Teaching Phonics in the Classroom: The Concept of Minimal Pairs


Christian Jalim

Matsuyama 2019-2024

Christian Jalim is a fifth year ALT JET living in Matsuyama. He originally hails from Manzanilla, in rural Trinidad, which boasts the longest coastline in the country, various geographical places of interest, and lush greenery wherever you turn. He is elated to have been working at schools nestled in the scenic, quiet mountains of Japan. It’s a place that is as close to his heart and holds as much nostalgia as back home. Christian completed his MS in Global Studies but holds a keen interest in Linguistics and learning foreign languages.

Edited by Emily Guo

At the 2023 Ehime Skills Development Conference for Teaching English as a Second Language, Christian presented a workshop on teaching phonics using Minimal Pairs to motivate students’ learning. Here is his article on the subject, originally published in AJET Connect Magazine and formatted and edited for the Mikan!

Hatsuon Clinic: Using minimal pairs to sharpen pronunciation

Throughout my time as an ALT, there have been certain patterns that I have seen very often, which can affect students’ language acquisition and output. From observation, these patterns stem from students’ heavy reliance on Katakana Eigo, or writing English pronunciation through Japanese Katakana. 

Learning a new language can be quite daunting. However, diving into a new language with an entirely new writing system and more phonetic nuances is an entirely different ball game altogether. Hence, students use Katakana to bring some calm to the chaos. Consequently, this reliance on Katakana Eigo can only be beneficial to a certain point, until other aspects of language acquisition, retention and reproduction are adversely affected. I have seen my fair share of misspellings all stemming from students internalising English through Katakana Eigo, often confusing themselves in the process.

As a means to break the mould, we can use the concept of Minimal Pairs as a method to improve students’ language ability.  

Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in the English language. For example, the sound made by the “a” in ‘apple’ or the starting “ck” in ‘cup’. Minimal Pairs is a “focus on the contrasting difference between phonemes” (Jane Rosenlund) and is a tool used by speech pathologists during speech therapy for children with speech sound disorders. Due to the structure of the Japanese language, students are not exposed to certain sounds produced in English phonics. By using Katakana, many pairs of words sound the same when the reality is, to the trained ear, there is quite a noticeable difference. For example, first/fast, but/bat, hurt/heart, lake/rake, sheet/seat, vet/bet. If you place any of the aforementioned pair in front of a Japanese student without proper exposure and ask them to pronounce each word in the pair, you will start noticing the target areas that need to be worked on.

As an ALT, moreover a native speaker, this is where we come into play and are monumental to this facet of English education. We can offer our expertise of knowing the nuances of phonetics and therefore mould and train students to understand the nuances of pronunciation.

So how can we employ Minimal Pairs?

Personally, I use a two-fold approach to utilising Minimal Pairs during my classes. Over two sessions, I focus on only one minimal pair for about 5 to 10 minutes each session. In the first session, I show the students the pair of words and do some practice and repetition. After the introductory practice, I do 5 rounds of listening in which I randomly say one word from the pair. 

During this time, students listen to the pronunciation of a native speaker and raise their hand corresponding to the word they hear. If they think I said the word that is to their right, they raise their right hand. If they think I said the word that is to their left, they raise their left hand. Sometimes I say the same word consecutively because students  will often expect you to say the other word in the next round. If after 5 rounds of listening, you notice that the majority of students still have problems with listening and understanding the differences between the sounds and words, do some more practice and extend the number of sessions, rinse and repeat for the next class session.

If your students have no problem, however, the next session can really focus on individualized attention. With the help of my JTE, we have the students each say the pair one at a time (small schools definitely have the advantage of that individual attention). Based on how accurately and clearly they were able to pronounce each word distinctively, they would be evaluated and given comments. It is a great opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of speech and sounds. This is the crucial part in helping students understand phonics, and how sounds in English work.

As for how to manage the difficulty to the grade level; for elementary school, start simple pairs like bet/vet, right/light. As you go into higher grades, slowly introduce slightly more difficult pairs such as hurt/heart, trouble/travel, letters/lettuce, volley/ballet.

So having established the what and how, let us examine the why by looking at the domino effect aims of this activity.

Firstly, exposing students to the nuances of phonetics in the English language helps sharpen their pronunciation and listening skills. By showing and teaching these nuances, students can understand the workings of phonics and understanding the association with sound and speech.

Through this level of understanding of the language, students can slowly reduce their dependence on Katakana as they learn to navigate the intricacies of English phonetics. Students can gain confidence in their potential to speak and internalise words without relying too heavily on Katakana to guide them. They can improve their pronunciation and self-confidence to say words by just reading rather than resorting to the familiar and comforting, but in the long-term detrimental for their skill development, Katakana Eigo.


This leads us to the third goal of using minimal pairs. When students reduce their dependence on Katakana to help them understand the phonetic workings of English, they can slowly associate sounds with spelling, wean off their use of Katakana Eigo, develop their word-sound association and become more self-sufficient in their language retention and reproduction.

I hope that you also try to employ minimal pairs as a practice in your classes to help advance students’ competency in English. In closing, I would like to suggest that as someone existing in Japanese spaces, we carefully observe the English spoken by Japanese people and look for instances where you can find minimal pairs that can be created so that you can introduce it to your students and help improve their skills and fluency.

This article was originally published in AJET Connect Magazine in April 2023. It has been adapted and edited to be posted on the Mikan. 

Check out the original article here:


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