If you listen closely, the /th/ sound in the English language is really used in two distinct ways, creating two separate sounds. Even though both versions of the /th/ sound are produced with the same mouth position, the voiced /th/ uses the vocal cords to amplify the sound, such as in “this”, “then”,and “though”. The unvoiced /th/ sound relies only on the air passing through the mouth and the teeth,resulting in softer /th/ sound in words like “theater”, “thought”, and “thank”.
To make either sound, place the very tip of your tongue lightly between your teeth and blow air through. This naturally makes the unvoiced /th/ sound. Add your voice, the vibration of your vocal cords, to create the voiced /th/ sound. The /th/ sound is one of the trickiest sounds to learn, especially the voiced version. Often children will not begin to get the hang of the sound until after age four, and many still work on mastering it through age seven or, in the case of the voiced /th/, until age eight. If your child still struggles with producing the /th/ sound by these ages, it is highly recommended that you seek advice from a licensed speech pathologist as soon as possible. What may be a small issue now could compound into a much larger obstacle for your child over time if left untreated.
Practicing speech sounds with your child at home can be a fun and rewarding activity that helps to stimulate articulation, improve speech, and target trouble spots for your little one. Here are some tried-and-true tips from children’s speech therapists to help your child at home and in conjunction with professional guidance:
- Verbal Cues
Begin practicing a single sound with your child by saying it slowly and clearly a few times.This helps your child understand what sound to focus on and gives them a correct example to imitate. Practice the sound by itself with your little one until they are able to master it. Then,gradually add vowels to form simple syllables: “the, the, the”, “tho, tho, tho”, “thu, thu, thu”.Try changing the position of the sound as well, such as in “eeth, eeth, eeth” or “ath, ath, ath”,to see where in a word your child will be most comfortable with the sound and where they have more trouble using it.
- Visual Cues
The way we position our mouths to make the /th/ sound is completely visible, which really helps kids to understand what is happening to produce the sound. Without making the sound, place the tip of your tongue between your teeth and show your child. Have her do the same with her mouth. A mirror is great for this activity, so she can check her reflection to make sure she lookslike you. Then, simply encourage her to blow through her teeth! This creates the unvoiced /th/sound.
- Tactile Cues
When the air is pushed through the mouth to make the either /th/ sound, a little puff of air results right in front of the lips. In addition to checking the mirror for the accuracy of her mouth position, also have your child put her hand slightly in front of her mouth to feel this small blast of air to make sure she is doing it right. To transition from the unvoiced /th/ sound to the voiced/th/ sound, have your little one feel your throat as you make the voiced /th/ sound. Feeling the vibration of the vocal cords is a distinct tactile marker for kids to know if they are correctly producing the voiced sound, and to tell the voiced from the unvoiced. Have your child feel her own throat to check her success.
- Awesome /th/ Activity
To make practice fun and exciting for your child, incorporate games and rewards into the experience.Use colorful flash cards of /th/ words to play matching games or bingo at home. On the go, at thegrocery store or in the car, play a game similar to “I Spy” where you find an object and ask yourchild, “What do you think this thing is?” As part of the game, have your child reply with “I think this thingis…” and fill in the blank. This sentence, full of /th/ sounds, helps your child practice by repeating thesound several times in a row. Let him use his imagination! The “things he thinks” can be funny or silly,even if the object you chose is completely ordinary.