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How to Teach the Voiced and Unvoiced “th”

Turning On and Off the /th?

Voiced and Unvoiced /th/

Teaching the voiced and unvoiced consonant digraphs in the context of beginning and remedial reading instruction can be tricky, especially the Voiced and Unvoiced “th.” Speech therapists and EL 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. In fact, in my new reading intervention programs I’ve included digital sound walls to demonstrate proper mouth position and speech articulation. If you are unfamiliar with what a sound wall looks like and want FREE digital and printable sound wall resources, including phoneme-grapheme cards, speech articulation songs, and personal desk sound wall printables, check out FREE Sound Wall Resources.

My programs focus on older students ages 8–adult, who struggle with reading, many have problems making the phoneme (speech sound) to grapheme (print) connection. What’s preventing these students from making this connection? Almost always, it’s inaccurate or inconsistent recognition and production of the speech sounds. If you can’t say ’em, you can’t read ’em and you certainly can’t spell ’em.

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.

Lisa Scott
Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/4426340

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, EL, 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.

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Get the Phonemic Awareness Assessments FREE Resource:

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  1. Krauss
    November 4th, 2011 at 11:06 | #1

    Thanks! This was helpful to me. 🙂

  2. Nick Milnes
    September 25th, 2012 at 16:27 | #2

    I try not to use my ‘turned on’ voice with students.
    It’s difficult though.
    (I teach adults).

  3. September 27th, 2012 at 16:22 | #3


  4. Marcia Oda
    February 4th, 2015 at 21:15 | #4

    I am a retired sped teacher currently working with a delightful, bright and educated immigrant to help her over a heavy accent. This example of the voiced and unvoiced th sound is most helpful. Thank you, Marcia

  5. john lawrence
    October 31st, 2016 at 16:02 | #5

    Recently I have become aware of many broadcasters in the Charlotte, NC area using voiced “th” when they say “thanks”. Is this something being taught in schools of broadcasting? Just curious.

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