By: Suzanne Moore, M.A., CCC-SLP
We know you want to help your child improve their speech! Here is a “cheat sheet” to help you use minimal pairs when you practice at home. Minimal pair intervention utilizes words that only differ by one sound or one “phoneme” to help children understand that speech sound errors they make change the meaning of the words they are trying to produce. For example, a student who consistently changes /l/ sounds to /w/ sounds would benefit from looking at picture cards that depict a light and white paint. As light and white sound exactly the same, with the exception of the first sound, they are minimal pair words.
The therapist might start by alternating between saying “light” and “white” and having the student point at the appropriate card. By doing this, they can see if the student can discriminate between the /l/ and /w/ sound in someone else’s speech. Next, the clinician could point at the cards in random order and see if the student can change between saying “light” and “white” to name the cards appropriately.
The best part about minimal pairs is that errors can actually be a great learning opportunity! If the child says, “white” when the clinician points to the “light,” the clinician might say, “I’m pointing to light, but you said white.” This process is a great way to help the student become more aware of their errors and how to fix them. As the intervention goes on, a confused facial expression from the clinician can be enough for the student to correct their errors. Some students will even learn to quickly self-correct their own errors when they realize the word they said matches a different card than the one they were actually trying to name.
When is minimal pair intervention used?
Minimal pair intervention is an appropriate intervention for students who have phonological disorders. It’s a great intervention for students with phonological disorders that can successfully produce or articulate most age-appropriate speech sounds, but they substitute one speech sound for another, delete necessary sounds, add unnecessary sounds, or delete parts of words (i.e. syllables). For these students, the most important part of speech therapy is helping them understand and be more aware of their errors. Minimal pairs is a perfect intervention in this case.
Minimal pairs is also a great technique for students who don’t mind when the clinician points out their speech errors. Many kids will laugh when their errors are pointed out in a comical way. E.g. “You use a bow to travel on the water!? I thought you were supposed to use a boat” However, some students become self-conscious when their errors are pointed out, no matter how gently it is done. In this case, another intervention technique might be used until the student can be more independently successful with minimal pairs. Children as young as preschoolers can benefit from minimal pair intervention.
This set of cards would be used for a student who deletes final consonant sounds in words.
How can parents become a “minimal pair therapist?”
Of course, parents don’t have an infinite set of minimal pair cards they can carry around and use to demonstrate every one of their child’s speech sound errors. However, parents can easily use the tenants of minimal pair therapy at home or on the go with their child! Feigned misunderstanding is a great strategy that parents can use to help children improve their understanding of how sounds combine together to make words (phonemic awareness). For example, for a child who changes /f/ sounds to /b/, a parent can “feign” misunderstanding when the child asks for “bood” instead of “food.” Instead of immediately getting the child what they ask for, the parent could say, “Bood? I don’t know what bood is.” If the child isn’t quite ready to correct the error on their own after the use of feigned misunderstanding, the parent can say something like, “Oh, did you mean food? You have to use the /f/ sound to say food. Let’s try it together.”
When using this strategy, it is important to pay attention to the chid’s reactions. I tell parents to use feigned understanding as long as it doesn’t frustrate their child or making them feel self-conscious. As parents are the experts on their child, I tell them to watch for signs that tell them their child is frustrated or self-conscious. It is important to never make a child feel shame about their speech errors. Still, many children will find feigned misunderstanding funny.
Another great way to use minimal pair concepts in the home environment is for parents to make their own mistakes and draw their child’s attention to it. Let’s return to the last example. The parent could say, “I want some bood.” Some kids will catch their parent’s error and point it out. If not, the parent could say, “Oops, I made a mistake! I meant to say food instead of bood!” This is a great opportunity for parents to make light of making mistakes by laughing at their error.
Many students also love the opportunity to “be the teacher.” This strategy can be used with any minimal pair homework that is sent home by your SLP. The parent can tell their child that it’s their turn to be the teacher. The parent will practice saying words that contain the student’s target sound and make errors on purpose. The child is in charge of trying to catch their parent’s mistakes. This activity can be even more fun if there is a fun way for the child to indicate errors and correct responses. For example, parents can download a free app that has various “buzzer” sounds that the child can press when the parent makes an error.