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How to Teach Schwas

Maybe you haven’t heard of schwas before, or maybe you’ve heard of them but are wondering how to teach schwas to your children. If so—read on! By the end of this post, I hope to have helped you make sense of the schwa.

What Is a Schwa?

The schwa is a muffled vowel sound that is heard in countless English words. Say the following words aloud and listen for the sound of the underlined vowel.

Words that have schwa sounds

See how the underlined vowel doesn’t say one of its normal sounds? Instead, depending upon the word, it says a muffled /ŭ/ or /ĭ/ sound. Also, do you notice how the schwa appears in an unaccented syllable? That schwa is what makes these words trickier to read and spell.

Facts about schwas infographic

In All About Reading and All About Spelling, we don’t use the term “schwa” with the student. Instead, we teach several strategies to help children deal with words that have muffled vowel sounds in the unaccented syllable. Here are some of my favorite strategies for teaching schwas.

Download a Quick Guide for teaching schwas

6 Strategies for Teaching Schwas

  1. Teach your child to “pronounce for spelling.”
    When learning to spell words that contain schwas, it really helps to “pronounce for spelling.” This is a simple technique in which we “over-pronounce” all the syllables, allowing us to clearly hear the vowel sounds. Take the word cabin, for example. Since the second syllable is unstressed, the letter I takes on the schwa sound, making it unclear which vowel to use for spelling. When we over-pronounce the word as “cab-IN,” it becomes clear that the letter I is used.

    Schwa character pronouncing for spelling

    Here is how this works in practice:

    1. “Spell the word support. I’ll pronounce it for spelling: SUP-port.”
    2. The student repeats the word, pronouncing for spelling.
    3. The student spells the word, and then reads the word normally: “support.”

  2. Use All About Spelling Word Banks to build visual memory.
    Have your student read through the Word Banks to become familiar with seeing the correct spelling. Then, when your student hears a muffled vowel sound and isn’t sure how it should be spelled, she can try “scratch paper spelling” to help determine the correct spelling.

    Word Banks from All About Spelling
  3. Encourage your child to think of related words.
    If a child can’t remember how to spell the word definition (def-uh-ni-tion), he can think of the root word (define) and use it as a clue for choosing the vowel that is making the /uh/ sound in the word.

  4. When reading, be prepared to “say it like a word.”
    If you read the word button with a short o sound in the second syllable, as in /bŭt-tŏn/, you’ll sound like a robot and listeners may have a hard time understanding you. Since there is a schwa in the second syllable, we have to be prepared to make slight adjustments in order to “say it like a word.”

    Schwa character standing

    Here’s how to lead your student through the “say it like a word” activity:

    1. Choose a word that is in your child’s oral vocabulary, such as the word problem.
    2. Say the word as if you were a robot, without using the schwa sound: /prŏb—lĕm/.
    3. Have your child “say it like a word” by repeating the word in normal speech.

    Once your child is proficient at repeating the words using the schwa sound, you can remind him to use this activity as he reads to help decode unfamiliar words. Soon you’ll be able to remind your student to “say it like a word” and he’ll correct himself.

  5. Schwa character saying words
  6. Teach words of similar construction at the same time so your child can see the pattern.
    For example, the letter A commonly takes on the schwa sound at the beginning of words like about, around, again, and so on. These words are taught together so that children will easily master this pattern.
  7. Remember to review.
    Students may need quite a bit of review with words containing the schwa, especially when it comes to spelling. Be sure not to skimp on review time, and have patience with the process. With practice and these strategies, your child can make sense of the schwa!

Has the schwa sound caused problems for your child? Which of these techniques do you think will be most helpful?

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Akuwa Williams

says:

Great I team!
Thanks a lot!

zedias chitiga

says:

Great

Eugenia C.

says:

Thank you! Very helpful.

Adh

says:

Schawa doesnt hve any identity
It jst a game of remembering

Where we sound of vowel or where we nt 🤦‍♀️ we hve to remember these things in our mind only

Donna S

says:

I love how AAS teaches this concept!

How do you label a syllable with the schwa sound? Is it considered a short vowel?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

That’s a good question, Donna.

A schwa sound can be found in any type of syllable. For example, the A in above is the schwa sound in an open syllable and the E in problem is a schwa sound in a closed syllable. You would label a schwa syllable based on what kind of syllable it is, regardless of the schwa sound.

Labeling syllables is often a helpful spelling strategy, but it isn’t always helpful. In the case of schwas, pronouncing for spelling may be more helpful.

Does this clear it up for you? Let me know if you have more questions.

Donna S

says:

That’s very helpful, thank you!

Peter

says:

Thanks, glad I found this post. In a lot of cases, it seems that the schwa sound is used out of a kind of accent/dialect “laziness” (saying “mem-uh-ree” instead of “mem-or-eee”—-please, not “mem-ree”). So, I can understand not emphasizing this fact until later. But for other words, it is the intended sound, especially for short u words (“up”, “tumble”) and some schwa-ed a words (“about”, “soda”). The AAS program Level 1 addresses the short u sound. But for the latter (the schwa-ed a) why are students not instructed from the start that this is an actual sound of the phonogram a (i.e., the a phonogram should have 4 sounds: /short-a/, /long-a/, /ah/, /uh/)? How should we respond to students (Level 1, at least) who make this correspondence?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Peter,
Good question. All About Spelling does address the schwa sound of A at the beginning and end of words. But the /uh/ sound really isn’t a normal sound of A. About starts with an open syllable, so the A should be long, ay-bout. But since the A is unaccented, it is pronounced uh-bout. Words that end in A, such as soda, come to us from Latin or languages of Latin origin. In Italian (the most likely source of the word soda for us), the final A would be closer to an English short A than anything else. But again, it is unaccented so we give it an /uh/ sound.

When you have a student that notices that A says /uh/ in such words, discuss schwas with them. Discuss that any vowel can say an /uh/ sound and we see it most commonly with A when A is the first or last letter in a word. Let the student know that All About Spelling will teach them about spelling words like about and soda in a future level. However, students need to be very comfortable with multiple syllable words first.

I hope this helps some, but please let me know if you have further questions.

PCDS teacher

says:

A great explanation that is clear and concise!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you!

Dana

says:

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of schwas, but I’m definitely going to ask my kids if they’ve ever heard of them in the morning! Thanks for the tips.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Dana,
The term “schwa” isn’t often taught to students; All About Reading and All About Spelling doesn’t teach it, although they provide a note to the teacher about it. The concept, however, is taught. Ask your kids if they are aware that many words have one of the vowels making a /uh/ sound, that when we speak normally we muffle one of the syllables.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Carmen Heethuis

says:

Just curious why you don’t address the short /i/ sound that the schwa can make as well?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

That is a good question, Carmen, and one I’m going to bring up to Marie. I’m not sure exactly, but I know it has to do with how short and muffled the sound is. I also suspect that regional accents play a role in if it is more /ih/ or /uh/ in specific words.

Sorry I’m not much help, but again I am asking about addressing this issue in the future.

David alewine

says:

Great info!

Lorraine Gilliam

says:

Schwas are difficult, hopefully these tips will make them less difficult.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad these will help, Lorraine. Schwas can be difficult and take a lot of practice to master.

Thora

says:

Never gave this much thought before so thanks for the lessons to pass of to my students!

Sandy M

says:

This is such a good concept to teach on top of the solid base established by AAR AND AAS! I feel like we are definitely in this stage of spelling!!

Candace

says:

Thanks for this! Your explanations are so helpful. This week (while on break!) I overheard my 8 year old teaching my 6 year old a strategy we’ve learned from AAR to help her read a word on a sign! It’s so rewarding to hear someone you’ve taught, teaching someone else!

Merry

says: Customer Service

Oh how precious! Moments for us moms to cherish, right? ❤️

Sasha

says:

I didn’t realize how difficult this sound was until I started teaching ESL and had to explain the pronunciation versus spelling differences in English.

Leslie

says:

So helpful! I never realized how much there is to reading and spelling until I began to teach my children.

Sharee Isaksen

says:

This curriculum is the only one that my daughter responded well too. It has been life changing!

Merry

says: Customer Service

That’s wonderful, Sharee!

Sharon

says:

This will really help me teach about the dreaded schwa. Thanks.

Mary

says:

Thank you for all the creative ideas!!!!

Mary

says:

This is awesome. I’ve been pronouncing words wrongly to my kids unknowingly. Now I know better. Thank you so much.

Merry

says: Customer Service

I’m glad that helped, Mary!

Celia

says:

This is great for English speakers foreigner can’t hear that -half- sound. Only if they had the sound in their own language can hear it. Still it is a great explanation. The human ear “”matures “ around age from 14-17 years old… after that it is very difficult to learned . I wish there was a way to learn them.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Celia,
I know what you mean and have experienced myself trying to learn a second language. There are some sounds that I am apparently not saying correctly but am at a loss for how it is different. Practice, patience, and help from native speakers can lead to improvement, however. I know my sister-in-law, who learned English as an adult, has a better accent now than she did even twenty years ago.

Candous Langston

says:

This is great! Honestly, I didn’t even realize that I have been over-pronouncing words to my kids because the schwa was so difficult for me to comprehend as a child. I really love tip three about think of the root word!

Sonja

says:

Thank you! This was very helpful. These words are some of the ones my daughter still really struggles with. These tips will be helpful!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Sonja,
I’m happy this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or ever need more help.

Runningdog

says:

Thanks for sharing this, I learned something totally new to me! Especially appreciate the strategies you share for spelling schwa containing words. Definitely s bugaboo for us. :)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m happy this was helpful for you! However, if your student still has trouble, let me know so I can help.

Katie Cundiff

says:

Thanks for the helpful tips! I’ve hated the schwa and didn’t even know it. It’s definitely caused lots of problems for my daughter but I feel much more equipped to tackle it now.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

It’s great that this was helpful for you, Katie. However, if your daughter continues to have problems with it, let us know.

Kate

says:

Thanks so much! I never understood the schwa sound until I was trying to teach my son!

Heather

says:

Can’t wait to try this with my newest reader!

Michael B.

says:

So helpful! Thanks!

Nicole

says:

Awesome! Thanks.

Nicky

says:

Great thank you

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