Do your students get stressed by the schwa concept? A lot of teachers are comfortable teaching syllable types but teaching the schwa is more intimidating especially for struggling or dyslexic readers. English is a complex language with many nuances. The most common vowel letter is the vowel <e>. However, the most common vowel sound isn’t long or short /e/, as one might expect, but instead, the schwa sound are the most common speech sound. The schwa sound that often sounds like the short u (/uh/) is in many words. The schwa sound is pronounced in an unstressed syllable in English..
It is usually not difficult for students to pronounce this unstressed vowel sound in reading. Unfortunately, it can be confusing for students attempting to spell words containing it; that’s why I’ve put together some simple advice on decoding and encoding such words in the blog!
The English language flows with a unique stress-timed rhythm! Key components of our sentences – nouns, verbs, and adjectives to name a few – are usually emphasized with the strongest emphasis on one syllable. Take ‘gorilla’ for example; when spoken out loud you’d want your students to say that word as “go-riˊlla”. Every word with more than one syllable will have at least one stressed (loud) syllable indicated by an accent mark ˊ. Fun fact: even without it sounding like music, English has its own special melody once we understand how the timing works!
Functional Words Are Usually Unstressed
Understanding English pronunciation can be tricky – especially when it comes to unstressed words. These syllables tend to come out faster and quieter than their stressed counterparts, causing the vowel sound of unaccented words like ‘the’ or ‘a’ to lose its clarity.
Teaching high-frequency articles such as “the” or “a” with their schwa vocalizations helps learners grasp this key concept quickly.
The <e> and <a> in these open syllable words don’t say their long sounds as they usually would in an open syllable word because they are function words and don’t take the stress in a sentence like a content word (noun or verb) does.
a Lazy Vowel
Schwa is used with most unstressed vowels and the sound it makes can be represented by an upside-down ‘e’ – like it’s too lazy to sit up! It’s found in many words and pronounced at a lower volume in a word. Schwa helps to add speed and clarity to speech, by emphasizing stressed syllables so they can be easily heard while secondary syllables are breezed through. Sometimes we lazily skip over unstressed vowels when saying words. Did you know sometimes we skip over the vowel entirely like the second syllable vowel <o> in ‘chocolate’? Kids love talking about this lazy vowel.
Tips for Teaching the Lazy Vowel
Start at the Sentence Level
Have students say an English sentence stressing different words in it to show how this concept of stress can change the meaning. For example, Take the sentence “You walked to the shop?” If you say it as a question: “You walked to the shop?” This conveys the meaning of I can’t believe you went to that place!
But if the word ‘You’ is emphasized as in: “You walked to the shop?” This conveys the meaning of I can’t believe you went to that place instead of someone else.
If the main verbs are stressed as in: “You walked to the shop?” this conveys the meaning of why did you walk instead of driving or biking. You may also want to show how vowels in the function words like ‘to’ and ‘the’ become schwa sounds in a sentence. An unstressed word like ‘to’ becomes /tuh/. An activity with differently stressed words like this helps children understand the concept of stress.
Go to the Word Level
The rubber band stretch
Give students one, two, and three-syllable words so they can discover where the stress is in those words. They will quickly learn that in a one-syllable word, the whole word is stressed.
Then with two-syllable words or three-syllable words, you can have students discover and accent stress by using the rubber band trick. Have the student stretch a rubber band as they pronounce the word. The accented portion of a word is said a little bit louder and a little bit longer. The rubber band stretching longer helps clarify the concept of the accented or unaccented syllable for some students.
Call the Dog
Saying a word in a “sing-song” voice as you might call a dog like “RO-ver” can also help students find stressed vowels or accents on a syllable.
Tap the Table
Point the finger of your dominant hand and hit a table or desk at the exact same time you say a word. Your finger will almost always strike the surface on the timing of the accented syllable.
Let’s get your students singing and tapping their way to mastering the schwa sound! Have them sing words with two or more syllables, while simultaneously emphasizing the stressed syllable(s) on their desks.
Mark the Words
When they write these words down, encourage them to emphasize strong stress by adding an accent mark (ˊ), followed by marking unstressed vowel sounds with a schwa symbol the upside down e ( ə). As an extra challenge – why not grab some homonyms too: can you identify which word is ‘produce’ and which one is ‘produce’? Sometimes words differ only by where the accent is placed. So these words are best taught in the context of a sentence.
Tools for the Schwa in Reading
Encourage your students to explore the lazy vowel sound! It can be really helpful for them when a long or short vowel just won’t seem to fit in a word they’re reading. Get them started with a sentence e.g. “I will tra’vel to Africa.”
Have them decode it robotically and then stress one syllable (like, ‘vel’), before pronouncing the other with an unstressed syllable. If that still doesn’t quite work out, look at shifting emphasis over to another syllable as well. But most of the time context and vocabulary knowledge will help students with reading English words with the schwa sound. Spelling is a bit trickier!”
5 Tips for Spelling
Use Spelling Speech
With the lazy vowel that /uh/ or short <i> sound could represent any vowel so it can be very tricky for spelling. Teach your students to spell words with a schwa correctly by having them use their ‘spelling speech’ in multi-syllable words. Introduce the concept of emphasizing unstressed syllables and vowels as if they were pronounced when stressed, such as in “pilot” or “family”. By enunciating each sound distinctly for spelling purposes, kids will better remember how to read and write these tricky words.
Teach Morphology With Suffixes
If students know suffixes in words they are less likely to spell them incorrectly. For example, the suffix -en means “something that is made of something or like something” and is found in words like ‘darken’, ‘wooden’ or ‘golden’. Similarly, the suffix -able means “able to” and becomes a schwa sound in words like ‘portable, ‘taxable’, and ‘passable’ but if children know the meaning behind these suffixes they as less likely to misspell them.
Make a Spelling Word Wall with examples of schwa for common words
- Schwa Sound at the Beginning of Words with First Syllable Unstressed
about above again ago ahead alive alone amaze around away
- Schwa Sound at the End of Words with the Second Syllable Unstressed
broken children eleven even happen heaven kitten oven taken token balloon
- Schwa Sound in Middle Syllables
bulletin celebrate enemy telephone family
Teach Students Spelling Generalizations
Schwa with an unaccented vowel <a> (The Banana Rule)
If spelling generalizations are explicitly taught. It can help students know when the schwa sound occurs and how to spell it.
Open Syllable <a> in an unaccented syllable always becomes a schwa /uh/ sound. An Open <a> syllable will always change to a schwa sound at the end of a word such as the word umbrella.
An Open <a> syllable at the beginning of a word. Usually changes to a schwa sound like in the word ‘ago’ or ‘around’. And if a word has two unaccented open <a>s, they will both change to the schwa sound like in the word ‘banana’, The Barton reading and spelling program calls this the banana rule.
Generalizations for the vowels <i> and <e>
Another rule that is helpful for students is in an unaccented closed syllable with an <o> or an <a>, the sound becomes a schwa like in the word ‘Texas” or in the word ‘blossom.” Also, sometimes a short <e> will change to a short <i> sound in an unaccented closed syllable like in the word ‘basket’ or ‘pocket’.
Generalizations for the consonant <L>
One last generalization that can be helpful for students is that any vowel followed by an <L> in a multi-syllable word becomes a schwa.
Fun Activities For Fluency with Schwa Words
- Do some word Sort Activities with Schwa Words
- Choose the Correct Spelling Activities
- Read Decodable Stories and Highlight and Write Schwa Words
As we all know, having a grasp of schwa is necessary to ensure execution and comprehension in reading and writing. But most of us have acquired this knowledge without determined instruction. But for struggling readers and spellers the schwa is a mystery that cannot be conquered alone. It’s up to teachers now to impart these important lessons to our students so they can reap the full rewards!
Q: What is the sound of ə (schwa)?
A: The schwa is an unstressed and reduced vowel sound in a word. It’s represented with the symbol ə in writing. The sound of schwa is similar to a short <u> sound /uh/ or short <i> sound.
Q: What are examples of schwa?
A: Examples of schwa in words include “about”, “again”, “broken”, “balloon” and “family”.
Q: What are some activities to help teach students about schwa?
A: Activities such as word sorts, choosing the correct spelling activities, and reading decodable stories with highlighting and writing of schwa words are great ways to help students learn about the schwa sound.
Additionally, teaching students spelling generalizations about schwa can help them remember when and how it’s used. Make a Spelling Word Wall with examples of schwa for common words and teach students spelling generalizations, such as the “banana rule”. This will help them to understand when the schwa sound occurs and how to spell it.