Teaching “th” sounds (theta and eth) + a card game

When I start my pronunciation unit on the “th” sounds, half of my class sounds like snakes and bees.

That’s because many languages don’t have theta (/θ/) or eth (/ð/) sounds, so those sounds come out as /s/ and /z/ respectively. If you do a speaking exercise with a lot of words with “th”, you’re going to hear “sssss” and “zzzzz” until you start helping certain students improve their pronunciation.

Since both of these sounds are represented with a “th” in English writing, you can teach your students the symbols – θ for unvoiced, and ð for voiced (these are real letters, just not in English. You’ll find θ in modern Greek and ð in modern Icelandic – pretty cool!)

For Arabic speakers learning English, this will make sense to them since they have two different letters for these two sounds:

 ث  = θ (unvoiced) and ذ = ð (voiced)

Arabic speakers will have no problem pronouncing these sounds since they have them in their language. But they might have trouble choosing which sound to use when they see a “th” in writing, so they can still get something out of a lesson on these two sounds.

Let’s consider a few more things when you’re teaching the “th” sounds.

How to pronounce it?

If you’re a native speaker of English, you might not even realize how awkward making these sounds is. It’s even awkward for kids when they’re learning to talk – you’ll notice that the “th” sounds are some of the last ones they acquire.

To use the technical linguistic terms, theta (/θ/) is an unvoiced interdental fricative. What does all that mean?

  • unvoiced = no vibration in your throat
  • interdental = tongue between your teeth
  • fricative = the air is being pushed out continuously, with some friction from parts of the mouth

Eth (/ð/), on the other hand, is a voiced interdental fricative. Same as the above, just with vibration in your throat when you pronounce it.

Which part of this do students have trouble with? Let’s think about those snakes and bees again. If you hear “sssss” it’s unvoiced and a fricative. With “zzzzz”, it’s voiced and a fricative also. So your students are on the right track. It’s that awkward interdental part that’s the problem.

The best way to teach this – tell your students you need to see their tongues through their teeth.

They can practice this at home: tell them to talk in front of a mirror and if they can’t see their tongue when they pronounce these words, they’re doing it wrong.

It’s going to be awkward for them. It’s OK if it sounds forced or exaggerated when they’re starting to learn these sounds. They’re using muscles in their mouths that they have never really exercised in their whole lives.

Rachel’s English has a great video on this.

So which is it? Theta or eth?

If you’re a native English speaker, you pronounce the correct sound when you read a “th”, but you might not be explicitly aware of the rules for deciding when to use which.

Here they are:

Pronounce eth (/ð/) when you see a “th”:

  • at the front of a function word
  • in a word that ends in -ther or -thern
  • or in a word ending in -the, -thed, or -thing

And pronounce theta (/θ/) with every other “th” you see! Simple!

Here is a worksheet of Theta and Eth spelling rules that you can give to your class – it has examples and more detailed explanations.

Practice!

There are tons of activities you can find online to practice the two “th” sounds. Lots of typical pronunciation activities like gap fills, call and repeat, loaded sentence/paragraph reading are all useful to give students much-needed practice with these unfamiliar sounds.

Most pronunciation textbooks have some practice with “th” sounds. If you don’t have one of those for your class, do some googling and you’ll find some materials that will help you out. (If you can’t find any, let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction).

What I haven’t found yet is an activity that helps students practice when to use which sound. They’re usually pretty good at figuring this out, but I still hear thetas when I should hear eths and vice-versa.

This activity is even good for Arabic speakers, because even if they know how to pronounce both of these sounds, they might not know when to use which (until you teach them of course!)

I use a card game with my class that’s fun and effective as a wrap up for this topic. It’s played one on one – two students sit across from each other. One student is looking for words with the eth sound, the other student is looking for words with the theta sound. The cards are face down and they flip a card over. On one side of the card is a word with a theta, on the other side is a word with an eth. Whichever student says the word that they’re looking for, they get the card and a point. If they blurt out the word with the other student’s sound, the other student get the card and the point. The winner is the student or team that has the most cards/points at the end. Make sense?

You can do a few rounds of this, with different combinations of students so you can get repetition. Go around as they’re playing to make sure that they are pronouncing both of the sounds correctly.

Here are is the theta eth card game cards. Cut on the dotted lines (I know, it’s a lot of cutting). There should be a line in between the two words (don’t cut the solid line).

 

I hope you enjoy teaching the “th” sounds in your class. It’s difficult, but students usually have a lot of fun with it and appreciate the help with this unique sound.

Thanks for reading.

 

BONUS: I almost forgot something super important. It helps to show this video at the beginning of your unit on “th” sounds:

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Featured Image Credit: Andrew Malone

8 thoughts on “Teaching “th” sounds (theta and eth) + a card game

  1. This is a very helpful article, especially the rules on when to use voiced/unvoiced th!
    Since I teach EFL in Peru, these sounds are super hard for my littles. Spanish doesn’t have the “th” sound, and my kids tend to make it with a d sound. To practice, I tell them that for these letters, they get to stick out their tongues! (They’re kindergarteners, so you can bet they love that!) We even do “tongue exercises”, trying to touch our nose with our tongues, trying to touch our chin with our tongues, trying to touch our ears with our tongues (impossible, but goodness gracious, how they love trying!) and finally “wiggling” our tongues in and out of our mouths. Once we’ve done our “exercises” I just remind them to stick out their tongues and the sounds are much easier for them to make!

  2. Hi, I like your article and your approach to this but with espanol learners the problem is hearing a D because they do not put their tongues out…If you analyze how you speak you’ll see that we native speakers do not always put our tongues out… we cheat a LOT! When you want to say, for example, birthday…it’s not easy for a second language English learner to put his tongue out then pull it back to make a D sound in one fluid motion…teach them how to cheat like we do. Push your tongue against your teeth with a little pressure then you can make the TH sound and push off for the D sound in one motion.
    I try to teach my students how to make all these movements and to minimize their movements at the same time.
    To all you non-native speakers…Teach your students to use their tongues…We change EVERYTHING to a D sound and it’s just a flick of the tongue to the roof of the mouth…This is the key to the whole thing…Touch the teeth and you have a TH…Keep it simple…Buen dia…

    1. Thanks William. Good point. Consonant clusters with the “th” sounds make it even MORE difficult. Start slow and small and help the students build their way up to more complex and faster.

  3. Great ideas! Love the video at the end…and the tongue exercises for preschoolers idea in the comments above. I teach a couple of preschoolers. They have numbers 1-30 down pat; so during calendar time, I began teaching them first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. Lots of “th” practice there; but it seems they err by putting a plain ol’ “t” sound at the end instead of “th”. So we have been doing the “tongue between the teeth” thing… will continue to work on it with other fun tongue exercises now! I think it is definitely easier for them to learn it at 5 years old than later on.

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