Using Multiple Oppositions for Highly Unintelligible Children

I’ve recently learned of a fantastic technique to use with high unintelligible children.  We’ve all worked with a few of these kids, you know, the ones that are so unintelligible even YOU can’t understand them in spite of your highly accustomed ear?  That kid who maybe correctly produces 3-5 consonant sounds, and then substitutes those sounds for every other consonant?  Or maybe just omits the other consonants altogether?  Either way, the result is highly unintelligible speech.  Well, here’s a technique you can use for that!  It’s called Multiple Oppositions, and it’s a technique used for children who collapse phonemes.  A collapsed phoneme happens when a child uses one phoneme to substitute for 4+ other phonemes.  For example, one little guy I work with substitutes an /h/ for /s/, /th/, /f/, and /sh/.  He “collapses” the /s/, /th/, /f/, and /sh/ phonemes into one phoneme: /h/.

So what are Multiple Oppositions?  A multiple opposition is basically a set of several minimal/maximal pairs that are used altogether in the same activity.  Rather than using one minimal pair to contrast just two phonemes, you use a set of minimal pairs to contrast all of the collapsed phonemes together.  For example, I could use the following set of words for my client: hi, thigh, sign, five, and shy.  Notice that “hi” is a minimal pair (or near minimal pair) for the following words: thigh, sign, five, and shy.  The idea of multiple oppositions is to introduce all of these pairs at the same time to your student, and tell them to “make them sound different.”  This simple technique easily teaches the child how to differentiate between phonemes, and that producing correct phonemes matters for intelligibility.  This technique is also efficient because you are addressing multiple targets at once.  You’re actually attempting to make widespread change to the child’s whole phonological system, as opposed to targeting one phoneme at a time.  Here’s an example of some of the pairs I have used for my student:

h pairs

So how do you pick your targets?  Research done on multiple oppositions (hello EBP!) shows that targets are most effective when you pick 2 targets that are maximally different (different by place, voice, manner, and obstruent vs. sonorant) and 2 targets that are minimally different (differ by 1-2 factors).  So, have you heard of/used this technique with your students?  What has been your experience with it?  Clipart used from and

Until next time,

Aersta Acerson
A Utah Speech Therapist

10 thoughts on “Using Multiple Oppositions for Highly Unintelligible Children

  1. Pingback: Friday Faves | The Speech Clinic

  2. This is great! Have you used any other activities besides the cards? I am starting to use the multiple oppositions approach on one of my kinder students. What have you found that works best with this approach? She has multiple phonological processes, and collapses with a few phonemes, so multiple oppositions would be perfect!

    • Glad you like the idea! I’ve found it to be very helpful for my students. I usually just use the cards because they are so simple and effective. For my highly unintelligible students, I have a few different sets of cards and I rotate through them using one set a week. I have the student make the words sound different, and then I have them say the word 3x. I try to have them use the words in a sentence as quickly as possible to help with generalization. As far as activities go, I often have a little paper bag animal that “eats up” the word. If the child doesn’t say it correctly, the animal spits the word back out. My younger kids get a kick out of that. Hope that helps, and I’d love to know what success you see with your students!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Particularly the example of how you use it in a practical sense – getting the student to make the words “sound different”.
    I wondered, do you find that there are any pre-requisite skills for Mulitple Oppositions? Being able to rhyme? Vocabulary? I often try to use minimal pairs and find the kids have a hard time if their vocab is poor. But maybe Im not spending enough time on teaching the vocab before hand.


    • So glad you found it helpful! I haven’t noticed any specific pre-requisite skills or noticed a difficulty with vocabulary. I do try to use high frequency words whenever possible. However, if the words are unfamiliar (and sometimes they are), I do pre-teach the vocabulary. It usually takes my students a bit longer to catch onto those words, but they eventually get it. I think pre-teaching the vocab is a great idea!

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