The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching the "Th" Sound to ESL/EFL Learners

Richard Soulliere
tarzaninchina [at]
Taiyuan Normal University (Taiyuan, Shanxi, China)
English language learners often mispronounce the "th" sound by making a simple "s" sound. What follows is a tongue exercise in class that produces near-immediate results in rectifying this learned deficiency.

Introduction of the Problem

Throughout my years of teaching English as a foreign language, I have met many English language learners who say "sink" instead of "think". This occurred in kindergarten all the way through to university level students. Many other teachers encounter the same problem and discussed the ways they have tried to alleviate it, few with any amount of success.

The Technique

A technique I discovered that works well involves all students in the class and can be completed (including practice) in a matter of minutes, so it need not take up an entire class.

First, briefly explain to students that the only way to correctly make the "th" sound is to stick your tongue out. If students reply that this doesn't look nice or involves a loss of face, simply remind them that they're speaking in another language and that they would be saying it wrong and would be more difficult to understand. Many students are willing to become more expressive and chalk it up as part of that expression, especially with full confidence knowing it's correct.

Second, have all students stick their tongues out and to keep them stuck out for thirty seconds. Don't begin timing until all students have stuck out their tongue. Join students by sticking your tongue out as well as it makes it more believable, not to mention allowing them to feed off of you and their classmates to avoid being singularly embarrassed. Make it a point to pay attention to the amount of time it takes as well as insure that all students are keeping their tongues stuck out.

Third, have students practice saying some words with the "th" sound.


Following this exercise, practicing words with the "th" sound in it is important. First, begin with some words. This should be enunciated clearly as they will need to watch your mouth movements closely, so it may help to make a conscious effort to stick your tongue out a little more than usual with the first word and then tone it back down to normal.

Once done assessing their improvement with individual words, move onto some tongue twisters, for example:
In future conversations with students, you can employ a simple cue as a corrective measure. If ever they speak the 's' sound where the 'sh' sound should have been spoken, simply stick out your tongue and they'll think back to the error they made by associating that action with the proper way to make that sound.

For students who continue slipping up with this sound, you can employ a mild punishment of having them stick out their tongue for an entire two-minute stretch.

Be Mindful of the Following

There are a few concerns in using this technique and they are as follows:

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 11, November 2005