Do you know that the schwa sound is the most common yet the trickiest sound in English?
Many people are not aware of this sound!
Most schools, including popular phonics curriculums around the world, leave this sound out of the equation simply because it is such a hard nut to crack.
But the truth is, far from confusing kids, learning about the schwa sound can save them from a lot of headaches, especially if they are English learners.
Being aware of the schwa sound can empower kids to:
- Decode words with complex spellings easily.
- Encode words with strange spelling patterns efficiently.
- Pronounce words correctly and more naturally.
So in this post, apart from helping you get familiar with the schwa sound, I’m going to share with you 5 simple activities to introduce this mysterious sound to kids!
So keep reading!
What is the schwa sound in English?
Have you ever tried to sound out a word but it simply didn’t make any sense?
You tried the short vowel sound, the long vowel sound but nothing seemed to work?
Well, that might be because the sound you were trying to decode was probably the schwa sound!
If you have the habit of using a dictionary, you might have seen the schwa many times. It is represented by an inverted e—‘ə’.
The schwa is often called the ‘laziest sound’ in English because the tongue, lips, and jaw are so relaxed that when you say this sound, it sounds as if you are letting out a teeny tiny ‘burp’—/uh/.
Examples of Schwa words:
Here are some examples of the schwa sound in words:
Banana – /b/ /ə/ /n/ /a/ /n/ /ə/ – The first and last ‘a’ in the word ‘banana’ are schwa.
The – /th/ /ə/ – The word ‘the’ which is often introduced to the child as a sight word can
be segmented because the ‘e’ in ‘the’ is a schwa.
Family – /f/ /a/ /m/ /ə/ /l/ /E/ – the ‘i’ in ‘family’ is the schwa.
Amazing – /ə/ /m/ /A/ /z/ /i/ /ng/ – the ‘a’ in ‘amazing’ is the schwa.
Mountain – /m/ /ou/ /t/ /ə/ /n/ – the digraph ‘ai’ in ‘mountain’ is the schwa.
Why is it Challenging to Teach the Schwa to Kids?
As you might have noticed from the above examples, teaching the schwa to kids is no joke!
Here are 3 reasons why most schools, including popular phonics curriculums around the world, don’t teach this sound to kids:
- All the vowels a, e, i, o, u as well as the letter ‘y’ and combination of letters such as ‘ai’
make the schwa sound.
- There is no rule to explain how the letters spell the ‘schwa’. The only option is to
remember the letter that spells the schwa sound by heart.
- To add to the confusion, the schwa sound and the ‘short u’ sound /u/ sound a lot similar.
The only difference is, the schwa is a much-reduced sound.
5 Simple Activities to Teach the Schwa Sound in English to Kids:
Indeed, the schwa is such a hard nut to crack!
But it doesn’t mean that you should not teach this sound to kids.
As I already mentioned earlier in this post, learning about this sound can help kids understand the English spelling system better.
So as mysterious and confusing as this sound might seem, here are 5 simple activities to help you teach this tricky sound to your child.
- Use an online kid’s dictionary
- Say the short/long vowel sound
- Use a schwa word chart
- Mark the open syllable
- Mark the unstressed syllable
1. USE AN ONLINE KID’S DICTIONARY:
I agree that teaching the schwa sound in English can be tricky!
Let me give you a heads up!
When you first introduce the schwa sound, some kids might get excited, while others might find it confusing.
If your child finds the schwa sound confusing, don’t fret!
It is normal at the beginning but, trust me, the more your child notices this sound in words, the more confident your child will get in tackling this complicated sound in English.
So when you come across a word that has the schwa sound, point to how the vowel does not make either the short or the long sound instead makes a new sound.
An easy way to help your child identify the new sound that the vowel makes is to teach your child how to use a children’s dictionary.
Encourage your child to look at the phonetic symbols to see if there is an inverted ‘e’—‘ə’. If there is an inverted e—‘ə’, the mysterious sound in the word is the schwa.
If you use an online dictionary, things get really simple and interesting!
Because apart from spotting the inverted e—‘ə’, your child can also listen to how the word is being pronounced and practice it to get it right! This will be most helpful if your child is an English learner.
2. SAY THE SHORT/LONG VOWEL SOUND:
A fun way to remember the letter(s) that make the schwa sound in words is to pronounce the letter(s) with its short/long vowel sound or the digraph sound.
Kids find this silly so learning the spelling becomes sticky!
So play along, change your tone of voice, sound like a robot or a mouse for some extra fun!
Here’s an example!
instead of the ‘schwa’ sound, sound out the ‘a’ with the short /a/ sound.
Our son really enjoys spotting the schwa and pronouncing the word the way it is spelled.
So I highly recommend you give this a try!
But before you do, please make sure that your child knows the correct pronunciation of the word, especially if your child is an English learner. Because we do not want our children to end up mispronouncing words!
3. USE THE SCHWA WORD CHART:
Another interesting way to learn the spelling for words that have the schwa sound is to group words based on the letter(s) that make the schwa sound. You can also make a list of words based on spelling patterns.
Here are some examples!
- Wordlist based on the letter: ‘a’ word list – about, again, around
- Wordlist based on the spelling pattern: ‘-tion’ word list – action, ambition, option.
So once you have your word chart ready, go through the wordlist and point to the vowel that makes the schwa sound.
Since there is no rule to explain why the vowel in the word makes the schwa sound, it is important that you build your child’s visual memory so your child remembers the word and its spelling easily.
If you are looking for a list of schwa words to help your child get familiar with the words and their spellings, check out our Schwa Sound Spelling Pack.
This list includes 150 commonly used schwa words for kids!
4. MARK THE OPEN SYLLABLE:
If your child is familiar with syllables and their types, you can encourage your child to identify the open syllable in the word. Because the vowel in the open syllable either makes a short sound, a long sound, or the schwa sound!
Although there is no rule to tell you which sound the open vowel makes for sure, instead of being clueless, learning what to expect can save your child from a lot of confusion.
Here’s an example!
In the word ‘ba-NAN-a’, the first and last syllables are open syllables so the vowel ‘a’ in those syllables make the schwa sound – /b/ /ə/ /n/ /a/ /n/ /ə/.
5. MARK THE UNSTRESSED SYLLABLE:
Another interesting way to identify the schwa is to teach your child to identify the unstressed syllables in words.
In English, a multi-syllable word has one syllable that is stressed and one or more syllables that are unstressed.
The vowel in the unstressed syllable usually makes the schwa sound!
Here’s an example!
NOTE: To identify the stressed and unstressed syllables in a word, refer to a dictionary. The stressed syllable is often indicated by a stress mark, a symbol that resembles an apostrophe.
In the word banana (bə-ˈnan-ə), the second syllable ‘nan’ has the stress mark so it is the stressed syllable and the rest are unstressed syllables.
So once you help your child identify the unstressed syllable, look at the vowel, what sound does it make?
Of course, it makes the schwa sound!
The schwa sound is….
- The most common yet the trickiest sound in English.
- It sounds like a teeny tiny ‘burp’—/uh/.
- It is represented by an inverted e—‘ə’.
- It sounds a lot like the short ‘u’ sound – /u/.
- All the vowels a, e, i, o, u as well as letter y and the combination of letters such as ‘ai’ make the schwa sound.
- There is no rule to tell you how the vowels spell the schwa.
- The only way to remember the letter that spells the schwa sound is to memorize it by heart.
I hope you found this post informative!
If you did, let me know in the comments below.
Would love to know!
If you are supporting your child to read at home, then you might want to read my blog post Teach Your Child to Read Using Phonics: The Ultimate 7-Step Guide for step-by-step instructions and all the necessary resources that you might need to help your child read and spell easily!
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To take up this program, you do not need any prior phonics knowledge or teaching experience!
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