Speech Sounds7 MINUTE READ

Helping Children Pronounce Their “TH” Sounds

Errors pronouncing the “TH” sound show up often in children’s speech. While many children will eventually improve "TH" productions on their own, some kiddos need extra help. 

Here we'll cover the foundations of "TH" sounds, common errors you may hear your child make, and ways to practice "TH" sounds at home to improve their productions. Let's get started!

Types of “TH” sounds

Let's start with the basics. Did you know there are actually two distinct types of "TH" sounds? There is the voiceless "TH" sound, as in "think." And then there is a the voiced "TH" sound, as in "they." 

Say both of these words out loud and you'll notice the difference. When we pronounce the word "think," we produce more air during the "TH" sound. With the word "they," you don't hear as much air. 

Why is this? When we say the voiceless “TH," our vocal folds do not vibrate while producing this sound. However, when saying the voiced "TH," our vocal cords are functioning. This causes the less breathy sound you hear. 

Try saying "think" and "they" again, but this time place your hand on your throat during the "TH" production. Notice that when saying "they," you're able to feel your vocal folds vibrating. Pretty cool, right?  

The use of the vocal folds is the only difference between these two sounds. For both productions, the tongue protrudes slightly through the top and bottom front teeth. 

Additional examples of voiceless "TH" words include:

  • Thorn

  • Thousand

  • Bathtub

  • Toothpaste

  • Math

  • Tenth

Additional examples of voiced "TH" words include:

  • That

  • Them

  • Mother

  • Bathing

  • Breathe

Speech errors with the “TH” sound

There are a couple different sound errors that a child may pronounce for “TH.” Typically, an /f/ or /d/ sound is produced instead. Here are two examples:

  • “Father” may be pronounced as “fa-der”

  • “Think” may be pronounced as “fink”

When should children be able to say the "TH" sound?

A child should be able to say the voiceless “TH” sound sometime between ages 4.5 and 7 years old, and the voiced “TH” sound between 5 and 8 years old. 

While this speech sound may come later for some kids, it's wise to monitor any speech errors before a child goes to kindergarten. If a child isn't showing at least some improvement of “TH” by this age, considering speaking with your pediatrician or a speech therapist. 

How to start practicing the "TH" sound

When teaching the "TH" sound, it's important to start simple and progress slowly as your child improves their skills. Below is the typical progression speech therapists use to teach the "TH" sound, with some tips and tricks to practice. Before moving on to each level, be sure your child is about 90% accurate with the skills they're working on. This will ensure that the productions aren't too difficult and your child remains motivated and encouraged!

Teaching the "TH" sound by itself

Before you child can use words with the “TH” sound, they must first learn to accurately produce the sound by itself, in isolation. Unlike some other sounds, like /r/, the “TH” sound is highly visual--you can see your mouth make it. To start, put your tongue between your teeth and blow air at the same time. Notice how that naturally makes a “TH” sound? Model this action and have your child try to imitate. Then, practice doing this with and without your voice. For example, the “TH” in “think” sounds loud and distinct, whereas the “TH” in “they” is much softer and quieter. It’s important that your child masters both versions, but start with whichever comes easier.

Teaching the "TH" sound in syllables

After your child can imitate the different “TH” sounds, combine it with a syllable. While we’re not quite ready to practice “TH” words yet, this next level of complexity is important for your child to master. Again, model different syllable combinations and have your child practice imitating you. Start with sounds like “they, the, thee, though, tha.” Then, try putting the vowel in front of the "TH" sound, like “ath, eeth, ith, oath,” as well as in the middle: “atho, ethee, ootha.” Make sure to build upon the vowel placements your child is having the most success with before going on to harder combinations.

Teaching the "TH" sound in words

One your child can accurately pronounce "TH" sounds with syllable combinations about 80% of the time, it’s time to start practicing “TH” words! This is an exciting milestone and gets your child one step closer to using “TH” words fluently in conversation. Did your child have most success when the vowel came before, in the middle, or at the end of the “TH” sound? Build on this momentum and start by choosing words to practice that use your child's strengths. This will give them more motivation to practice!

Follow your child’s lead and practice “TH” words during an activity they most enjoy. You can print out cards with “TH” words and corresponding pictures, and play games like Go Fish or Bingo. Or, you can play a standard board game and practice “TH” words between every turn. Don’t forget to reward your child for all their hard work!

Teaching the "TH" sound in phrases and sentences

Once your child can say “TH” words, both voiceless and voiced, with 90% accuracy, it’s time to move on to phrases and sentences. Some children may be able to pronounce a word correctly by itself versus when that word is used in the middle of a phrase. That’s why this step is so crucial! 

One great way to practice is with a Mad Libs-style activity. You can print out a Mad Libs worksheet from the internet, and then have your child populate the story with only “TH” words. Sure, the story most likely won’t make much sense, but it’s great practice, and reading over the final product often gets a hearty laugh. You can also come up with sentences for your child and have them repeat them back to you. Make sure to continue practicing until they’ve mastered “TH” productions in the beginning, middle, and end of words.

Teaching the "TH" sound in conversation

Now your child is ready to use “TH” words in conversations. Your child has worked so hard to get to this point, and this last step puts all their newfound skills into practice! To practice, simply hold conversations with your child and listen closely to their “TH” productions. It should go rather smoothly, but from time to time you may have to provide a reminder or prompt them with a correction. That’s all part of the learning experience! If they’re struggling with conversation, have your child retell simple stories they’ve just read in a book or seen in a movie.

Tips for pronouncing the "TH" sound

If your child is struggling with their "TH" productions, these simple tips can help. 

Use a mirror

When helping your child with their “TH” sounds, grab a mirror! As mentioned, the great thing about the "TH" sound is that it's easy to visualize because of the obvious tongue placement. Review the correct tongue placement in front of the mirror with your child and have them imitate what your mouth and tongue are doing.

Try the discrimination technique

With this speech therapy technique, your child has to point out when you say a word right or wrong. Have your child watch your mouth and listen to the word. They can give you a thumbs up for a correct production, or a thumbs down for an incorrect production. Make sure your child is doing well with discrimination before moving on to actual saying the sound themselves.

Pick the voiced or voiceless “TH” sound to start

When you're beginning to target “TH” sounds with  your child, pick either voiced or voiceless “TH” to start, and focus on that one. Since working on new sounds can take a lot of practice for children, it's ideal to focus on one at a time.

Practice the "TH" sound often!

Practice has to be consistent in order for progress to happen. So be sure to practice at least 3 times a week. Having repeated exposure to speech goals will help your child make more progress faster.

While practice is important, be sure to find ways to make it fun and engaging for your child. Speech practice should be a positive experience! Here's some additional tips on how to motivate your child to practice.

Help your child use the "TH" sound in everyday speech

As you continue to practice, it's common for your child to master their "TH" sounds in words, phrases, and sentences, only to struggle applying this new sound to everyday speech. Parents and caregivers report this often.

In order to increase correct productions of “TH” words, you can start by having your child identify “TH” words that they hear in speech. This can be words they hear you or other family members say, or even words in their own speech! When a child is more aware of “TH” sounds in connected speech, they are more easily able to self-correct their own sound production. 

Once your child starts practicing “TH” in conversation, tell your child, “I’m going to be listening for your good 'TH' sounds!” This helps prompt them with an initial reminder. Spend about 10 minutes talking with your child, and point out any mispronunciations they may need to repeat. 

Over time, decrease how frequently you remind your child that you're listening for their “TH” production. This will help them become more and more independent with this sound production. Once a child masters the conversational level, they've met this goal!

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