What is the Schwa sound? How to pronounce it?
Let’s play a “simple” game. Please say these words to yourself or read them out loud:
HEAR the words
Which do you think is the common sound in all of them?
Think for a few seconds. There’s only one sound they have in common! Please bear in mind that we are talking about sounds, not letters!
Do you have it?
It’s the “schwa” sound, and it sounds like this:
This sound is so special that it has its own special name and symbol!
You can hear the sound here!
If you didn’t get the answer right, don’t worry, because most people don’t even know this sound exists!
However, believe it or not, schwa is the most common sound in the English language! It is estimated that one in every five words have the schwa sound!
Let’s repeat the sound again!
Very similar to the /uh/ sound for the letter “u”, as in umbrella, but softer and weaker, as this sound normally appears on unstressed syllables.
Why does English have the schwa sound?
In a nutshell, the schwa sound is the resting position of the mouth for English speakers. For instance, it is the sound that comes out of our mouth when we are thinking and don’t know what to say (um, uh).
The strange thing is that in English we sometimes also replace the common sound of vowels with the schwa sound! Think of all the words we’ve seen before. But the list goes on and on!
By the way, if interested in a super comprehensive list of words with the SCHWA SOUND, get ours for free here!
This is true even in groups of letters when they are part of an unstressed syllable: “teacher,” “doctor.” In these words, “er” and “or” are simply reduced to the schwa sound in BRE English.
In American English, the “er” in “teacher” and the “or” in “doctor” are just a very reduced schwa sound + the /r/ sound.
We use the schwa sound to allow unstressed syllables to be said more quickly. This way, the main beats of spoken words are easier to place on the stressed syllables. It all comes down to English being a very rhythmical language.
In fact, the sound of the language is organized around the stressed syllables.
To sound natural in English, we need to put a lot of stress on the stressed syllables and relax our mouth on the unstressed ones (and that is why the schwa sound comes in handy!) Otherwise, we would sound robotic.
Sometimes, on informal conversations we even reduce to a simple /uh/ sound the vowels in words like “to” or “you”.
Think of: “I gave it to you” vs. “I gave to you.”
So, when you are confronted with a very neutral sound and you can’t just point your finger on what it is, you might be dealing with the schwa sound.
How to go about teaching children learning to read the schwa sound?
In my opinion, even if this is the most common sound in English, I am not keen on teaching beginner readers the schwa sound.
It is a really tricky concept to grasp, and therefore I do not think that most beginner readers will be ready to understand it. In fact, I think it might just totally confuse them and delay their progress!
But the good news is that… It doesn’t matter, because they can still learn to read phonetically (and become really good readers) without being explicitly taught the schwa sound.
We can teach this sound later on. In fact, it will become way more relevant when we switch our focus from reading to correct spelling.
I hear you, though. What to do when confronted with the schwa sound then?
These are my go-to tips:
- Schwa sound in r-controlled syllables: You just need to teach them about the “r” distorting the sound.
- One-syllable words containing the schwa sound (the, son): Introduce them as an exception. Fortunately, there are not so many!
- Longer words with the schwa sound in them (pencil, carrot, cactus): As the schwa sound is such a neutral sound, it can really mimic any vowel sound. In my experience, it is the sound that is going to naturally roll out of your student’s mouths when reading these words, if they are English native speakers.
How to prepare children for the schwa sound?
Once children can decode simple one and two-syllable words competently, you can start to prepare them for learning about the schwa sound.
Mention that letters can make different sounds. By this point, they probably know that vowels make at least two sounds (they either say their short sound or their name, also referred to as “long sound”), so this will probably not come as a surprise.
When does the schwa sound become relevant?
When children are learning to spell correctly. The schwa sound really complicates things in the English spelling?
How to know what is the right vowel to pick? Or maybe pick no vowel at all?
*NOTE: At the beginning of children’s learn-to-read journey, while we -of course- also focus on spelling and writing, the main thing to pay attention to is this: When your child is writing down words, is s/he using his/her knowledge of sounds? For instance, if s/he is spelling the word “photo” as “foto” or “special” as “speshul.” If so, that’s great! S/he is using their knowledge or sounds and letter correspondences. That is really all we need to see for the time being! Since the English spelling system is quite complex, we need separate strategies to turn them into great spellers too.
While this would be worthy of another entire article, these are the main tips and principles to keep in mind for learning to spell words with the schwa sound:
- Great exposure to words– We achieve this by reading, by seeing the same words over and over. The idea here is to develop a natural instinct around what looks good and correct, and what doesn’t.
- Make sure your child understands the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
- Group words with similar spelling patterns for the schwa sound and teach them at the same time. For instance, there is a “family” of words that start with a schwa sound and start with the letter a. For instance: about, above, again, ago, ahead, alive, alone, amaze, amount, away.
- Exaggerate the pronunciation of words. Take a word, such us “balloon”. Exaggerate it, over-pronounce it! You’ll end up pronouncing an /ahhh/ instead of a /uh/ sound.
Remember we also said that if we didn’t use the schwa sound we would sound robotic? Say ballon as if you were a robot. You’ll pronounce it with an “a” sound.
- For those really struggling with the schwa sound, it can come in handy to know the statistics. From the most common spelling to the least common spelling, this is how we use vowels to represent the schwa sound: a/e, i, o, u.
- Consider introducing morphology and etymology study to your lessons. This is an effective method in which students analyze word parts, structure, origin and history of words to understand word meanings, spellings, constructions and connections. This idea is beyond the scope of this article, but, don’t worry, I’ll make another article about this in the future. In the meantime, if interested in this approach, you can read this interesting research study.
Schwa sound word list
The table below contains common words that have the schwa sound in them, classified by schwa sound position (initial/final/medial) and spelling pattern.
Presenting words with similar patterns can help children make connections and have realizations, improving word and concept retention.
|Initial Unstressed Syllable Words|
|Final Unstressed Syllable|
|Final Unstressed Syllable|
This is a sample of our comprehensive schwa sound word list. To download the entire document of pdf format (free), click here.
Schwa sound: Key takeaways
- The schwa sound is the most common sound in English.
- It is usually found in words with more than one syllable in unstressed positions.
- It allows the flow and rhythm of the English language. Otherwise, we would sound robotic.
- It is a really neutral sound. It is similar to the sound in for the letter “u” in “umbrella,” but softer and weaker, as it appear on unstressed syllables.
- This can be a very tricky concept for beginning readers to grasp. I suggest that you wait until they can read two-syllable words with competence, and focus more on the schwa sound for spelling purposes.
- When confronted with the schwa sound with beginning readers, refer to the go-to tips given in the section entitled “how to go about teaching children the schwa sound.”
If you’d like to watch this article in video-format, check the video bellow!
- Wikipedia, the schwa sound: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwa
What’s the difference between Schwa (/ə/) and Wedge (/ʌ/), Will Styler, Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego, Director of UCSD’s Computational Social Science Program: https://wstyler.ucsd.edu/posts/difference_schwa_wedge.html
- Bc. Gabriela Marková The Schwa Sound in Two Speeches by Elizabeth II Master’s Diploma Thesis Supervisor: PhDr. Kateřina Tomková, Ph.D., The Schwa Sound in Two Speeches by Elizabeth: IIhttps://is.muni.cz/th/ndch7/Markova_Schwa.pdf
- A promising new tool for literacy instruction: The morphological matrix://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0262260