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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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Karon

says:

This was very helpful

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful, Karon.

Erin Lasky

says:

Kind of related to this, we are working on identifying the accented syllable in familiar words and my students are sometimes struggling. We have tried looking for muffled vowels, accenting the wrong syllable to hear how it sounds strange, listening to others say it naturally in a sentence, and when all else fails check a dictionary. Any other tips or activities we can try? Thank you for your materials! I have used them successfully for years with dozens of students.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Identifying which syllable is accented is difficult for many students, Erin. Here are some additional tips that may help:

A helpful pattern in English is that two-syllable nouns usually have the accent on the first syllable and two-syllable verbs usually have the accent on the second syllable. This holds true quite reliably but there are some exceptions (guitar is a two-syllable noun with the accent on the second syllable, for example).

This is why there are two ways to pronounce words such as content, object, address, and others. When the word is functioning as a noun, the accent is on the first syllable. When is functioning as a verb, the accent is on the second syllable. So, the CON-tent of the book makes me con-TENT when I read it. The OB-ject of the class is to teach children not to ob-JECT to school. I need the AD-dress of the school so I can give my ad-DRESS.

Here is a video by Renee LaTulippe where she walks through 5 tips for hearing the stressed syllables in words.

I know you are already trying this, but I’ll add, consider how vowels in unaccented syllables tend to be muffled and don’t usually get their full, true sound, but when the syllable is accented, you can hear the vowel clearly. With my daughter, I had her give the accented vowel its full sound and the unaccented on a mumbled /uh/ or /ih/. The accented syllable is said louder and emphasized and the unaccented syllable is said almost under your breath. So, with refer, try RE-fuh and ruh-FER. Which sounds closest to the way we actually pronounce the word?

I hope this helps, but please know that it can take lots and lots of practice and review for some students to have success with identifying the accent most of the time. I chose three or four words a day for months to review with my daughter until it was easy enough for her that I stopped reviewing more than once a month or so.

Erin Lasky

says:

Super helpful! Thank you so much for all the ideas and tips to pursue!

Jamie

says:

We are in level 2 of spelling and my 7 year old is REALLY struggling with this. bonus- he tries to spell it -is-, trumpet becomes trumpit, item becomes itum. I try to pronounce it for spelling but then he says it to him self like he would normally on speech. Maybe I need to stress “like a robot” to make it more fun? And if that works, will he just memorize it and that is how it will stick?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

What he needs to memorize is the pronunciation for spelling, Jamie.

When you want to use pronouncing for spelling as a strategy, I would do the following:

First, focus on words with the same ending, so they are grouped mentally. Second, say the word normally and then say it pronouncing for spelling.

Then, have him repeat the pronunciation for spelling. Then have him spell the word, and again say the pronunciation.

Then, by the time you get to the word review cards say, “I am going to say these how we normally say them. You need to pronounce them for spelling and then spell the word.” If he doesn’t pronounce it for spelling correctly, say it and have him repeat it before he spells it. Do not let a card pass out of review before he can remember the pronunciation and spelling all on his own, easily, without hesitation. Then continue to review these once a week for 2-3 weeks to make sure they stay solid.

Caroline

says:

Very interesting now I’ve learned something I know about the sounds but didn’t know what it was called.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was informative for you, Caroline.

Andrea Mette

says:

This is so helpful! My oldest is learning this in school right now. Home work has been a struggle but not after reading this!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Andrea. I’m glad this was helpful!

Alan pat

says:

Great explanation

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Alan.

Moyra Marais

says:

Thanks for actually enumerating strategies that one instinctively uses to teach tricky sounds! It’s good to read an explanation so clearly defined.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Moyra!

Maureen

says:

Hi Marie
I have great respect for your knowledge and work but I would like to say that tion and sion are not suffixes. ion is the suffix. The t and s belong to the base word. I realise in this post you don’t call it a suffix – but many do.
Also how does a child know when to mis- pronounce a word in order to spell it ?
Regards
Maureen.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Maureen,
Thanks for pointing that out about ION.

The “Pronounce for Spelling” technique is a useful spelling strategy as a child studies and learns words. It will not be helpful for “cold spelling,” that is spelling a word you have not learned previously. Since any vowel can take on the schwa sound, there is no way of knowing what vowel to use for that muffled /uh/ or /ih/ sound unless you are already familiar with the word or use a dictionary.

However, strategies like this one do have further application because it helps to develop a student’s ability to think about words in more depth (orthographic mapping skills, for example). A student can’t possibly memorize all or even most words visually, so All About Spelling teaches multiple strategies. Here are 4 Spelling Strategies You Won’t Want to Miss.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have further questions.

Ashraf Hammad

says:

Hello thanks but is there a spicific rules to know when we have to use the schwas
Thanks alot hope replay via my mail thanks again

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Ashraf,
I’m sorry, no. There isn’t a rule for when a vowel takes on a schwa sound or not.

In fact, the same word can be pronounced with the schwa on different vowels based on what English accent you are speaking with. For example, in American accents, the middle vowel in “Amazon” has the schwa. However, in British accents, the middle and the final vowels both have the schwa sound.

Mary Ellen Carpenter

says:

Thank you!! I will print all of the lesson and your explanation. I teach gifted 2nd graders who are reading several level above typical 2nd grade readers. This will be a great spelling lesson for them!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m very glad this will be helpful for your students, Mary Ellen!

Amina shamas

says:

What are the benefits of schwa sound

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Interesting question, Amina.

The schwa sound in syllables is common not only in English but in other languages as well. It is actually the most common sound in English!

The answer to the question as to the benefits of the schwa is rather beyond me. I think you are asking why English includes schwas? I don’t really know. I only know that many languages do, so maybe it is something innate to spoken language.

However, I can say that English makes such common use of this sound that it needs to be taught to students so they can anticipate it and know no to use a U every time they hear the /uh/ schwas sound.

Does this help?

Amina shamas

says:

What are the benefits of schwa sound?

Amina zahid

says:

Is schwa sound effect as a fluency device

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m not sure what you are asking, Amina. Schwas are simply an aspect of many languages and are very common in English.

We have a blog post on How to Develop Reading Fluency that may help.

I’d love to help further if you could give more details about what you want to know.

Amber

says:

As a parent who is helping a child with dyslexia, I appreciate your posts. I don’t need to hear all the linguistic complexities of the schwa sound. I just need to have strategies for teaching it! I’ve found your articles and materials very helpful and parent friendly. Thank you for your work.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear this, Amber, and I will be passing it along to the entire AALP team. Our goal, first and foremost, is to be helpful for those teaching students that struggle. It’s wonderful to hear that you have found this post helpful!

Teacher Lindsey

says:

This is a really useful article, thanks for sharing! As other people have mentioned, the ‘pronounce for spelling’ technique is something my learners use and it’s so important to differentiate how you actually say the word.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this will be helpful for your students, Lindsey!

Stacy

says:

Thanl you for this, very informative!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Stacy!

Andrea D

says:

I have “pronounced for spelling” for many years (for my own benefit!), but didn’t have a name for it. I’ll start using it more!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Andrea,
Yes! The pronounce for spelling technique is nothing new; it’s been taught for decades at least! But sometimes we need to be reminded.

Kassi

says:

“Pronounce for spelling” is a very helpful approach for us as we work through AAR/AAS! It also makes me very aware of my southern accent ? we love your programs!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad the “pronounce for spelling” technique has been helpful for you, Kassi. And we all have accents that cause issues for spelling at least occasionally!

Sherman

says:

There is much more to the Schwa than what has been written on it and I am writing a book on this as well. A Schwa is a weak vowel. It is called a weak vowel because it doesn’t have the sound that that vowel is supposed to have. It has a different sound instead. A Schwa is always in the unaccented syllable.

When a multi-syllable word ends with a vowel right before an ending ‘l’ it always has the same sound, no matter what the vowel is: EXAMPLES: animal, camel, pencil, symbol, thankful. It’s the sound of a short oo before an l.

When a multi-syllable word ends with a vowel right before an ending ‘r’ it always has the same sound, no matter what the vowel is: EXAMPLES: dollar, paper, doctor. It’s the sound of a short oo before an r.

When a multi-syllable word ends with a vowel that is NOT right before an ending l or r, it always has the sound of a short i.EXAMPLES: human, happen, bottom, circus.

When the letter a is in the unaccented syllable it has the sound of a short u. EXAMPLES: about, again, a
America, soda, pizza.

The letter Y has the sound of a long I. But not when it is in the unaccented syllable and is weak. Then it has the sound of a long E. EXAMPLES: happy, baby.

You can compare these examples to the same vowels in the accented syllables. EXAMPLES: dollar-guitar, camel-hotel, deny-happy, after-about.

Abdou

says:

Thank you, Sherman ! Your comment is very useful for me. Maybe you can give us more secrets about the schwa because it is really difficult to know which syllable is stressed or unstressed particularly non-native speakers. Let us know once your book is published.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Sherman! Yes, schwas are more complex, but most things are far more complex than can be covered in a single blog post.

Eilene

says:

I have taught my students about schwa, even first graders. We joke about its funny name (you can say it like a funny trombone sound) and they LOVE that the linguistic sign is an upside down e! They notice it in dictionaries. We joke that it is our lazy mouths just sliding through the word. We practice saying it for spelling by over emphasizing the actual vowel in that place : prob lEhm, CA bihn. Knowing about it seems to make them more aware of the sounds in words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Eilene,
I love that you make learning the concept of schwa sounds so fun and engaging. Having a laugh at such words is such a wonderful technique! It minimizes the tendency of some children to assume difficulties with reading or spelling are their fault. With the way you approach schwas, you have shown that the difficulties are the schwa’s fault!

Thank you for sharing this very helpful approach.

sherman

says:

Yes, definitely true!

Kusum Patil

says:

Very Useful

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!