Minimal pairs – ‘ELF priorities’ post 1 of 3


It can be hard to know what to focus on when it comes to pronunciation, especially if you have a group for a short time or there’s a wide range of needs. This is the first in a series of posts which aims to help.

One of the great things about adopting an ELF approach is that a clear set of priorities has already been identified, based on research about what’s most likely to cause communication breakdown. This research was used by Jennifer Jenkins to draw up the Lingua Franca Core (LFC), which you can learn more about here. Obviously the key features she identifies might not be problematic for all learners, and the only way to know what will benefit your students is to do a needs analysis. That said, there are three main areas which we’ve found ourselves coming back to again and again in our classrooms:

1) Minimal pairs (e.g. pin / bin, or ship / sheep. Obviously the specific minimal pair depends on the students’ needs.)

2) Nuclear stress (e.g. “Shall we go CYcling at the weekend?” as opposed to, say, going shopping)

3) Communication strategies (e.g. trying to explain what you mean in another way, bypassing problematic vocabulary, or asking your interlocutor to explain what something means). This is relevant to pronunciation in the sense that if learners are aware that it is their pronunciation of a particular word (or their interlocutor’s pronunciation) that is causing communication breakdown, then they need strategies to move the conversation forward.

As part of a workshop on ELF pronunciation, I asked the lovely teachers on Bell’s Delta course to brainstorm classroom activities for these three areas. We’ve typed up their ideas and added a few suggestions of our own, starting with…

Minimal pairs

  • Sound posters to collect words with the same sounds
  • Tongue twisters (check out the British Council’s Learn English Kids site for inspiration)
  • Drilling 
  • Snap
  • Board slap with fly swatters (here is an explanation of how to do a board slap for vocabulary – the same ideas apply for sounds)
  • Battleships (click here to download our free template for this game)
  • Jump forwards / backwards when you hear a particular sound
  • Run to a poster showing a phoneme when you hear that particular sound
  • “Pronunciation Journey” – an activity from Mark Hancock’s fabulous Pronunciation Games book. You can download instructions for free via his website where there are also other free materials for minimal pairs.
  • Dominoes with matching sounds
  • ‘Silent’ dictation to encourage learners to focus on articulation, by only allowing them to mouth or whisper the words.
  • Bingo (see an example of a pronunciation bingo here, as well as some useful tips on how not to teach minimal pairs!)
  • Clap if you hear a particular sound
  • Telephone number dictations
  • Dictation which includes lots of minimal pairs (dictation from teacher to student, or student to teacher, or student to student)
  • The pronunciation page of the British Council’s ESOL Nexus website

ESOL Nexus

Many thanks to Amra, Chris, Natalia, Mark, Adriana, Lara, Alex, Marie-Anne, and Sam, for sharing these ideas.


ELF Battleships – printable game boards


This is a variation on the traditional ‘Battleships‘ board game, but designed to practise pronunciation.  I’ve used it with my own students many times and they always find it challenging and engaging.

The game involves learners very carefully articulating words in minimal pairs so that their partner can understand precisely which word they’re saying.  The idea is to include words in the game which contain sounds that are typically difficult for particular learners of English, depending on their first language background.

Scroll down for downloads!

The game board looks like this

Of course, practising minimal pairs over and over and over again has the potential to be mind-numbingly repetitive – but when done in a competitive game format, it’s much more fun!

Printable game boards

You can download ready-to-print PDF game boards tailored for learners from 12 different first languages backgrounds here:

Italian speakers

French speakers

Spanish speakers

Russian speakers

Japanese speakers

Portuguese speakers

Arabic speakers

German speakers

Polish speakers

Chinese speakers

Turkish speakers

Hungarian speakers

And there are generic boards for the Lingua Franca Core and for one commonly difficult aspect of it here:

Lingua Franca Core (general)

Aspirated /p t k/

To better understand what makes up the ‘Lingua Franca Core’, check out this post.  If you want a printable one-page version for your own reference, you can download one here.

Make your own game boards – coming soon!

Of course, if you teach a group of students from various L1 backgrounds, you might like to create your own bespoke game grid that caters for their different L1s, so they can practise understanding and being understood in a true ELF environment.

In this case, we will soon be making available for download the original file used to create the above game boards.  It includes lists of appropriate words for 12 different first language backgrounds and a blank game grid so you can make your own bespoke game boards.  There are instructions on how to do so in this video.

For your own reference, the file also includes notes on the Lingua Franca core (i.e. the basis of the words selected for inclusion in the game), as well as a bibliography of all the linguistic sources which this data has been based on.

If you aren’t familiar with Battleships and don’t know how to play, read on…

How to play ‘Battleships’

The basics:

  • Students work in pairs.  In each pair, the students are enemies – not a team!
  • The idea is that one student’s grid (marked “YOUR GRID”) represents the ‘sea’, and they must place some ‘ships’ in it to protect from their ‘enemy’ (the other student in the pair).
  • They cannot see each other’s ‘seas’ – they must hide their grids from each other.
  • They take turns to guess where each other’s ‘ships’ are.
  • Whoever ‘sinks’ all of their enemy’s ships first is the winner.

How to set it up:

1. Each student gets a copy of the whole game board (one A4 page).

2. To start with, each student prepares the part marked ‘YOUR GRID’:

One student's grid - blank

3. Individually, they mark 1 big ship, 2 medium-sized ships and 4 little ships on their own game board, by shading in squares.  They mustn’t show their partner.  When they’re finished, it will look something like this:

One student's grid - completed

Note: they can rotate the ships if they want; and they can put ships close to each other, as long as the ships do NOT touch sides.  In other words, this is not allowed:

Ships mustn't touch sides!

But this is allowed:

Ships can touch corners.

Now they’re ready to play.

How to play:

1. Keeping their grids secret from each other, the students take turns to guess where each other’s ships are.

2. They can only do this by giving coordinates, one square at a time.  For example (using the grid above), if I think my partner might have a ship in the third box from the left in the top row, I would say ‘hat, ship’.

3. If my partner has part of a ship in that box, he/she will say ‘hit’.  If he/she has an entire ship in that box, he/she will say ‘sunk’.  If there is no ship in that box, he/she will say ‘miss’.  (This vocabulary is given at the top of the game board:)


4. If I hit something, I mark that square on the grid labelled ‘YOUR PARTNER’S GRID’ with a small ‘x’, then guess again.  If I miss, I mark that square with a small ‘o’, so that I remember later in the game that I’ve already tried that square.  If I sink a ship, I cross out the whole square with a big ‘X’.  As the game goes on, then, the grid labelled ‘YOUR PARTNER’S GRID’ on my sheet of paper will start to look something like this:

Students keep track of their guesses.

As you can see, I have sunk one of his small ships and am in the process of finding another.


The main points of the game are (1) to practise articulating sounds very clearly so that listeners can differentiate between similar-sounding words, and (2) to practise articulating particularly challenging sounds.  So if a student cannot tell what word his/her partner is saying, the partner must clarify by contrasting the two confusing words, and not by defining which word they mean or giving other clues which allow them to avoid the pronunciation challenge!

Example: Student A says hat.  Student B isn’t sure if Student A said hat or had.  So Student B asks: “Hat or had?”  And Student A clarifies, “Not had.  Hat.”

5. The game finishes when one student has sunk all of his/her partner’s ships.  Then they can look at each other’s grids.  By this time, the teacher should have had plenty of opportunity to hear which sounds were causing the most difficulty and might require more work in a future lesson.