In today’s blog post, we provide a look inside speech therapy sessions for a child who is presenting with a phonological speech disorder.  This kind of speech disorder comes about as the result of a child not knowing the rules we use to learn sound patterns and the processes underlying these patterns.  Put simply, the child doesn’t know the rules and processes of the English sound system. One example of this, is when a child substitutes a sound for another sound (e.g., the /k/ sound in ‘cup’ is produced as /t/ – ‘tup’).  One way to teach a child these rules and processes is through a “Minimal Pairs” approach. 

Let’s dive in and find out more about this approach and what it looks like across therapy sessions.


Minimal pairs focus on contrasting differences between phonemes (i.e. speech sounds) in order to reorganise a child’s sound system.

Phonemes can differ by:

  1. Place – some sounds are made with the lips, tongue tip or the back of the tongue.
  2. Manner – some sounds uses a long continuous flow of air (e.g. /s/, /z/), some sounds are short and stop as soon as they begin (e.g. /t/, /p/), etc.
  3. Voicing – we switch our voices on to make some sounds (e.g. /b/, /g/), but turn our voices off for others (e.g. /p/, /k/).

In the case of a minimal pair, the two words in the pair differ by a single phoneme and by one or two features across place, manner and voicing.

For example, the pair “cap” and “tap”. These two words are identical in terms of the vowel /ae/ and last phoneme /p/. They only differ by the initial phoneme – /k/ and /t/ – and this involves a small difference in place of production (velar vs alveolar).

When using a minimal pairs approach, the paired words contain a sound a child is familiar with sound and a target (unfamiliar) sound.  In the example above, we contrast words containing the /t/ (familiar) sound with /k/ (unfamiliar) sound.


  1. Following assessment, your therapist will be able to Identify the target phonological process. For example, a voicing phonological process.  This means a child, Tom, “turns off” his voice at the start of his words when he should be “turning it on” (e.g. he says “pig” instead of “big”). In this case, we want Tom to say /b/. We call this the “target”.
  2. Before the session, your therapist selects 3-5 minimal pairs of words that contrast the paired phonemes. Research suggests that only three to five word pairs are needed to make permanent changes in a child’s phonological system (Elbert et al., 1991). In Tom’s case, we choose pig/big, pay/bay, park/bark, peg/beg, pea/bee.
  3. Introduce the minimal pair words to the child by showing them pictures of the pairs and naming them aloud. Having a quick conversation about the words and their meaning is important! We want to make sure Tom understands the meaning of the words we’ve chosen.
  4. Have the child point to the words you name. This gives us an idea whether the child can hear the difference between the two contrasting phonemes (e.g. /p/ vs /b/). This is sometimes called auditory discrimination.
  5. Now, reverse the roles and have the child name the words.
  6. When the child uses the “wrong sound” (e.g. pig) for the target (e.g. big), pick up the picture that the child named and not the one intended. For example, when Tom points to the picture card big but says, ‘pig’, pick up the picture of the pig.
  7. Give the child feedback to signal he/she has made a mistake. In Tom’s case, his therapist might say, “Oh, do you mean pig or big? I’m not sure what you mean, tell me again.” This is the teaching moment, where Tom learns he needs to say the word differently for others to understand him.
  8. Work with the child till he/she gets it right about 60% of the time.
  9. Move onto the other paired words (one set at a time) at sentence level. 

 Here is a video that demonstrates Minimal Pairs in action: 


The Minimal Pairs Approach has been used for over twenty years, with a robust body of research supporting its clinical effectiveness (Barlow and Gierut, 2002). Tyler, Edwards and Saxman (1987) also found that this approach was best suited for children with only one or a select few phonological processes.

If your child is hard to understand and you think might benefit from an assessment of their speech sound production, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team. A minimal pairs approach might be just the thing to best support them!