How to teach the th sound

Are you looking for ideas for how to teach the /th/ sound? This sound is difficult for many English learners and also children with speech disorders. Here are some tips for teaching the /th/ sound in class.

There are two /th/ sounds

First, let’s talk about the /th/ sound. In English, there are two “th” consonant sounds: voiced th and unvoiced th. 

Let’s learn more about these two /th/ sounds. 

Try to say these voiced TH words: the, father, these 

Then, say these unvoiced TH words: bath, birthday, mouth

What is the difference between voiced and unvoiced th sound?

The difference between the sounds is due to whether or not you are using your vocal cords while speaking.

Tip: Put your hand on your throat. Now, say the /th/ sound in “the” and hold it as long as you can: /th/th/th/th/th/ or thhhhhh.

Can you feel your throat vibrating? They should be. If your vocal cords are vibrating when saying /th/, you are making the voiced /th/ sound.

Now, do the same. Hold your hand to your throat and try to say the /th/ sound in “bath” and hold it. Say “bathhhhhhhh.”

You should not feel your throat vibrating. You are making the unvoiced /th/ sound.

Now, let’s jump to what you are really here for teaching the th sound to students.

How do we teach the TH sound?

  1. Tell the student to “bite their tongue and blow”. 
  2. Use a mirror! Ask students to demonstrate TH using a mirror. Instruct the child to “bite your tongue and blow.”
  3. The teeth and lip should not make contact. Practice “f-th-f-th” to contrast the two sounds.

To teach the /th/ sound to ESL students, have them touch their throat to feel the difference while saying these words:

-voiced TH, instruct the child to imitate the voiceless TH and to “turn his voice on.” It may be taught by having him say “zzzz,” and then gradually move their tongue forward to between the teeth.

Remember, the /th/ sound is even difficult for native English speakers. We can expect the /th/ sound to be mastered by 7 years if the child only speaks English.

Bottom Line:

  • there are two types of “th” sounds: voiced and unvoiced
  • put your hand to your throat to feel the difference
  • /th/ are expected to be mastered by seven years of age in native speakers

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.