Just What Exactly is a Minimal Pair?

A minimal pair is a set of two words that differ in only one phoneme (sound).   Since the different sound can occur anywhere in the word, there are lots of minimal pairs in the English language.

Ex.  bay-bait, boo-boom, two-toot, lie-lay, red-bed, reed-raid

Before speech therapy entered our lives with the arrival of Noah, I had never heard the term “minimal pair.”  Naturally, I assumed it was SLP lingo.  A little research reveals minimal pairs are primarily used in ESL and the study of linguistics.  Speech and language pathology is just “borrowing” the concept.

Evidence has shown children with phonological process disorders benefit from the use of minimal pairs in articulation therapy.  Noah’s practice words currently use minimal pairs to target and correct final consonant deletion.

I know, I know, “What is final consonant deletion?”  As children learn a language, native or secondary, they often simplify the pronunciation of words in order to say them.  They may be able to pronounce each sound in isolation, but they cannot pronounce it in combination with the other phonemes in a word.  So you have a child who can say /b/, /a/, and /t/, but when he tries to say “bat,” he says “baa.”  The minimal pair that comes into play here is baa and bat.  In working with Noah, I have a sheep flashcard that has the word “baa” on it and a picture of a baseball bat that has the word “bat” on it.  I say “baa” as I point to the sheep, and he imitates it; I say “bat” as I point to the bat, and he tries to say bat.  Inevitably, he omits the “t” at the end of bat.  So I refer him back to the sheep and we say “baa” again, and then I say “baaaaaaa” as I point to the bat, Noah joins in, and I add the final consonant “t.”  Noah does the same.   This process not only uses the strategy of taking a word a child can pronounce and build on it, but it also teaches the child to discriminate between the two sounds and words.

I have found that Noah is much more succesful in his articulation efforts if I say the word along with him instead of expecting him to say it on his own.  Although I would much prefer him to be independent in his speech, it is helpful to remember that having our special children pronounce words, by any means, is necessary in laying the groundwork and circuitry for future speech.  Much better to have Noah at age 5 saying words along with me and eventually being able to recall and say them on his own than to wait until he is cognitively able to say them on his own without previous training.  Who knows – without that previous training and practice, because of Noah’s Down syndrome and likely apraxia of speech, he might never be able to say them.  In other words, get those words out any way you can!

Incidentally, I have noticed that Seth, although an excellent talker at age 2, also has some final consonant deletion issues.  Not to worry – this is a completely normal coping mechanism as any child learns to articulate a new language.   While neurotypical children will gradually let go of these coping mechanisms and move on to mature articulation, our children with special needs often need help to move past this and all the other stages of speech.  When your child is 5 and is still deleting final consonants, it’s time to get to work.

Need some ideas for coming up with your own minimal pairs for target words for your child or client?  You have come to the right place.  Click here for the John and Muriel Higgins home page and http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/index.html for the minimal pair database.  You will find yourself at an index of 92,253 minimal pairs organized by letter sound.  I’m not kidding. – 92,253 minimal pairs.

This website is an absolute TREASURE CHEST of resources for linguists, SLPs, ESL teachers, “people who love language play,” and anybody else who just happens to be a fan of the English language.

In addition to the minimal pair database, Mr. Higgins has also given us an exhaustive listing of all the homophones (http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/homophon.html) and homographs http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/homogrph.html in the English language.

And then there’s the free word play software, an on-line listening game (great for our kids with auditory processing disorders), a collection of Tim John’s Kibbitzer pages for the serious language student, a language museum and some fascinating personal interest pages.

I spent half of my Saturday solitude holed up in the library reading the first part of the downloadable text, Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Cargill which Mr. Higgins offers for free on his site.  What a testimony to the effect of the power of God to work through a wife and mother to touch the world around her!   The author’s grasp of emotion and depth through his words and his prompting of living a life more mindful of eternity is reminiscent of Elizabeth Prentess’s classic, Stepping Heavenward.

Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Cargill, written by Mr. Higgins’ great-great-grandfather, Weslayan missionary David Cargill, reports on not only Mrs. Cargill’s life and legacy, but also on seven years of mission work in Tonga and Fiji in the 1800s.   David Cargill is the missionary who developed Fijian spelling and discovered the phonemic principle 50 years before it was re-discovered and named in Europe.  (I think Mr. Higgins comes by his deep understanding of language honestly, wouldn’t you say?)

An excerpt:

At this period Mrs. Cargill’s body energy was not great; but her

strength was proportioned to her day, and the feelings of her heart were

very devotional. She expressed herself as being laid under additional

obligations and increased responsibility to the Giver of every good and

perfect gift, and endeavoured to stimulate herself and her husband to a

faithful performance of the duties devolving upon them, in relation to

the immortal being to be trained up by them for eternity. Her remarks

on this subject, in numerous conversations with that earthly friend to

whom her whole soul was unveiled, were appropriate and profitable;

and her prayers, when prostrate on her knees before the family altar,

were fervent and effectual. The most animating scenes of their united

career, which the eye of her husband’s reflection can now contemplate,

are those which took place before the throne of grace; when, seen by no

eye but that of Him who seeth in secret, she petitioned the Almighty for

family blessings, and presented an offering of thanks for family

mercies. Her prayers in general, especially on such occasions, were

enriched with appropriate quotations from Scripture, linked together by

brief and striking remarks. Her mind seemed imbued with an ardent

desire for the spiritual welfare of every member of her family; and

when she took hold of the horns of the altar to unburden her soul before

the Lord, her sentiments, language, and manner indicated a gracious

determination not to relax her hold until she obtained the blessings

which she implored. May those prayers be as bread cast upon the

waters, which shall be found after many days!”

Cargill, David.  (1841).  Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Cargill.  London:  Published by John Mason at the Weslayan Conferance Office, 14 City – Road.

The tenderness and deep affection with which Mr. Cargill writes about his departed wife left me longing to be “that kind of woman.”

What a kind, kind soul Mr. Higgins is to share such precious resources with us.  Enjoy them – – and don’t forget to pay it forward.




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