Teaching the Schwa Sound in Unaccented Syllables
Schwa is one of those phonics concepts that can be really confusing to students as they learn to decode longer, multi-syllable words. The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language, accounting for 20% of all vowel sounds (Yule, 1996), and it often is the cause of spelling mistakes. The schwa sound is formed with a neutral mouth position, and it replaces a vowel sound in the unaccented syllables of multi-syllable words. It is sometimes called the “lazy” vowel.
The schwa sound often sounds like a muffled version of the short u sound, although it can sometimes sound more like a muffled short i sound. It can be spelled with any vowel. For example, say these words in a natural voice and notice how the schwa sounds:
- Words with a schwa sound like a muffled short u: magazine, problem, accident, bottom, syringe
- Words with a schwa sound like a muffled short i: human, blanket, difficult, parrot, voluntary, analysis
About Unaccented Syllables
- Every multi-syllable word has a single stressed syllable – this syllable has the most emphasis and its vowel sound is clearly pronounced. The remainder of the syllables may have a secondary stress or be unstressed.
- Example: emphasize has all 3 levels of stress. The first syllable is stressed, the second syllable is an unstressed syllable pronounced as schwa, and the third syllable has a secondary stress.
- Unstressed vowels are usually said faster and at a lower volume than vowels in stressed syllables.
- Schwas can be “lazy” – in some words an unstressed syllable that contains a schwa may disappear completely.
- Example: chocolate, camera, interest, several
- The correct spelling for a schwa sound is hard to remember because the sound cannot be related to the letter.
- When reading, teach students to try using the schwa sound when a long or short vowel doesn’t sound right in a word being read. For example, “I am eating a sal-ad.” First pronounce both a’s short, then substitute schwa uh for the second a.
- To help learn the spelling of a word with a schwa, encourage students to use a “spelling voice” – i.e., pronounce the unstressed syllable the way it would be pronounced if the vowel sound was stressed with a pure sound.
- Also teach them to associate words containing a schwa with their derivative base word such as definition/define.
Activities to promote awareness of schwa:
- Find the schwa, then circle it in words.
- Create a schwa word wall with words grouped by vowel representation.
Here are some examples of schwa for each vowel: