What is the Schwa?
“Schwa” is such a funny sounding word to describe what’s actually the most common vowel sound in the English language. It may be common, but it’s not always well understood by elementary teachers.
So what is it, anyway? According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, it’s “the unstressed central vowel, represented by the /ə/ symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet.”
The schwa basically sounds like /uh/… It’s a pretty lazy sound, like a soft, weak version of a short /u/, and what can be tricky about it is that any vowel can make a schwa sound.
a – balloon, about
e – camel, celebrate
i – family, pencil
o – wagon, offend
u – album, medium
y – syringe, vinyl
A lot of teachers struggle to understand and teach about the schwa, in large part because it’s less about the sound and more about the stress. English is actually a very rhythmic language, with each sentence filled with stressed and unstressed syllables. In general, the more important words of a sentence are stressed, and the less important “filler” or functional words like a, the, and, etc.) are unstressed.
Individual words also contain stressed and unstressed syllables, and we have a tendency to skip over, de-emphasize, and move quickly past the unstressed vowels. The lazy vowel sounds we make get pronounced as a schwa!
Think about the articles the and a. Both are functional, so usually they are the unstressed words in sentences. Instead of the long e or long a sound a beginning reader might predict, the sound actually comes out as a schwa: /uh/.
The other tricky thing about the schwa is that we often skip right over it! You know those “extra” vowels that hang around in words like chocolate, several, or different? Those center vowels disappear much of the time! It’s like the schwa got so lazy, it didn’t even show up!
How to Identify the Schwa
As with any “rule” in the English language, there are always exceptions. Still, there are a few places where the schwa often appears:
- Often found in the second syllable of a word
- Multi-syllable words that end in the letter “a” (Florida) OR that begin with the letter “a” (about)
- Multi-syllable words ending in “-on” or “-an”
- Multi-syllable words ending in a vowel + “l”
Of course, we can add “but not always” to the end of each bullet point above. That’s why I teach my kiddos: When in doubt, try it out. In other words, try pronouncing it with the regular vowel sound. Does it sound right? If not, try replacing it with the lazy version (the schwa).
Example: carr-ot with a short o sound, or carr-uht with the lazy schwa sound?
Strategies for Teaching the Schwa
It’s all about the stress! No, not the kind that makes you long for a bubble bath at the end of the day. I mean the emphasized vs. de-emphasized syllables and words in a sentence.
- Lead students through clapping or tapping activities. At first, students clap or tap on the stressed words at the sentence level, then we move to the word level, clapping out the stressed syllables.
- Teach students to mark the syllables of a word on their paper using color coding and by writing the schwa symbol (upside down e: /ə/ about the unstressed vowel sound.
- Make a schwa wall. You can invite students to add words as you learn them, or begin with sets of words written with different vowels.
- Practice different pronunciations with homographs: con-tent vs. con-tent, for example.
- Complete word sort activities. For example, have students sort picture cards based on the four common places we find the schwa sound that I listed above.
Tools for Teaching Foundational Literacy Skills
I’ve been learning so much lately about the science of reading and just how important it is to teach our students phonemic awareness. I realize, though, that not every elementary teacher feels prepared or equipped to teach the trickier phonetic patterns and sounds like the schwa. Trust me, that was me just a couple of years ago (Read: Why I Used to Suck at Teaching Phonics)!
That’s why I’ve worked so hard to develop these comprehensive Foundational Reading Skills bundles. Each grade level is full of science-based activities that help students become phonemically aware so they can improve their literacy skills.
The bundles include resources* such as:
- Word Work Booklets – quick, daily practice that incorporates spelling, grammar, and vocabulary in context (paper + digital)
- Hands-On Word Work – practice pages that cover a variety of phonological and phonemic awareness skills (paper)
- Digital Word Work – practice slides that cover a variety of phonics and phonemic awareness skills (digital)
- Spelling Tests – a resource that actually assesses the spelling patterns and sounds instead of just memorization (paper + auto grading digital versions)
- High-Frequency Words Practice – differentiated pages to practice and assess high-frequency words (paper)
- Sound Wall – a bulletin display that is an alternative to the traditional word wall
- Digital Sound Wall – a virtual classroom bulletin board + two interactive activities PER sound to use as a teaching tool
*varies by grade level
Shop the bundles now:
What phonetic patterns or sounds do you find tricky to teach your students? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to follow Markers and Minions on Facebook for more resources and tips for teaching literacy skills!