Minimal Pair Therapies

Phonological Therapies

“Expose the child systematically to the dimensions of the target system absent from his/her speech in a way in which both their form and communicative functions are made evident.” Grunwell, 1989

“All phonological approaches focus on teaching children the function of sounds, particularly that changing sounds changes meaning, and that making meaning is a necessary to communication. All rest on the principle that once it is introduced to a child’s system, a featural contrast will show generalisation to other relevant phonemic pairs.” Barlow & Gierut, 2002

The Threefold Foundation of all Minimal Pair Approaches

1.     To modify a group, or groups, of sounds produced in error, in a patterned way.

2.     To highlight featural contrasts rather than accurate sound production.

3.     To emphasize the use of sounds for communicative purposes.     

Target selection in phonological therapy

No matter how targets are selected the idea in phonological therapy is to choose activities that let the child see how changing sounds results in changes in word meaning  and that this affects communication.      

Selecting targets for phonemic therapy begins with describing error patterns, and there are at least two ways of describing them: in terms of phonological processes, and in terms of phoneme collapses.

Target selection using phonological processes / phonological patterns

Working from a phonological processes perspective, the therapy targets are the correct productions. The correct adult form (the target) is contrasted with the sound the child usually produces. For example, in working on velar fronting, with a child who replaces the velar stops /k/ and /g/ with /t/ and /d/ respectively, the therapist might choose the words key, cool, gap and go to contrast with tea, tool, cap and dough respectively.             

Target selection using phoneme collapses

Working from a phoneme collapse perspective, the first step is to look for lost contrast. For example, ‘fun’ pronounced as 'tun', ‘cheese’ as 'tease', ‘day’ as 'tay' and ‘cup’ as 'tup'. In this example four phonemes, /f/, /ʧ/, /d/ and /k/ have been ‘collapsed’ to one, /t/.With the phoneme collapses approach, a second step is necessary in the form of a decision about how to present the minimal contrast in therapy as:

  1. Minimal Oppositions
  2. Maximal Oppositions
  3. Multiple Oppositions
  4. an Empty Set (also known as 'unknown set').

Comparison of Four Minimal Pair Approaches

PRINCIPLE Homonymy Saliency Homonymy Saliency
APPROACH Conventional
Minimal Pairs
Empty Set /
Unknown Set
REFERENCES Weiner 1981a Gierut 1989 Williams 2006b Gierut 1989
  The child's error is paired with the target. The child's error is paired with a sound the child can say. The child's error is paired with up to 4 targets. Two errors are paired as targets.
# TARGETS 1 new sound 1 new sound Up to to 4 new sounds 2 new sounds
Minimal or maximal, but usually minimal. Maximal Maximal to minimal across a treatment set. Maximal
APPROACH Linguistic Linguistic Linguistic Linguistic
Max Oppositions
Word lists to help make Multiple Opposition sets. Max Oppositions

Phonological Principles

more here

  • Intervention is based on the systematic nature of phonology.
  • Intervention is characterised by conceptual activities rather than motor activities.
  • Intervention has generalisation as its ultimate goal, promoting intelligibility.

Ten Points to Consider in Intervention

  1. Work at word (meaning) level.
  2. Work towards functional generalization.
  3. Treat a pattern or patterns of errors.
  4. If using a 3-position SODA test transcribe entire words in order to see error patterns
  5. Teach appropriate contrasts.
  6. Direct the child’s attention to the way that different sounds make different meanings. Make this apparent to parents too, e.g., give examples of their own child’s homonymy.
  7. Use naturalistic contexts that have meaning (hold interest) for the child, because this helps demonstrate to the child that the function of phonology is to make meaning.
  8. Stack the ‘therapy environment’ with several exemplars of each individual target word so the child can self-selects activities, e.g., for work on eliminating Velar Fronting, for the target words: car, key, core, cow, have available several different cars, car keys, etc.
  9. Select targets with an eye to their potential impact on the child’s system.
  10. Carefully select exemplars of an error pattern / phonological rule.

With clever exemplar-choices, the rule is learned, and carries over to the other targets. explicitly targeted therapy it should be unnecessary to work on all possible targets.


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Barlow, J. A., and Gierut, J. A. (2002). Minimal pair approaches to phonological remediation. Seminars in Speech and Language, 23(1), 57-67. Click here and Click here (important to read both of these)

Grunwell, P. (1989). Developmental phonological disorders and normal speech development: A review and illustration. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 5, 304-319.

Weiner, F. (1981a). Treatment of phonological disability using the method of meaningful contrast: Two case studies. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46, 97-103.

Weiner, F.F. (1981b). Systematic sound preference as a characteristic of phonological disability. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46, 281-286.

Williams, A.L. (2006b). A systemic perspective for assessment and intervention: A case study. Advances in Speech-Language Pathology, 8(3), 245-256. Click here