/th/ is one of the easier sounds to teach and learn since it is so visible. It can be tricky if kids are trying to master it too early, but once they are a little older (age 5 or 6) they can get the hang of it. Learning /th/ can get a little more complex if the child also has a lisp, which requires a little more time to do some re-wiring of the neuromuscular patterns. In general, kids usually feel a great sense of accomplishment rather quickly. Modeling and imitating is the first step. With some guidance, kids can get the feel of how to make the /th/ in no time. They start learning how to coordinate the airflow in a new way. Kids are often surprised to learn that there are two /th/ sounds: voice on and voice off. If you notice your child is substituting an /f/ for the voiceless /th/, as in “fing” for “thing” after age 6 and/or a /d/ for the voiced /th/, as in “anudder” for “another” after age 5, then it is time to get some speech therapy!
As with our previous posts on L, K and G and NG, we help the child to elicit the sound, ensure that oral motor mechanisms have appropriate strength and coordination, work through a hierarchy, and always include literacy, games, good conversation and lots of fun and practice!
In speech therapy we use visual, verbal and tactile cues to help kids elicit, acquire, use and maintain the sounds. While the cues are used throughout the therapeutic process to varying degrees, I broke them up a bit where we may tend to lean on one more than the other at different stages in the learning process.
For visual cues, we position our mouths to make the /th/ sound so that it is completely visible. Without making the sound, place the tip of your tongue between your teeth to show your child where the sound is made. Have them copy from your modeling. A mirror is great for this activity, and throughout all sessions until they can produce it without a visual cue. Using a mirror helps them get more visual feedback. Once their tongue is in the correct, or approximately correct place, then ask them to blow gently through their teeth. This creates the unvoiced /th/sound. From here you can ask them to “turn on” their voice, as you put your fingers on your voicebox to show them where the vibration is coming from. Then ask them to touch their own throat to feel their own vibration. At this initial stage they are learning how to establish the sound at the phoneme level.
For verbal cues, as they practice the single sound, they develop familiarity and a level of comfort. Remind them to say it slowly and clearly as they are learning. This helps them understand and differentiate which /th/ sound they are making. Verbal cues are used throughout the learning process, as long as they need it. Verbal cues are especially helpful at the beginning when kids are trying to learn a new placement. They often have trouble coordinating a new tongue movement with the proper amount of airflow, usually overcompensating by sticking the tongue out too far and using too much air. They learn sophistication over time and how to make the sound with a less exaggerated movement once the new motor movement is established.
Syllables: Using vowels is an excellent way to practice syllables. Practicing syllables will help them to more firmly establish the two different /th/ sounds. They can practice with /th/ in the initial position: thay, thee, thai, tho, thoo, thow and in the final position by switching the vowel position around: ayth, eeth, aith, oth, ooth, outh. Remember to practice both voiced and unvoiced sounds!
For tactile cues, air is pushed through the mouth to make the /th/ sounds. This little puff of air is right in front of the lips. In addition to checking the mirror for correct tongue placement, they can also put their fingers/hand slightly in front of their mouth to feel the air coming out. When changing from the unvoiced /th/ sound to the voiced/th/ sound, have your child feel their throat as they make the voiced /th/ sound. Feeling the vibration of the vocal cords helps kids know if they are producing the voiced sound correctly. This tactile cue helps them differentiate between the voiced and unvoiced /th/.
Continuing The Hierarchy
As with learning anything new, we have to start small and simple, building up the length and complexity over time. After the sound is elicited, the phoneme is stablized, and the child has mastered the syllable level, they move on to words, sentences, stories and conversations (structured and then unstructured).
Words: Practice at the word level opens up a whole new area of fun and creativity with words and games. You can purchase online practice games or picture cards for /th/ at the beginning, middle and end of a word at Boom Learning or Teachers Pay Teachers.
Sentences: You can make silly sentences, play around with tongue twisters, or make single sentences with /th/ while also focusing on building grammar and spelling skills. You can purchase materials at Boom Learning and Teachers Pay Teachers, and also on apps from Little Bee Speech, and Virtual Speech Center’s Articulation Carnival. One of the best places to get the daily speech practice done is in the car. You can play a game similar to I Spy where you see/find an object and ask, “What do you think this thing is”? They can respond with “I think this thing is…” I always recommend keeping a mirror in the glovebox of the car because you never know when it will come in handy!
Stories: I love stories! One of my favorite apps to use for stories is Little Stories Pro from Little Bee Speech. You can also use any books your child likes to read or make up stories. Read books with your kids that have lots of /th/ words in them. Slowing down and emphasizing these sounds will help them to grasp the sound. You can also remind them where and how the sound is made and either have them say the words after you, or read the words themselves depending upon their age and reading level.
Conversation: At this level of sound production we really see how the child is doing in connected speech. You can start with structured conversations about their daily routine and what happened in school or with other activities, and then move onto helping them to recognize and make corrections during more spontaneous speech. Conversations can also happen during storytime and reading books.
There is a lot to do but we are here to help and make it as easy and fun as possible!
At Vibe, our speech therapists are trained to work with children of every age, and in every facet of speech and language. We are experts in our field. The clinical and personal relationship we have with you is at the core of everything we do. From the resources we bring to support growth in communication, to the highly individualized therapy sessions. We offer collaborative partnerships with other providers, family and caregivers and we are committed to exceeding your expectations. We look forward to helping your child bring their best self into the world!
Contact Vibe Speech Therapy to learn more about how we can help you!