How to Teach the Voiced and Unvoiced “th”
Teaching the voiced and unvoiced consonant digraphs in the context of beginning and remedial reading instruction can be tricky. Speech therapists and ESL teachers insist that the differences are critically important; reading specialists and special education teachers tend to ignore these as “distinctions without differences.”
As a reading specialist, I usually stay on the practical “whatever works” side of the ledger. However, with respect to this one issue, I think my speech therapist and ESL friends have won me over.
Without getting over-technical (Please… if I see one more diagram of the vocal cords or hear the word fricative, I will not be held responsible for my actions), here are a few instructional tools that will help us all teach the voiced and unvoiced “th” consonant digraph.
I’ve spent countless training sessions trying to hear and feel the differences in the “th” sounds in beginning, medial, and end positions. I’m not the only one who has problems hearing these sound distinctions, but most of us can hear when a student mispronounces one of them. Here’s the best help I’ve found yet regarding how to differentiate the sounds:
To know if your voice is turned on, try this simple test. Put your hand gently over the front of your throat and breathe. Do you feel anything? No, you shouldn’t. Now, put your hand on your throat and say “ah”. Feel the vibration? That’s because your voice is turned on.
Now, let’s try it with one pair of sounds: S and Z
Put your hand on your throat and say s-s-s-s-s. You shouldn’t feel anything.
Now, put your hand on your throat and say z-z-z-z-z. You should feel the vibration because your voice has to be turned on to make the Z sound.
Your mouth, teeth, and tongue should be in exactly the same position for saying S and Z; you just need to turn your voice off for the S and on for the Z.
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The exercise works better than the other methods I’ve tried and I love the terminology “your voice has to be turned on.” So much better than “voiced-unvoiced” or “voiced-voiceless” for students (and reading specialists). Now, of course Lisa (and others) has picked the easiest pairing of sounds (/s/ and /z/) to demonstrate and the single consonants seem easier than the consonant digraphs, but starting with what is most clear usually does makes sense.
Now that we understand the difference between sounds with the voice turned on and off, we need to know how to teach them. I’ll provide a few pointers in the context of beginning reading instruction and then follow up with a recommendation for remedial readers and ESL students.
Of course, we introduce the voiced and unvoiced consonant digraphs separately. We provide example words and help students blend and segment the sounds. However, we do have a problem. In most phonics (sound-spellings) instructional sequences, we first teach short vowels and single consonants and then turn our attention to the consonant digraphs. And we stick with single syllable words. This certainly has proven the right instructional order over time, but it does limit our example words significantly and, thus, our practice of such in decodable text. Notice, we even have to dip into the King James English to broaden our lists.
Voiced Decodable “th_” Single Syllable Words with Short Vowels and Single Consonants
this that them then thus than
Voiced Decodable “th_” and Single Syllable Words with Long Vowels and Silent Final e
their (long a “ei” spelling) though (long o “_ough” spelling)
thou thee thy these those thine
Voiced Decodable “th_” and “_the” Single Syllable Words with Long Vowels, Silent Final e, and Consonant Blends
clothe breathe bathe teethe
Voiced Non-Decodable Single Syllable “th_” Words
the they there
Unvoiced Decodable Single Syllable “th” Words with Short Vowels and Single Consonants
thin thud path with
Unvoiced Decodable Single Syllable “th_” and Words with Long Vowels and Silent Final e
thief thigh thieves theme
Unvoiced Decodable Single Syllable “th” Words with Long Vowels, Silent Final e, and Consonant Blends
thank thing think growth
Strategic Word Analysis
- Guess the voiceless “th” in meaning-based words, such as theme, thaw, and both.
- Guess the voiced “th” in grammatical words, such as that, they, or then.
- When in doubt, guess and use the unvoiced pronunciation. Other than the list above, most all “th” words are “sound off” pronunciations.
- Other than the low utility long vowel, silent e decodable words listed above, guess an unvoiced “_th” at the end of a syllable. Teach students “If a syllable ends in ‘th,’ turn your voice off.” Examples: path, both, with, moth
- Teach students to guess a voiced “th_” at the start of syllable when it is followed by a short vowel sound. Only a few words, such as thin, thick, and thought are exceptions.
- Teach students to guess an unvoiced “th_” at the start of syllable when it is followed by a long vowel sound. Only a few long vowel words, such as the, these, those, their, and though are decodable exceptions. Add on the sight word there and the King James thou, thee, thy, and thine (if you must) and this is a good generalization.
Remedial Readers and ELD Students
For remedial readers and English language-learners, the ESL Gold Site does a wonderful job teaching the voiced “th” and the unvoice “th” with the following instructional sequence: 1. pronunciation 2. minimal pairs 3. challenging words 4. phrases 5. dialogue 6. oral reading. Adding a blending step to this sequence and, perhaps a timed word fluency exercise, would be especially helpful.
Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.
Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.
Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.