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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 the muffled /uh/ sound that is heard in countless English words. In fact, it is the most common vowel sound in English.

Listen for the /uh/ sound in these words:

Words that have schwa sounds

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

Examples of the Schwa Sound infographic

How to Teach Schwas

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 in reading and spelling.

For Spelling:

  • Teach your child to “pronounce for spelling.”

    When learning 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 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.

    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.”

  • 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 for All About Spelling Level Five

  • 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.

For 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.”

    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. Say the word to your student as if you were a robot, without using the schwa sound: /prŏb—lĕm/.
      2. 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.

For Reading and Spelling:

  • 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.

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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Leave a Comment

Michelle

says:

I wonder if schwa’s are more of a regional thing. I’m from Canada, and most of those words I don’t say with that sound.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Michelle,
Regional dialects can be so interesting! I pronounce some of these differently too (western US accent). There can be differences in how the vowels in unstressed syllables are pronounced, but they do exist in all forms of English. Think about the sound for the unstressed A in words like about and pizza.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the schwa sound is used in Canadian English. It is represented phonetically by an upside-down, backward e. The example word given is alpha.

Debbie B.

says:

Fabulous post! The AAS program has really made me see how we say words much differntly than the spelling pronunciation. Thank you for these great suggestions!

Debbie B.

says:

*differently 😮

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Debbie,
I’m glad you found this post helpful. The schwa vowels can be tricky, but with a little information and work they can be mastered too. Let us know if you have any questions!

Nancy

says:

What about the -ed in past tense words like lifted and wanted? Would the E be a schwa there, or an /i/ sound?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nancy,
We teach that the suffix -ed is used to make most words past tense (and we teach that past tense means it happened in the past). This suffix has three possible sounds: /ed/-/d/-/t/. You could make the argument that it is a schwa sound, but teaching the suffix as a unit added to a base word is often all that is needed for students to successfully spell it.

Also, if you or your student are hearing a short i, /ĭ/ sound, it may be a regional accent. The merger of the short i and short e sounds is a common problem in a large area of North America. We have a blog post that explains the Pin/Pen Merger and offers ideas on how to help students conquer it.

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

Noah Adams

says:

Comment : Infact this is good status which can help student progretion in reading, i bet you keep on

Janelle

says:

This Is really helpful – my question is about the schwa sound in words like ‘bottle’ and ‘little’ where the l takes on the schwa sound and the e takes on the l phoneme…I am struggling and possibly overthinking this…..any ideas. TIA

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Janelle,
We teach this as the 5th job of Silent E (here is an article that details all of Silent E’s jobs). We teach that every syllable has to have a vowel, and even though the letter L says all that the syllable needs to say it still has to have a vowel to follow the rules. That vowel is a Silent E.

The consonant-L-E syllable (that we call the “Pickle Syllable” because it’s easier for kids to say and remember) is common enough that we teach it as it’s own syllable type, along with open syllables, closed syllables, R-controlled syllables, and others. We don’t teach this pattern as a schwa vowel, because it is much easier to understand in terms of one of the jobs of Silent E.

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

Noah Adams

says:

Comment: bottle and little is a schwa because has two sound l and e , example like star and far

Lydia R.

says:

My 7-y.o. sometimes speak words as they are written, not as they are spoken, which is strange considering English is one of his first languages. The schwa explains why “of” and “off” sound different!

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Lydia,
My guess is that your 7 year old is at least a somewhat advanced reader. It’s not uncommon for young advanced readers to encounter words in print before they have really learned them in conversation. I remember a bright young reader saying sub-til (with the b fully pronounced) for the word subtle.

However, the schwa only applies to unaccented syllables, and one syllable words do not have unaccented syllables. The /u/ sound is one of the 4 sounds of o (as found in the words of, love, oven, and many others). The real difference between of and off is that in of f makes the /v/ sound. The /v/ sound isn’t a sound f is supposed to make, and because of that we teach of as a real breaker and throw it in jail.

Amanda Duke

says:

I love these tips! Thanks.

Merry

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome!

Lauren

says:

Good information!

Kathryn

says:

Ahhhhh, thank you! This is exactly what my son has been struggling with and I didn’t have a name for it. This will help a lot!

Lana raber

says:

Wow! I had never heard the term “shwa” befor. But after reading your explanation have deffinatly struggled with them. I love your tips and helps. They are always aplicable and encourageing. Especially since I have 4 kids that are natural readers and then 1 that needs help which i have never had to give befor. Thankyou for all the time and care you put into your craft.

Lana,
Don’t you love when you learn something new that you didn’t expect? I sure do. :D

I’m glad we can be a help to you and your child. You are welcome. I hope you and your children are having a lovely summer.

Nikki

says:

Ha – first time I’ve heard about the schwa since school. I’m booking marking this too for when we get to it. We’re currently doing AAR1 and AAR2 and love the program!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Thanks for bookmarking, Nikki! :)

Alissa L

says:

This makes me interested in your reading program! Would love to try it out.

Diane B.

says:

I’m bookmarking this for later. We just started AAR level 1 and it’s things like the schwa that I’m not looking forward to.

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

I know that concepts such as the schwa can seem confusing at first, but I hope that we can save you from dreading such things, Diane! The lesson plans tell you exactly what to do each step of the way, and there are tips for the teacher tucked in each lesson, too. The instruction is so gradual and incremental that it is never a burden for the teacher or student. Trust me, the lessons are easier than this overview-style blog post where everything is thrown out there at once! Enjoy AAR Level 1!

Paula

says:

This is the first time I’ve heard the word “schwa” since I was in school! I wondered if teaching the concept of it had completely disappeared. We’re getting into this in our very next lesson in All About Spelling – glad to have these tips. Thanks!

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Paula,

Maybe subconsciously, many of us wish that the schwa would disappear!

I’m glad the tips help; enjoy!

Melissa

says:

Thanks! I’m going to use this next year.

Carolynn M. Slocum

says:

It is so helpful to have tips for teaching. I find it amazing to establish a common language for teaching spelling techniques. Schwa is one of those common language words that are great to have in your back pocket!

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Carolynn,

I’m glad the tips help, and I agree–we need ways to discuss the difficult concepts in English.

Beth Southeard

says:

The “schwa” was a difficult concept for my son last year. Thanks for the tips on how to teach it. I look forward to trying All About Spelling this year.

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Beth,

The schwa is definitely a difficult concept that takes practice. Enjoy using AAS this year! Let us know if you have any questions along the way.

Kerri

says:

I’m going to use this with my son who is having trouble. Thanks!

Mikan

says:

Looking forward to using this curriculum when we being homeschooling

Jessica

says:

Great tips! Thank you!

Carlen

says:

It is so hard to teach this to second language learners

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Carlen,

Yes, the schwa sound definitely makes learning English more difficult! Let us know if we can help in any way.

Simah

says:

Thanks for the great suggestions!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Simah!

Colleen

says:

Thanks for this! It will definitely help me with my 6 yr old and some of his struggles!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

I’m glad to hear that this info will help your son, Colleen! If you have any further questions though, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!

Melissa Miller

says:

thank you for the article! I am going to try this with my 8yr old who has trouble with spelling several of these words.

Jackie Vescio

says:

Thank you, Marie, for your informative post about the “schwa” sounds in spelling words. The charts and article are informative and very applicable for my boys, 6 & 8 years.
Jackie

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jackie! I’m glad this post was helpful to you!

Christina

says:

I never heard of a schwa before. We are on level 2, I will have to mark this to refer to then.

Lindsay Carter

says:

I learned something new! I had no idea what a schwa was but the more I read the more it made sense. Thanks!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Lindsay! :)

Thais

says:

Thank you for this article! It clarified the Schwa for me!

Roxanne G.

says:

I read the “schwa” article. It is fascinating! No wonder we have so much trouble with these types of words. It makes so much sense now. Can’t wait to try both the reading & writing curriculums.

Merry at AALP

says:

Yes, they really make learning English tricky! I hope you enjoy the curriculum!

Jeanne Williams

says:

My oldest daughter used All About Reading with her kindergarten age daughter this past year. It was a successful reading curriculum for them. Not only did the 6 yr-old learn to read, her younger sister starting gleaning the information as well. In fact, she was doing so well that my daughter ordered another set of books for the younger girl. Now they are both reading and loving it. All About Reading is a thorough, explicit and sequential curriculum that is bound to provide a positive reading experience for the majority of emergent readers.

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Thanks for your comment, Jeanne. You and your granddaughters made my day!

Katherine P

says:

Thank you so much for clarifying this for me from a teaching perspective. I love receiving emails from your group!

Katherine,
You are welcome! We love being of help and encouragement to you and others.

Sara

says:

We love this program!

Rachelle

says:

Thanks so much for this clarification. I have been working with my 7 year old and never realized this “rule”. I appreciate the tips for helping her work through this strange exception.

Krista

says:

Love the word banks!

N. Guenther

says:

We are really enjoying this program!

Stepheny Seabolt

says:

The schwa sounds haven’t given us too much trouble yet, but anything can happen with the child I have starting kindergarten this fall!

Sue P.

says:

Love reading the info you provide. I need something to help my young students (elementary) who have a severe struggle with dyslexia to help them feel successful, not only during direct instruction but as they work along side their peers.

Sue,
Thank you for your work with struggling students. Let us know if we can help or answer any questions.

Karen C.

says:

This post has several good teaching ideas in it. I remember when my teacher taught us to spell “Wednesday”. She had us break it down and over pronounce it saying, “Wed nes day” and putting a picture in our mind of a wedding.

Sarah C.

says:

Love AAR and AAS! Best tips and teaching advice out there! :)

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Aw, thanks, Sarah! :)

Joyce

says:

Thanks! Understanding and mastering this concept can certainly lift the fog for many beginning readers! Can’t wait to see how it benefits my family this year!

Stephanie

says:

Thank you for this article! It was very informative and inspiring.

Kyle

says:

I had no idea what a schwa sound was and now I feel like I could just about teach my little ones what it is and how to recognize it when they are learning to read.

Kyle,
This is a high compliment, that a simple blog post could make you feel so confident about what is a very tricky issue for so many adults. The schwa is one of the most common reasons for misspelled multisyllable words. Thank you for your comment.

Debe

says:

Thanks for sharing your these beneficial ideas. This is a great program.

Kristen

says:

When my kids were in school, they started receiving homework on schwas and we had not idea what it was. There weren’t any instructions included and for parents who weren’t taught about schwas, it was difficult to help. This one blog post was more helpful to understanding schwa than anything the school previously provided. Thank you!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Kristen. I’m sorry that your previous experience with schwas was frustrating, but I’m glad that we could help!

Grace

says:

Thanks for sharing these tips!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Grace. Hope they help!

Liz

says:

I love how your program helps me to be so much more confident in our homeschooling!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Oh, good. I’m so thankful to hear that, Liz. We want our teachers to be just as confident as our students!

Clara

says:

I love reading all the rules and finally seeing some of the why for schwas.

Cathy Tonks

says:

Great blog post thank you!

Teri P.

says:

We haven’t really gotten to this level yet. However, It really helps to have AAS to help with learning spelling rules as there is always an exception to the rule. I never knew how convoluted our English language is until I started to teach it!

Lindsey

says:

Love all about spelling! !!!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Thanks, Lindsey! :)

Morgan

says:

I love that you recognize and teach the word and concept of “schwa”! Too often it is overlooked at the term is not explained. I am looking forward to using AAS with my daughter this fall.

Morgan,
We don’t actually teach the word “schwa” to students in the lower levels of All About Spelling, but we do talk about it in the teacher notes and give specific helps for how to deal with them when they come up. It’s such a tricky problem that many students and teachers need all the help they can get!

I hope you find AAS as amazing as I have! Thank you for commenting.

Narae

says:

Learn something new every day… Thank you!

Kim

says:

Thank you for an awesome curriculum. My son is a very active hands on learner and reading, phonics and letter recognition is very hard for him. With your approach he is getting it. Ziggy helps a help too!

Kim,
I’m so glad that our program is helping your son. You are welcome.

Keep up the great work (and Ziggy is wonderful, we know ;). Have a lovely week.

Angella

says:

Very useful information. Thank you.

David

says:

Wonderful curriculum!

Tobi

says:

I just ordered the pre-all about reading for my son who has dyslexia! So excited…can’t wait to get it! It was highly recommended by so many! Thanks!!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Hi Tobi! If you have any questions after your Pre-reading program arrives, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! We’re happy to help!

Jodee

says:

This is so helpful. We are looking at getting our kids this program so it is nice to see a little of how some of these harder things (like schwa words) can be taught. Thanks.

Cheryl

says:

Love this blog, thank you such!

Sue

says:

I typically use Wilson Reading System or Megawords, but I have never seen or used All About Reading or Spelling. My friends have only great things to say about the program. Your post about the schwa is right on! Thank you for sharing how to work with schwa words.

ML Burley

says:

Marie,

Thank you so much for your Schwa blog. It is very helpful in understanding this when I tutor. I do remember learning about the schwa during spelling lessons when I was a child but the details were fuzzy. The upside down ‘e’ stuck with me.

Crystal Spry

says:

I was not taught with Schwas. I just recently learned them while teaching my children.

Rachel C

says:

I’m always learning something new right along with my kiddos using All About Learning!

Brenda

says:

Thanks for the great tip.

Eileen Cloutier

says:

I’ve used the “say it for spelling approach” and like it. The part I didn’t do was the reading of the word banks and the practicing how to say it for reading. I do like these ideas much. I am trying (and am on my fourth year of trying) to adapt the program for classroom use. The word banks need to be added and so does the reading instruction element. Thanks!

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Eileen,

You’re welcome! If you have questions about how to adapt it for classroom use, feel free to email or call–we’d be glad to help.

Melanie Williams

says:

I absolutely LOVE everything about this program!! My daughter is succeeding and I can’t wait to start AAR level one with my son this fall :D :D

frances

says:

Thanks you for this post. It is helps me to review spelling concepts.

You’re welcome, Frances!

Chloe

says:

Hi Marie,
This is very interesting. I have a question in regards to shwa’s and accents. As a New Zealander I’m not sure all of the above shwa words would still apply. Eg for me the word, ‘definition’, is still ‘def-in-it-tion’. How to teach a shwa word in this situation?
Regards Chloe

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Chloe,

If all of the sounds are clear, you don’t need to do anything special to teach the word (except perhaps teaching which spelling of the “shun” ending to use). You only need to adapt your strategies if one or more of the vowel sounds are not clear. Does this help?

Rebecca Smith

says:

These strategies sound very good to use. I would love to have either product for my son who is struggling to learn to read.

Gretchen

says:

Have you tackled helping students (especially those who can’t really hear accent) predict where the accent will fall? Nancy K. Lewkowicz has studied this and is predicting accent by the suffix. However, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to “add it in” (as opposed to doing her program separately later).

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Gretchen,

Sometimes it can be hard to hear the accent in a word, especially if the syllables seem similar. Here’s a method that can help: Try accenting each of the syllables until the word sounds correct. For example:

PRE-fer. pre-FER.

Which one do we say? pre-FER.

AD-mit. ad-MIT. (Sometimes at a hospital, I’ve heard nurses say they had a new “AD-mit,” using this word as a noun–but most of the time we use it as a verb–we “ad-MIT” the truth.)

This can be a fun game to play, actually! Putting the “em-PHAS-is” on the wrong “syl-LAB-le” can make words sound strange! You’ll also notice that when we emphasize a syllable, we usually give it a full or regular vowel sound (a short or long sound). Sometimes in unaccented syllables, we tend to muffle the vowel sound or use a schwa sound.

There are some words that have different meanings depending on the way we use the accent. Consider:

CONtent (the contents of a package)
conTENT (to feel content)

COMbine (a farm machine)
comBINE (to combine items)

ADdress (what is your address?)
adDRESS (address the audience)

DIgest (Reader’s Digest)
diGEST (digest your food)

INvalid (a sick person)
inVALid (something is not valid)

PRESent (all present and accounted for, or a gift)
preSENT (present an award)

Experiment with words until the student becomes more confident in deciding which syllable has the accent. Students can also use a dictionary to double-check which syllable is accented.

I hope this helps!

Gretchen

says:

Thanks, these are useful suggestions.
Blesings,
Gretchen

lmerritt

says:

Great post! Very informative.

CabotMama

says:

Very helpful explanation and teaching techniques! My children (AAS5 and AAS3) struggle with the schwa sound. Initially, my son did not like for me to “pronounce for spelling” and my daughter was irritated when she sounded out reading words that didn’t sound “real.” Over the last year, they have found both pronouncing for spelling and reading like a word to be invaluable.
To add to my children’s dilemma with those lazy schwa syllables disappearing from our pronunciation, we also live in the southern US. The short vowel e is often pronounced with a short vowel i sound. For example, “get” is pronounced “git.” During AAS1, my son was furious that I kept pronouncing “g-e-t” despite his declarations that the word is “g-i-t!” Tears were involved. Finally, my husband and I coined the tongue-in-cheek acronym SAD for Southern Accent Disorder and apologized for passing it on to him. We explained he must learn the proper way to spell and ‘pronounce for spelling’ in order for people outside the South to understand him. Since then, his attitude has been better, almost proud of the disconnect between his pronunciation and the proper spelling. :)

Merry at AALP

says:

I’m glad the techniques have been so helpful for your family. What a great solution to your son’s struggle, I love it! Very creative. I’ve often found that if I can find a way to inject a bit of humor into a difficult situation, it helps my kids overcome.

You may not need this now, but Marie did a video on short-E/I confusion (linguists refer to it as the pin-pen merger). Your son indeed is not alone! http://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/short-e-short-i-confusion/

Jennifer Bruce

says:

Another excellent post! Spelling words with schwa can be especially tricky with differences in pronunciation. (thinking about local accents, we live in Alabama)

jemea kim deeter

says:

Great post. So informative!

Karla

says:

Very interesting-had no idea! Thank you

Bonnie

says:

Great explanation!

Alice Thompson

says:

good job explaining this. I agree and i teach the schwa sound as well and they get it! I Have been doing some of the techniques that you mentioned naturally and its good to see that you agree.

Janet C

says:

Never thought about it being in all the vowels. Very helpful to be aware of this. My son loves your spelling program. We are on to level 5 next year!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Congratulations to your son for moving up to AAS Level 5!!

Cindy

says:

How interesting. Some of the words on your list are 5hose I would never have considered to be schwa words. Enemy, experiment, duplicate, etc. I pronounce those as written. I’m going to have to go look them up in the dictionary.

Cindy

says:

Ahem. Those. Not 5hose. My phone typing skills leave a bit to be desired.

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Hi Cindy! Depending upon your region and how carefully you enunciate your words, the words may not have the schwa sound for you. You obviously have very good diction, which will help your children as they learn to read and spell!

Sahba

says:

This is very helpful thank you

James

says:

Thanks, this is very useful.

Roseanne

says:

This is fascinating. I never struggled with spelling as I have a photographic memory. In teaching my oldest to read, write and spell, I have learned many rules I had never before encountered. Thanks so much for your program!

Christine

says:

Thank you! This is an excellent post. My daughter doesn’t like “spelling with tiles” so we normally just skip it and go straight to the spelling test. Normally she aces them, but she does have trouble with “schwa” words. I will try using your 3 step technique before we do the spelling test and see if that helps.

renee

says:

All about Spelling has helped our family so much! We are excited to start the Reading!

Laurie

says:

Thank you. You make it easy to understand the ‘how to’ for the parent and child.

Cheryl

says:

I like the idea of teaching the same constructs together so they can see the pattern.

Amy

says:

This was very helpful! Thank you!

Tracy

says:

Thank you! Great information!

Sarah

says:

Fascinating and insightful! Can’t wait to try this program with my soon-to-be readers!

Jacqueline

says:

It looks like there is yet another area for me to cover–love how you simplify the concept, though.

Stefani

says:

Just started schwas with my youngest. I contrast the over-pronunciation with our slurred/fast speech.

Mary

says:

One of the many reasons I have decided to use All About Spelling and Reading – it takes the guess work out!

sally k.

says:

I really liked this post. I think as a homeschool mom it is hard to teach things like this!

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

I’m glad you enjoyed this post, Sally. The schwa can be a tough cookie to teach without having a few strategies to call upon!

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