You’ll probably be familiar with classroom interactions along these lines:
Student: A coma.
Teacher/other students: Sorry?
Student: Coma, a coma.
Teacher/other students: …
Student: In between the clauses, there’s a coma.
Teacher: Ahhh, a comma!
This precise* dialogue occurred in my advanced class tonight, to my delight, as I love seizing upon opportunities like this to work with pronunciation ‘in action’, as it were.
I very quickly highlighted the issues of vowel length (more important than vowel quality, arguably) and context when deducing what word is being said.
First, we (teacher and classmates) briefly observed that we should have been able to work out that the student was saying “comma” from the context and apologised for our vacant stares.
However, sometimes context still doesn’t quite do the trick and the student wants/needs to clarify by emphasising a particular sound. So then we focused our attention on the vowels in “comma” and “coma”.
This kind of thing comes up in lessons all the time, and here’s a way to deal with it that I find really effective:
1. Identify the problematic sounds in the minimal pair (in this case /ɒ/ and /əʊ/).
2. Practise. First, the productive bit: Model and drill the two words, chorally and individually. Elicit the spelling of each; put them on the whiteboard, on opposite sides (i.e. with enough space for you to stand in front of them and the words still be visible on either side of you). Model and drill again, pointing at the words. Annotate with phonemic script as you see fit.
3. And now the (fun) receptive bit: Sometimes students’ problem is that they just can’t HEAR the difference. So practise this. Say one or the other word at random (e.g. coma, comma, comma, coma, comma, coma, coma, coma, comma…). Students have to point at the one they hear as you say it.
4. Ask a few student volunteers to take your place and do the same.
5. A possible extension, to focus back on producing the sounds: put yourself back in position between the words, facing the class, and SILENTLY say one, then the other, and so on, at random, as above (notice all those commas?). Get sts to pay attention to your mouth shape when choosing which word you said.
Students often seem to despair at exchanges like the one above, as if they think they shouldn’t have such problems when they’re supposed to be ‘advanced’. But as we all know, minimal pairs are tricky, and differences between speakers’ pronunciation of vowels and how listeners are expecting to hear them often cause problems, regardless of the level or first language of the speaker. I even remember once persistently mishearing “test shoot” as “tissue” when a colleague from New Zealand was explaining an advertising project to me… but I digress. (The point is, this isn’t an area of potential confusion restricted to non-native speakers.)
Personally, I like to deal with these things as they arise in real communication, but sometimes students’ problems are foreseeable and you can anticipate such an issue cropping up in your lesson. Either way, I’ve found this simple lesson sequence an engaging, efficient and effective way of integrating pronunciation study, particularly on problems caused by minimal pairs.
Here are some more examples of minimal pairs (or other similar fine distinctions) you might plan to practise in this way, and the contexts they might arise in:
While working on future simple – I go vs. I’ll go
While working on prepositions/phrasal verbs – off vs. of
While working on common verbs – work vs. walk (NB. the /ɜ/ vowel is very hard for learners and particularly important for intelligibility between non-native speakers, so very worth paying attention to if you’ve got a multilingual classroom!)
While working on past simple (regular) – e.g. talk vs. talked
While working on compound verb forms, especially perfect/continuous combinations – been vs. being
*Well, as close as I can get from memory. But you get the idea.