Schwa vowels can be puzzling to children and adults at first. Breaking down schwa sounds by groups can be helpful. Starting with schwa a sounds is one of the common unstressed syllables in the English language. With this “How to Teach Schwa Tutorial”, your students will be able to pick this unstressed syllable up rather easily.
One of my few memories of my early elementary years is learning about schwa. Although I was an avid reader, I remember struggling to wrap my head around this particular phonics lesson. While this may seem like one of the most confusing sounds to teach, there are some tips to help and things I wish my teacher in 1st and 2nd grade had tried.
I suggest moving from the big picture of stress and accent and what a schwa is to more specific spelling patterns and examples.
I want to be a schwa. It’s never stressed! 🙂
- Introduce what schwa is and what the symbol looks like. Schwa is most simply defined as the sound a vowel makes in an unaccented syllable. It is actually the most common sound in English. Any written vowel can have the schwa sound, or to put it another way, the schwa sound can be spelled with any vowel. The schwa sound is a shorter than short vowel sound or a lazy vowel. It takes very little effort for our mouth to say “uh”.
The schwa symbol looks like an upside-down e. It looks like a lazy e is taking a rest. The word schwa comes from the Hebrew word “shva” which represents the “eh”sound in Hebrew. Although this is the origin of the word schwa, the Schwa sound in English typically sounds like “uh” or “ih” or something in between. The term schwa was first used by German linguists in the 19th century.
- Discuss what it means for schwa to be an unstressed syllable. It is easy to say that schwa is the sound a vowel makes in an unaccented or unstressed syllable, but what does that really mean? English is a stress-timed language. Poets rely on this when they use a particular rhythm or meter. Limericks have a particular rhythm. Shakespeare often used iambic pentameter, which is a particular rhythm of accented and unaccented syllables. Schwa has the habit of deleting syllables in spoken language as in the way chocolate becomes “choclate”, or sometimes even adding in a sound when saying certain words.
Practical Teaching Tips for Schwa A
While we don’t need to teach our students iambic pentameter, we do want to model the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
I like to use felt squares in a pocket chart for this. For the word “alike” I would have four different felt squares in a row on the pocket chart. We listen to hear more stress.
Call It To Dinner
There is a little trick called “Call the dog” or “Call it to dinner” to hear the stress. If I were to call the word “alike” to dinner, I would call out “a-LIKE!” I would move the first felt square down a row to show the unstressed schwa a sound. Often students need to hear it model both correctly and incorrectly stressed in order to be able to pick out what sounds right.
- Start with Schwa A. When teaching about schwa sounds with children, it is important to try to group them to make them more accessible and less overwhelming. Starting with schwa A is an easy introduction. This is also sometimes referred to as an open syllable exception. When a Is in an open syllable at the beginning or end of a word, it often does not make the expected long sound, but instead makes the “Uh” or schwa sound as in alike, Alaska, about, panda, soda, and alone. An alternative way to draw attention to the schwa a is to have students put more emphasis on the schwa A at first to draw their attention to it. For example: For the word “A-lone” try saying it, pounding it on the table, tapping their leg and then writing it. Choose what works best for your students.
- Teach students how to mark unstressed syllables. Pretty universally accented or stressed syllables are marked with a ‘ mark over the accented syllable. Unstressed syllables are often marked with a breve ˘. I will often have students mark a schwa syllable with the schwa symbol. Ə Using magnetic letters, students can actually move the unaccented syllable down to show that it is quieter and less stressed or mark the accented syllable with a piece of chenille stem. Making this learning multisensory is key.
- With groups of schwa A words, have students highlight when they see and hear a schwa a sound in words. It is helpful to initially start with schwa a sounds at the beginning or end before addressing the less common medial schwa a. Again, weaving in opportunities for students to incorporate movement and making learning as multisensory as possible is important.
- Repetition and review. Once you have laid the foundation, mastering schwa a is a matter of practice. Provide students with lots of opportunities to practice with controlled text and games that offer the chance to simultaneously read and spell words with schwa a.
The nice thing about starting with schwa A is that it is relatively predictable and consistent. Other schwa vowels tend to be less regular. Look for progress not perfection. I have a student for whom schwa is her “worst enemy”. If she is Batman, schwa is Joker. If she is Superman, schwa is kryptonite. If she were a Smurf, schwa would be Gargamel. But for all her fist shaking and joking, she knows that she has the upper hand, by learning as much as she can about schwa. We acknowledge that schwa is difficult and embrace the patterns for reading and spelling and concentrate our efforts on becoming proficient with strategies and tools for tackling one of the most challenging aspects of English spelling.
If you are seeking resources, this Schwa A resource is so helpful. I also have a FREE schwa game with fun pizza theme! Who doesn’t love pizza? 🙂
Look for Part 2: Tips for Teaching Other Schwa Vowels. In it, I will go into more reading and spelling strategies for unstressed syllables.
Watch “What is Schwa?” from Laughing Ogre Press for a helpful explanation!