Why do we need TH-pronunciation activities? The voiced TH and the unvoiced TH are two of the most difficult sounds for many of our adult ESL students because these rare phonemes simply don’t exist in many languages. /θ/ is even rarer than /ð/. Imagine going your entire life never making a specific sound and then being required to! So, how can we help our students improve their TH pronunciation outside of oral drills (which definitely have their place, are very useful, but something you already know about)? Let’s get going with five TH-pronunciation activities that are perfect for adult ESL!
Make TH listening labyrinths.
The listening labyrinth is of my favorite TH-pronunciation activities to check students’ ability to hear /θ/ vs. /s/ or /θ/ vs. /t/. This minimal pairs activity is easy to make, but don’t expect to make one in under five minutes! If you don’t have the time to follow the step-by-step instructions, but you want one for/θ/ vs. /s/ or /θ/ vs. /t/, that activity is included in the resource packet I have available on TpT. A listening labyrinth should be one of your go-to informal assessments of students’ ability to discern the difference between two sounds.
Hide your mouth!
No, there’s nothing stuck between your teeth, but your students will naturally look at your mouth while they are listening to you speak. When you are doing any type of auditory discrimination exercise with them and they can see the tip of your tongue between your teeth, they’ll know you weren’t making an /s/ sound even if they couldn’t hear the /θ/ sound. With your mouth hidden behind a sheet of paper while speaking during TH-pronunciation activities, they’ll have to rely on their ears, not their eyes, to know if you are making that tricky /th/ sound.
Go digital with BOOM cards as for one of your TH-pronunciation activities.
The Boom Learning platform is a godsend. The digital, interactive, self-checking cards are educational, fun, and perfect for use with adult ESL students. What are BOOM cards? Only the best thing since Betty White! All kidding aside, I can name nine reasons that you’ll love using BOOM cards, and their use goes beyond just pronunciation.
Something I love about BOOM cards? In the age of the pandemic (we really can’t call it a year, can we?), it’s understandable that we might not want to encourage anything that is likely to result in saliva being sprayed into the air we breathe. Even those of us who have been making the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds our entire lives can sometimes accidentally, erm, moisten the air, when saying a TH-word. Now imagine coaching a class full of students to actually stick the tip of their tongue between their teeth and expel air. I sometimes wanted an umbrella when all I had to worry about was a cold.
When we assign a deck of BOOM cards as one of our th-pronunciation activities, we’re giving our students the chance to hear TH words and work on their TH pronunciation outside the classroom. If you have them use a hand mirror while practicing, they’ll not only see if they’ve got the correct mouth position, but they’ll also notice if they spray. This gives them the chance to work on reducing any wet emphasis without dampening anyone’s face.
Play minimal pair bingo.
Yes, bingo works for almost everything! Here’s how to transform it into a TH-pronunciation activity.
- Use a blank BINGO template and fill it with /θ/ vs. /s/ minimal pairs.
- Create enough bingo cards to have one per student, making sure that the words on each are randomized.
- Then, type up all those words you used in a table, print, cut out, and mix together in a small container.
- Give each student a bingo card.
- Drift throughout the room, going from student to student to let them draw a word and read it aloud. Don’t let them spell the word; their classmates must listen carefully so that they hunt for and cover the correct word.
- Once someone has a “bingo”, they have to read aloud all the words that make the bingo. That extra pronunciation practice lets you check that they really won.
Treat them to the thrilling tongue twister tournament.
Now this TH-pronunciation activity has a twist! Pair up the students and challenge them to create a tongue twister using as many TH words as possible. You can narrow it down to /θ/ vs. /s/ or keep it to /θ/ vs. /ð/. Be sure to give them a time limit. Once time is up, have them exchange their tongue twister with another pair’s tongue twister.
- Round 1: Current pairs of students compete against their partner to say the tongue twister as quickly but accurately as possible.
- Round 2: The winners of each original pair get paired up and compete against each other using the tongue twister from a third pair (a tongue twister that neither has written or practiced before).
- Round 3+: Continue as in Round 2 until only two students are left.
- Final Round: The last two remaining competitors are no longer competing against each other. The new challenge is for them to be able to say a tongue twister together. If they can, the entire class gets a small prize. (Hey, adults like prizes just as much as kids do!)
Use YouTube videos
As I’ve already mentioned, using YouTube videos before, during, or after a class is basically like inviting a colleague to teach a segment of your class. Teaching with videos made by others is invaluable when it comes to pronunciation because it exposes your students to voices/accents other than your own. You don’t want them to get so used to how you say words that they have difficulty understanding anyone else.
The downside in using YouTube videos, of course, is that you have to hunt for videos that will work for you. You don’t want old videos with poor lighting, fuzzy visuals, or bad sound. You don’t want to endlessly scroll through unrelated videos to find what you are looking for, and you absolutely don’t want to get sucked into a rabbit hole and find yourself learning how to make a straw bale house. So, to save you from all that, I’ve done it for you. Made a list that is, not a straw bale house.
The Most Comprehensive Video
English TH – Accent Training by Rachel’s English.
(one hour) January 28, 2020
This one is so comprehensive that I’m not even going to try to sum it up. If you are only going to do one video for one of your TH-pronunciation activities, pick this one. It’s awesome. If you use/assign this, be sure that your students understand that they shouldn’t try to get through the whole thing in one go. I’ve always been a fan of this channel and specifically Rachel, and I WISH this video had been available years ago. Due to its length and depth, I would not assign this to beginners.
/θ/ vs /s/ Videos
How to Pronounce S and θ Sounds by Shaw English Online
(13½ minutes) June 8, 2021
This video incorporates explanations of how to make the sounds, minimal pairs, minimal pairs in sentences, and then gives a listening test. Excellent variety of TH-pronunciation activities.
How to pronounce th and s in English by Anglopod
(2 minutes) March 7, 2018
This short video walks students through a tongue twister that uses words with the /θ/ and /s/ sounds. This is a great video to show or assign before doing any TH-pronunciation activities that require students to create their own tongue twisters.
British English Pronunciation | Minimal Pairs /s/ vs /θ/ by Eat Sleep Dream English
(7½ minutes) May 29, 2018
The speaker uses minimal pairs and sentences that are like tongue twisters. Much of the time, you cannot even see his upper teeth while he is making the /θ/ sound, which I love, because it proves to students who cannot move their upper lip much that it IS possible to still make the sound. A word of caution: he speaks very quickly.
English Pronunciation Power #4 /θ/ vs. /s/ by Free Spirit English
Speakers: Dara & Jessica
(2 minutes) September 26, 2015
The speakers use minimal pairs in a short listening exercise. A minimal pair is shown and a voice says one of the words. Then the word that was said is highlighted for students to check their listening skills. I’m including this even though there is music playing in the background because while I would not want to use it myself, I know that some students might like that sort of thing.
/θ/ vs. /t/ Videos
/t/ vs. /θ/ MINIMAL PAIRS by Win-Win English
(4 minutes) July 17, 2020
On the screen, you’ll see one minimal pair at a time written in English and in IPA and says each pair twice before moving to the next. The same five minimal pairs are then used in listening exercises. Caution: while the speech is quiet, the sound effects are much louder and jarring.
/θ/ vs. /ð/ Videos
How to Pronounce TH Sounds in English by Pronunciation with Emma
(7 minutes) May 6, 2020
Understanding what is said might be a bit difficult for some students as Emma speaks quickly through her explanations, but she slows down and speaks very clearly when saying her example words.
Beginning Pronunciation by WinnieTeacher
(6 minutes) June 21, 2021
Winnie gives explanations for how to make the sounds and goes through the pronunciation of some example words. She speaks slowly.
The two TH Sounds in English by Billie English.
(10 minutes) May 6, 2021
The speaker’s voice is so incredibly calm and soothing that some students might get so relaxed that they want to sleep, but students who get anxious or feel stressed about their pronunciation will love her voice. She starts out with explanations with demonstrations of the sounds. Then she goes through examples which students are to listen and repeat. While she speaks at a good speed, she doesn’t give much of a pause, so students must immediately repeat without thinking. This can be great or not so good depending on the student. There are also a few listen and check exercises that are great as TH-pronunciation activities.
Tongue Twisters for TH Sound by British English Pro
(2½ minutes) November 12, 2014
This somewhat older video uses nine tongue twisters for a listen and repeat exercise. For each, you see a close-up of the speaker’s mouth as she says the tongue twister followed by the tongue twister in text on the screen with a pause for students to repeat it. Anna’s new channel is called English Like a Native.
TH Sound – Practice Tip by Rachel’s English
Speaker: Tom Kelley
(5 minutes) June 7, 2016
This one focuses mainly on explaining how to create the two TH sounds. The explanations are kept simple and don’t use a lot of difficult vocabulary words, but if your students don’t have good listening comprehension, they will struggle. I’d recommend having the closed captions feature turned on.