inevitably tries, and all three come out as “tscheep.”

I move to SHEEP.
“This one is easy.”
I point to EE and write i in quotation marks on the board.
“In Spanish, the i makes an EEEEEEE sound. In English, the EE makes an EEEEEEE sound. Exactly the same. Say it.”
I point to the SH.
“This is [put finger to lips, look angry] SHHHHHHHH, like be quiet! SHHHHHHHH. Say it.”
“Good. Your lips come out [turn to profile view so they can see lip position] and you use air. SHHHHHHH.”
“Good. So! SHHHHHHH. EEEEEEEE. P. [big pop of air here] SHEEP. SHEEP. Say it.”

I move to SHIP.
“This one is a little difficult.”
I point to the SH.
“This is also [put finger to lips, look angry] SHHHHHHHH, like be quiet! SHHHHHHHH. Say it.”
I point to I.
“But this sound [pause for dramatic effect]. This sound does not exist in Spanish! I am sorry. [wring hands, look faux repentant]”
“This sound is IHHHHHHH, in the back of the throat [point to location on self]. IHHHHHH. IHHHHHH. Say it.”
“Good! It’s weird, no? SHEEP is EEEEEEE, this is IHHHHHH.”
“Very good. So! SHHHHHHH. IHHHHHH. P. SHIP. SHIP. Say it.”

I move to SIP.
“This one is the most difficult.”
I point to the IP.
“This is also IHHHHHHH, then P. IHHHHHHP.”
I point to S.
“But this sound is SSSSSSSS, like a snake. SSSSSSS. It is clean. SHIP and SHEEP use SHHHHHHH, be quiet! But this one is SSSSSS. Say it.”
“Good! You bring your lips back [turn to profile view so they can see] and SSSSSS, like a snake. See? It’s not SHHHHHH, be quiet! It’s SSSSSSS.”
“Nice. So! SSSSSSS. IHHHHHH. P. SIP. SIP. Say it.”

I point to a strong student.
“Your turn. Say it.”
I point to SIP.
I work through all three words together with each student in turn, me correcting anything that goes awry, reminding them of snake versus be quiet! and familiar EEEEEE versus weird IHHHHHH.

“Nice work. Now, I’m going to make your lives more complicated.”
I write CHIP under SHIP and CHEAP under SHEEP.
I point to CHEAP.
“What’s this?”
“And this?
—“Patata frita.”
“Okay. How do you say this? [point to CHEAP]”
—“CHEAP.” (typically they get it right)
“Correct – EEEEEE like SHEEP. And this?”
—“CHIP.” (accuracy depending on level of group here)
“Nice – IHHHHH like SHIP.”

“So! Sorbo, barco, patata frita, oveja, barato. Very different! But we say SIP, SHIP, CHIP, SHEEP, CHEAP. It’s important to say them correctly!”

“Okay. Everyone needs a sheet of paper.”
“Please tear it into six pieces. They do not need to be equal.”
I wait for the first to finish while being astounded at how little spacial reasoning some of my students have.
“Write the all of words big [huge hand gesture] on the papers. [draw a diagram on the board if the level’s really low]”

I wait for most everyone to be done.
“Okay, here’s the game. I say a word, and you hold it up [exaggerated gesture here]. Easy. Ready?”
“The first word is…… SHIP. [this can come out more as SHHHHHIIIIIIP if needed per the group level]”
Tell students YES or NO as they come up with answers.

As I go through the words, it becomes quickly apparent which students have problems with which phonemes. After a run through all the words with a few repeating, I pick a strong student and beckon them to the front of the class, indicating that they should bring their papers.

As soon as they get to the front next to me, I take a step back.
“Your turn.”
It’s normal for them to be slightly taken aback, but they tend to recover quickly and understand the game. Because they have the cards in their hand, I’m able to correct their pronunciation as they try out each word. They love correcting their class members as answers are offered.

Each student runs through all the words and one extra – I make them repeat whichever sound they have the most difficulty with (frequently the SSSSSSSS of SIP). This means everyone gets many, many chances to hear the differences between all five minimal pairs.

I’m continually surprised by how well some of my very low-level students take to this activity, as well as how much difficulty some of my upper-level students have with it. It offers students who have trouble in English a possibility to seriously shine. Those students who think they’re all that also get knocked down a few pegs, reminded that they still have plenty to refine.

The approach seems ultra-simple almost to the point of childishness, but students across the board seem to love it. I hear a lot of murmured “este juego mola” comments, and one older girl who struggles with English even directly commented (in Spanish) that this seemed so much more practical than what they studied in their regular class. She asked if she could come with me every day. I beamed.

I follow up the students-as-teachers part by complimenting the whole class.
“Nice work. This is very difficult, but it is important. If you say SHEEP when you mean SHIP, oveja cuando quieres decir barco, you sound stupid. [that twisty finger to the skull gesture here, which gets the point across]”
“If I say I went from Valencia to Mallorca in a SHEEP, I sound stupid! [very limited giggles here] That’s like saying Fui desde Valencia a Mallorca en una oveja. [giggles erupt] Stupid, no? I want you to say these correctly. Pronunciation is important.”


This bit drives home the “Pronunciation is important” point even further, and for students in 1º Bachillerato and above, I think it’s appropriate. They already know these words and toss them around anyway; it’s time they learned how to do it correctly.

“When I say SHEEP and I mean SHIP, it is stupid, but it is innocuous.”
Write INNOCUOUS on the board.
“Do you know the word INNOCUOUS?” [no one ever does]
“It is the same as the Spanish word inocuo. Do you know that one?” [they tend to have heard of it but not know the definition]
“It’s like innocent. It doesn’t hurt or offend anyone. When you mistake SHEEP for SHIP, it is innocuous – no one will be offended.”
“But, be careful! Not all pairs are innocuous. I think you already know them.”

Occasionally a student will get it and spontaneously offer “BEACH” here; if not, prompting them with a written B under SHEEP and CHEAP does the trick.
“That’s right, BEACH. EEEEEE like SHEEP and CHEAP. What does BEACH mean?”
“Yes. It’s not funny when I say that Spain has beauuuuutiful beaches! [students practically pee their pants laughing here] To me, a native speaker, that sentence sounds normal. The Spanish beaches are beautiful! It’s true. But…”
I write BITCH under SHIP and CHIP.
“If I use the IHHHHHH sound, it’s BITCH. Puta, right? You don’t want to make this mistake – it is not innocuous.”

“Can anyone think of another dangerous pair?” [they usually can’t until prompted with a written SH]
I write SHEET under SHEEP, CHEAP, and BEACH.
“What’s SHEET?” [sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they guess “mierda,” which is exactly my point]
SHEET means hoja, like hoja de papel, or sábana, like on my bed. It’s not funny to say that I have beautiful sheets on my bed! [laffo]”
I write SHIT underneath SHIP, CHIP, and BITCH.
“But as soon as we use IHHHHHH, it becomes, well, mierda. Not innocuous!”
“You can remember that the ‘good’ words – BEACH and SHEET – use the EEEEEEE sound, like SHEEP and CHEAP. The dangerous words use IHHHHHH.”
“Got it? Good. Hmmmmmm, better erase this.”
I make a big show of looking paranoid outside of the classroom and erasing the curse words from the board. The students eat it up.

By the way, after nearly three years of adherence, I’ve decided to flout the the “STRICTLY ENGLISH ONLY EVER DON’T EVEN UTTER AN HOLA” rules. Teaching has become infinitely more effective when I refer to the Spanish equivalents of things. I’m simply not with these students enough to create the “immersion effect,” and I waste far too much time trying to get them to follow simple instructions to engage with a perfectly decent activity because they don’t understand how to play. I use 99% English. The 1% Spanish facilitates learning in an environment with serious restrictions of both material and temporal resources, y punto.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s experience with this.