Using Word-Contrast Pairs to Teach Pronunciation to ESL Students

Pronunciation is often the most difficult aspect of learning English as a Second Language. In most cases, the difficulty is because the native or first language does not include a similar sound. It may be that the student is unable to differentiate between two or three English phonemes. Instead, the student makes "sound" approximations based on his native language. This is the major component of a "foreign" accent.

Correct these problems by presenting word pairs which contrast the two sounds until the student can quickly distinguish between the sounds, both while listening and speaking. There are several ways to use word-contrast pairs. The following sample drills illustrate some of the methods. Each of these drills can be done with longer lists.

Sample drill 1. Number your paper from one to five. Listen to the following words. When a word begins with an /l/ write l. When it begins with /r/ write r.

  1. liver
  2. lip
  3. ride
  4. loot
  5. rack

Sample drill 2. Number your paper from one to five. Listen to the following groups of three words. Two of the words will be the same. Write down the number of the word which is different. For example, if I say leak/leak/reak, you should write down 3, because the third word is different from the others.

  1. climb/crime/climb
  2. files/files/fires
  3. glass/grass/grass
  4. fry/fly/fly
  5. jelly/jelly/belly

Sample drill 3. With the instructor as the speaker for this drill, it becomes an exercise in recognition. With a student as speaker, it becomes an exercise in production as well. You can break students into groups of two and have them switch roles in order to give every student practice time.
Look at these pictures. Listen carefully to the following sentences and do what they tell you.

  • Point to the lamp.
  • Point to the ramp.
  • Point to the ramp.
  • Point to the lamp.
  • Point to the ramp.
  • Point to the rocker.
  • Point to the locker.
  • Point to the rocker.
  • Point to the rocker.
  • Point to the locker.
  • Sample drill 4. Number your paper from one to five. Repeat the following sentences after me. Put a checkmark by the number of each sentence where the last word begins with /r/.

    1. He picked up the lock.
    2. He picked up the lock.
    3. He picked up the rock.
    4. He picked up the lock.
    5. He picked up the rock.

    Listed below are the top five phonemes which present pronunciation challenges. These phoneme pairs challenge speakers of 38 or more languages. Each phoneme pair is followed by a list of contrasting word pairs, two sentences with contextual clues, and two minimal sentences. The meaning of minimal sentences changes entirely based on a single phoneme. These sentences are valuable not only for teaching and testing auditory comprehension, but also for practice in accurate sound production.

    Phoneme Pair: [w]/[hw]
    Example: witch/which
    Number of languages affected: 42
    Word Pairs: wail/whale; wear/where; weather/whether; we'll/wheel; wet/whet; wit/whit; wile/while; wield/wheeled; wither/whither; wind/whined
    Contextual Clues Sentences:

    • She heard a whine as she sipped the wine.
    • The wind was wailing as the fishermen were whaling.
    Minimal Sentences:
    • Here is a picture of a wig/whig.
    • Is that the way/whey?

    Phoneme Pair: [θ]/[t]
    Example: thank/tank
    Number of languages affected: 41
    Word Pairs: (initial position) theme/team; thin/tin; thrash/trash; (medial position); rethread/retread; ether/eater; deaths/debts; (final position) death/debt; oath/oat; both/boat; with/wit
    Contextual Clues Sentences:

    • He taught what he thought.
    • The hearth is the heart of a home.
    Minimal Sentences:
    • He was a good thinker/tinker.
    • It is a new booth/boot.

    Phoneme Pair: [e]/[æ]
    Example: bet/bat
    Number of languages affected: 40
    Word Pairs: head/had; leg/lag; said/sad; mess/mass; pest/past; ten/tan; men/man; shell/shall; then/than; end/and
    Contextual Clues Sentences:

    • Blend in spices to the bland soup.
    • He led the lad out of the forest.
    Minimal Sentences:
    • Send/Sand it carefully.
    • The pen/pan leaks.

    Phoneme Pair: [ð]/[θ]
    Example: thy/thigh
    Number of languages affected: 40
    Word Pairs: (initial position) this'll/thistle; thy/thigh; (medial position) either/ether; (final position) sheathe/sheath; wreathe/wreath; loathe/loth; teethe/teeth; mouth/mouth
    Contextual Clues Sentences:

    • The dentist will use either ether or novocain.
    • Mouth the words silently with your mouth.

    Minimal Sentences:
    • Say the word wreathe/wreath.
    • Spell the word thy/thigh.

    Phoneme Pair: [ð]/[d]
    Example: than/Dan
    Number of languages affected: 38
    Word Pairs: (initial position) they/day; those/doze; (medial position) breathing/breeding; seething/seeding; father/fodder; (final position) loathe/load, tithe/tide; writhe/ride, scythe/side; sheathe/she'd
    Contextual Clues Sentences:

    • Do they dare to put their toes in the water?
    • A book does not prove its worthiness by its wordiness.
    Minimal Sentences:
    • Rabbits breathe/breed easily.
    • The mover loathes/loads toys.

    Learning to distinguish between English phonemes can be challenging when the native language does not have the same phoneme. Using word-contrast pairs focuses a student's attention on the single phoneme which makes a difference in the meaning of a particular letter sequence. Practicing both recognition and production of these sounds increases a student's listening comprehension and accent-free speaking ability.

    Other Articles of Interest

    Visit our Reference Desk page for a complete listing of articles and worksheets.