How to Teach the Schwa Sound

Tips on how and when to introduce the schwa.  Strategies for reading and spelling schwa words, free schwa sound worksheets and examples.

Disclaimer:  We support the upkeep of this site with advertisements and affiliate links.  We may earn a small commission if you click on the ads or links or make a purchase.  There is no additional cost to you if you choose to do this.

Contents:

Introduction

How you teach the schwa sound depends to some extent on the type of students you have. 

For example, a teacher of English as a foreign language would need to have a different focus from someone teaching native English speakers how to read using phonics.

Children who speak a different language at home might also need more direct instruction about the schwa sound when they are learning to read.

We’ll cover some general points about teaching the schwa first and look at considerations for teaching non-native speakers later in this article.

Why Teach the Schwa Sound?

It could be argued that native speakers don’t need to be taught about the schwa at all.

There was no mention of the schwa sound in the original Jolly Phonics’ programme and thousands of children have become excellent readers using their methods.

Also, millions of people in the UK have gone through the entire education system and had successful careers without ever learning about the schwa.

However, many experienced educators think it can still be helpful to give native speakers some guidance about the schwa sound when they are learning to read and spell.

Since the schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, we agree that there’s some sense in teaching it.  Also, recognising where the schwa is represented in written words can help with reading fluency.

When to Introduce the Schwa

We think it’s best to make sure children are reasonably proficient at decoding simple one and two-syllable words before you introduce the schwa sound.

In the early stages, it’s easier to develop decoding and spelling skills using a simplified version of the alphabetic code.  So, stick with words where the letters always represent their most common sounds in the beginning.

However, if the reading programme you are following introduces so-called ‘sight words’ / ‘tricky words’ / ‘common exception words’ early, you could use some of these as examples.

For instance, the common words, ‘the’, ‘away’, ‘some’, ‘come’ and ‘mother’ all contain letters (highlighted) that can represent either the schwa or ‘short u’ sounds.  You could point this out when you introduce these words to your children, but don’t dwell on the point at this stage.

Back to contents…

How to Introduce the Schwa

Once children can decode simple one and two-syllable words competently, you could prepare them for learning about the schwa by mentioning that letters can stand for different sounds in some words.

Discussing some of the different sounds represented by the vowel letters can be a good introduction to this idea because some of the sounds are the same as their letter names and many children are already familiar with these. 

For those children who haven’t learned about letter names, this can be an appropriate point to introduce them for the vowels.

Show them some words and discuss the vowel sounds in them.  Try to choose simple words at first and avoid digraphs if you haven’t introduced these yet.  For example, ask your children to compare:

    • The sound of the letter a in ‘ant’, ‘hat’ and ‘can’ with the sounds in ‘apron’, ‘basin’ and ‘bagel’.
    • The sound of the letter e in ‘pet’, ‘ten’ and ‘bed’ with the sounds in ‘he‘, ‘we‘, ‘be‘ and ‘me‘.
    • The sound of the letter i in ‘ink’, ‘fin’, and ‘hit’ with the sounds in ‘Hi‘, ‘find’, ‘lion’, ‘kind’ and ‘pint’.
    • The sound of the letter o in ‘off’, ‘hot’ and ‘mop’ with the sounds in ‘old’, ‘go‘, ‘so‘, ‘no‘ and ‘most’.
    • The sound of the letter u in ‘up’, ‘bun’ and ‘hug’ with the sounds in ‘flu‘, ‘puma’, ‘tuna’ and ‘music’.

It’s probably best not to cover all of these alternatives in one lesson because it could be too much to take in.  Perhaps introduce one or two alternative sounds a day and spend some time reviewing the ones they’ve met on previous days.

Introduce some example words with a schwa sound once your children are familiar with the alternative vowel sounds mentioned above.  Again, look for simple words without digraphs.

For instance, you could write out the words a big dog” and mention that people will often say this phrase as uh big dog”

Tell them that the letter a in this phrase stands for the ‘uh’ sound normally represented by the letter u in words like ‘up’ and ‘fun’. 

We don’t think it’s necessary to mention the word ‘schwa’ at this stage or to talk about syllable stress.  Nor do you need to introduce the schwa symbol that looks like a funny upside-down e (Ə).

It’s best to keep things simple with beginning readers because they already have tons of stuff to get their heads around. 

Schwa and ‘short u’ are very similar, so when the schwa sound crops up in words, just call it an ‘uh’ sound.  As the renowned literacy researcher Dr. Edward Fry once said:

“…for all practical purposes, and certainly for beginning readers and spellers, they sound the same.” 

Fry, E. (2004) Phonics: A Large Phoneme-Grapheme Frequency Count Revised, Journal of Literacy Research, V. 36 No.1 2004 PP.85-98

Other simple examples where the letter a represents the ‘uh’ sound include ‘panda’, ‘pasta’, and ‘across’.

In following sessions, you could look at simple words where other letters represent the ‘uh’ sound…

    • For the letter e, you could use ‘bitten’, ‘kitten’ and ‘travel’.
    • For the letter i, you could use ‘fossil’, ‘April’ and ‘pencil’.
    • And for the letter o, you could use ‘carrot’, ‘button’ and ‘bottom’.

You could also discuss any sight words / common exception words they’ve already met that include alternative letters representing the ‘uh’ sound.  Examples might include ‘the’, ‘away’, ‘some’, ‘come’ and ‘mother’.

All of this is probably enough of an introduction to the schwa sound for beginning readers who are native speakers. 

The topic can be revisited and reinforced in later academic years when children have become familiar with the various digraphs and trigraphs in English and when they have a reasonable working knowledge of grammar and common prefixes and suffixes in words.

However, it can be helpful to highlight some schwa words occasionally when you are doing shared reading, so they don’t forget the idea. See consolidating knowledge of the schwa below…

Back to contents…

You could follow up the introduction to the schwa by looking at some examples of words where other letters represent different sounds.  For example, words where the letter s represents the ‘z’ sound are very common.  Examples of common words that have this letter-sound correspondence include ‘has’, ‘is’, ‘his’ and ‘us’.

The letter y represents the /ee/ sound at the end of a lot of multisyllable words such as Daddy, funny and very and it represents the /igh/ sound in the high frequency words ‘my’, ‘by’ and ‘fly’.

You could also look at a few of the many words that contain more than one letter with an alternative sound, such as ‘was’ ‘emu’, ‘baby’ and ‘lady’.

Consolidating Knowledge of the Schwa

Reading Practice

The simplest and possibly the best way to strengthen a child’s knowledge of the schwa (and other letter-sound correspondences) is through plenty of reading practice. 

Ideally, youngsters should read one-to-one to an adult who can listen to their pronunciation and intonation and guide them along the way.  However, in the real world, there is never enough time to do this as much as we’d like. 

Teachers with a class of 30+ children have limited opportunities to listen to individual children reading for any length of time, which is why parents listening to their children read at home is so important.

Fortunately, children can also learn a lot from listening to adults reading.  Shared reading activities, where the teacher is reading to the class, can allow the teacher to model the correct pronunciation and rhythm of the words in a passage. 

This is much more effective if the children can follow the text in an enlarged book or on a screen.

The teacher can choose to focus on different aspects of reading on different occasions.  If the emphasis of the lesson is on the schwa sound, they can draw the children’s attention to particular words where the schwa is present and ask them to pronounce the words together. 

It’s a good idea to go through the same text more than once, and children should be encouraged to join in with the reading on these subsequent occasions.  If each child gets the chance to read a few sentences, the teacher can gauge the overall progress of the class and decide if further class instruction or individual intervention is necessary.

Always bear in mind that children who have just started learning to decode texts phonetically can sound quite robotic when they pronounce words.  However, their pronunciation gradually becomes more natural as their phonics skills improve and as they become more familiar with words that crop up numerous times in different books.

They will still sound a bit awkward when they come across an unfamiliar word and they should be encouraged to try sounding it out with the usual (most common) sounds for the letters first. 

If they don’t recognise the word, they should try using some of the alternative sounds for the letters (including the schwa for vowel letters).  It’s best if they try the schwa sound in one syllable first and then the next syllable if it still doesn’t sound right. 

If the word still doesn’t make sense to them, they should ask an adult for the correct pronunciation and an explanation of the meaning of the word. 

As well as guided reading using children’s books, it can also be helpful to have some prepared sentences that contain words with the schwa sound. 

The sentences can be read by the teacher or students and the class can discuss where the schwa sounds are in each sentence.  This exercise can also help to build reading fluency.

There are plenty of example words you can put into sentences in our ‘schwa sound list of words’:

Schwa Sound List of Words

And we’ve also written a few examples of sentences below with the schwa sounds highlighted:

This story is all about a gorilla
Jill had to go to the hospital.  (The letter o in the word ‘to’ can also be pronounced with a schwa sound when it’s spoken quickly in sentences).
The battle happened a long time ago.
You can either have it today or tomorrow. (‘er’ might not be pronounced as a schwa in some accents).
The panda sat on the sofa.
The children cried when they lost their kitten.
Sam took a carrot out of the basket.
The boy drew a piglet with his pencil.
It was an ancient kingdom. (The letter a in the word ‘was’ can also be pronounced with a schwa sound when it’s spoken quickly in sentences. The letter a in the word ‘an’ might also be pronounced as a schwa sound).
She pricked her finger on a cactus. (‘er’ might not be pronounced as a schwa in some accents).
Johnny was excited about his birthday. (The letter a in the word ‘was’ can also be pronounced with a schwa sound when it’s spoken quickly in sentences).
Liz had to learn the alphabet. (The letter o in the word ‘to’ can also be pronounced with a schwa sound when it’s spoken quickly in sentences).
Mum spoke on the telephone.
Emma wanted to be an astronaut. (The letter o in the word ‘to’ can also be pronounced with a schwa sound when it’s spoken quickly in sentences.  The letter a in the word ‘an’ might also be pronounced as a schwa sound).
Tim loved reading about dinosaurs.
The girl ate a banana in the cafeteria.

These sentences can be downloaded as a free pdf document from the Schwa Sound Resources section of our free printables page.

Remember that there is some variation in the way we pronounce words in different regions, so some of the highlighted letters might not represent a schwa sound in your local accent.

Back to contents… 

Teaching about Stress in Words

English can be described as a stress-timed language.  This means that some words and syllables in a sentence are given more emphasis than others, and this gives spoken English a natural rhythm.

The rhythm in English affects the way we pronounce certain words and syllables and it plays an important role in our interpretation of everyday speech. 

Understanding stress in words is also important for learning about the schwa because the schwa sound is spoken in unstressed words and syllables but never in stressed ones.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of the stress and rhythm in ordinary speech.  Native speakers stress words and syllables unconsciously and they can sometimes have trouble noticing the changing stress in words even when it’s pointed out to them. 

Fortunately, rhymes and poetry can help you get the idea across…

Using Poetry and Rhyme to Discuss Rhythm and Syllable Stress

Most people have an awareness of the rhythm in poetry and rhymes because it tends to be emphasised more in these than in ordinary speech. 

So, listening to and discussing some poems and rhymes can be a good way of introducing the idea of rhythm and syllable stress before you look at it in ordinary speech.

Read out some short pieces of poetry or rhymes to children and discuss which words and syllables are stressed.

This could be something as simple as a few lines from Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo:

“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood. A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.”

Or you could use a piece of classic poetry such as William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem:

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

This page on the BBC Bitesize explains the idea of rhythm and syllable stress really well – How to understand rhythm in poetry.

Back to contents…

Using Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction to Teach Syllable Stress

There never seems to be enough time to do all of the things you want to in teaching, so if you can combine different topics in the same lesson it can be a real bonus. 

When we discussed ‘What is the Schwa Sound?’ in our main article on the schwa, we gave some examples of words that can have different meanings when you stress different syllables.  The words sound different when you stress different syllables and children notice this.

There are lots of examples of these words in the video below and there are even more examples with sentences on the engVid.com website on their ‘change the stress, change the meaning’ page.  There’s also a short quiz on the page.

Many of these words can be useful examples for teaching or reviewing syllable stress, but they can also be good for grammar and vocabulary instruction.

Some of the words change from nouns to verbs when the stress is changed, and others change from nouns to adjectives, so they can be good examples to use if you are reviewing these grammatical terms.

They are also good vocabulary words to discuss because in some cases the alternative versions of the words have the same general meanings, and in others, the two versions of the word can have entirely different meanings.

 

Look for Schwa Patterns in Word Lists

If you show children lists of example words that contain the schwa sound, this can help them become familiar with patterns in words where schwa sounds often occur. 

If you look at our ‘Schwa Sound List of Words’, you’ll notice that we’ve split the words up into different categories:

    • Words that Start with a Schwa Sound
    • Words that End with a Schwa Sound
    • Schwa Sound in Middle Syllables
    • Schwa Sound in More than One Position

One pattern in the list that you might notice is there are more examples where the schwa sound appears at the end of words compared to the number of examples with the schwa in the first syllable.  

It could be helpful to point this out to children, and there are some other common patterns that can be found in the word list.  For example:

Multisyllable words that begin with the letters a, e and o often start with a schwa sound:

    • about above again ago
    • effect elastic electric erupt
    • obtain occur offend

When the letter a appears at the end of a word with more than one syllable it often represents a schwa sound:

    • China cinema comma extra

Multisyllable words that end in the letter ‘l’ often contain a vowel that represents the schwa sound, although some people pronounce the /l/ sound without a distinct schwa before it:

    • animal coral dual fatal hospital
    • angel bagel bowel camel
    • April basil civil council
    • Beryl Cheryl Daryl vinyl

Multisyllable words that end in ‘le’ can also have the schwa sound pronounced in the last syllable, although some people pronounce the /l/ sound without a distinct schwa before it:

    • apple battle bible cattle

Multisyllable words that end in ‘en’, ‘on’, ‘em’, ‘om’ and ‘um’ often contain the schwa sound, although some people pronounce the last consonant without a distinct schwa before it:

    • broken children eleven even
    • arson beckon button common
    • anthem item problem system
    • blossom boredom bottom custom
    • asylum album medium possum

The word ‘raisin’ also contains a schwa sound in the final syllable, but the pattern isn’t as common for words ending with ‘in’.

Multisyllable words that end in ‘et’ and ‘ot’ often contain the schwa sound:

    • basket carpet cutlet fidget
    • abbot bigot carrot idiot

Multisyllable words that end in ‘ain’ sometimes contain the schwa sound, although ‘ai’ can be pronounced as ‘short i’ in many accents:

    • bargain Britain captain certain

The so-called r-controlled vowels ‘ar’, ‘er’, ‘or’ and ‘ur’ represent the schwa sound in many UK and Australian accents, but this isn’t as common in American accents:

    • calendar cellar dollar vinegar
    • badger better butter corner
    • actor alligator author comfort
    • Arthur femur lemur murmur

Once your students have become familiar with some of these patterns, you could try mixing up different groups of words and ask them to highlight where the schwa sound is represented in each word. 

You could also make word cards and get your students to sort them in similar groups.

We’ve made a free schwa sound worksheet, ‘Find the Schwa’ that you can download as a pdf document from the Schwa Sound Resources section of our free printables page.

Find the schwa
Ask your students to read each word and highlight the schwa sound. Click on the image to download the pdf.

Back to contents…

 

Teaching the Schwa Sound to Non-Native English Speakers

People who speak English as a second language often need more support when they are learning to read because they aren’t familiar with the nuances of the spoken language.

For instance, when they’re learning about the schwa sound, they might need a lot more practice and examples in order to grasp the idea of syllable stress.

These students can really benefit from specialist language teaching and they should be directed to good English language resources online if this isn’t available.

For example, there are some very good videos online about stressing different syllables such as this one from Emma of ‘mmmEnglish’:

 

In this next video, Emma provides lots more examples in the context of sentences and some rules to follow that can help people stress syllables correctly in words:

 

There are some simple rules about pronunciation in this video:

 

And the more detailed explanation here by Oxford online English could be good for older non-native speakers:

It’s worth doing a bit of research to find resources that are compatible with your local accent as there are differences between British, American and Australian accents in pronouncing the schwa in some words.

A good tip from one of the online language teachers is to encourage students to listen to audiobooks while they are also reading them.  This allows them to make a more accurate connection between the written and spoken words.

Amazon’s Audible probably has the largest selection of audiobooks available but there are other free or very cheap alternatives online such as Listening Books and various free apps on Google Play.

Another way of improving pronunciation and reading fluency that takes very little effort is to watch English TV programmes with the subtitles on. 

However, even if they incorporated some of these ideas, non-native speakers are still likely to need more one-to-one work to assess their progress and provide feedback.

Back to contents…

Spelling words with the schwa sound

Learning to spell words with the schwa sound can be a bit trickier than spelling words with more regular letter-sound correspondences. 

Children should practise spelling these words as soon as they are introduced to them.  We’ve provided some examples of suitable words to start with in our section on ‘How to Introduce the Schwa’.

Using a Spelling Voice

A good way to get kids to learn the correct spellings for tricky words is to encourage them to exaggerate the pronunciation of the letters.  The idea is to ask them to say a word in the way they might expect it to sound from the spelling. 

Although this can make them pronounce words incorrectly, it helps them to remember sequences of letters and they only say words this way when they are trying to learn the spellings. 

Some teachers describe this technique as ‘using a spelling voice’ when they are teaching it to children.

Of course, kids should also be taught how to say the word in a normal ‘speaking voice’ because this is important for reading fluency.

As an example of how this technique might be taught, consider the word ‘leopard’. 

You could write the word on the board and ask if anyone knows what it says.  Some children might know it and others might be confused by the silent ‘o’. 

Whether they can read it or not, model the correct pronunciation of the word and tell them that this is how they should say it in their ‘speaking voice’ when they are reading out loud.

“Most people say this word as ‘lepuhd’ (or ‘lepurd’, depending on the local accent).  Say leopard in a normal speaking voice…”

Next, discuss the tricky parts in the spelling of the word.  The silent ‘o’ is the most obvious, but leopard also contains the ‘ar’ digraph which is found in words such as ‘car’, ‘far’, ‘jar’, ‘bark’ and ‘yard’.

You can then help them come up with a way of saying the word in a spelling voice.

The child might want to pronounce the /o/ sound in their spelling voice, even though it wouldn’t be sounded out if they were reading the word. 

Alternatively, they could split the word up into ‘leo’ – ‘pard’, pronouncing ‘leo’ like the horoscope Leo.   The ‘ar’ digraph in the word could be pronounced in the same way as the ‘ar’ in car, even though it’s usually spoken as a schwa or an /ur/ sound in everyday speech.

In words such as ‘about’ or ‘effect’, the initial highlighted vowel is unstressed and often pronounced as a schwa.  But a child learning to spell the word should pronounce these vowels fully as the normal ‘short a’ and ‘short e’ sounds.

“In our normal speaking voice, we say ‘uhbout’ and ‘uhffect’, but in our spelling voice, we say ‘about’ and ‘effect’.

Similarly, the highlighted letters that represent the schwa in words such as ‘hospital’, ‘camel’ or ‘button’ should be pronounced with their normal short vowel sounds in a spelling voice.

“In our normal speaking voice, we say ‘hospituhl’, ‘camuhl’ and ‘buttuhn’.”

“In our spelling voice, we say, ‘hospital’, ‘camel’ and ‘button’.

We go into more detail about spelling tricky words in our article about spelling complex words.

Introduce Schwa Words in Groups with Similar Patterns

We mentioned in our section on consolidating knowledge of the schwa sound that it can be helpful to look for patterns in lists of words containing the schwa. 

This can make it easier to read and spell words containing the schwa sound as children become familiar with the patterns.

Have a look at the different categories in our ‘Schwa Sound List of Words’ and get your children to practice spelling words with similar schwa patterns first. 

Once they can spell the words when they are presented in similar groups, give them a variety of words with different schwa patterns.

See our Spelling Strategies for Kids article for more ideas on making spelling instruction more effective.

Back to contents…

You might also find it helpful to read our main article on the schwa sound.  The information in it supplements this article.

The Schwa Sound: Examples, Meaning, Pronunciation

Ə

The schwa sound explained.  Examples, lists of schwa words, free schwa sound resources.