What is the Schwa?
According to Gina Cooke (2008a), the schwa is:
“the Language Arts teacher’s nemesis: the unstressed, toneless, neutral vowel sound that is the most common sound in all of English.”
Technically speaking, the schwa is an unstressed vowel sound that is found in a polysyllabic (multisyllabic) word.* It is often represented by ə. The schwa sound is similar to a short i or a short u sound but it is not the same. The schwa is an unstressed alternative for pretty much any vowel sound.
The term schwa is a German word that can be traced back to the Hebrew word “shva”.
The label schwa was first used to describe this unstressed vowel sound in the English language during the late 19th century.
Before this, the schwa sound had been described as an unstressed, toneless, neutral, weak, obscure, null, ill-defined, intermediate vowel or a natural vowel.
According to the International Phonetical Alphabet, the shwa is considered a vowel phone and not an individual phoneme. Schwa is considered a vowel phone because it does not provide a distinction between words in the English language.
The schwa is the largest source of problems in reading and spelling for students.
You may be wondering why Schwa is such a nightmare?
- The schwa can be represented by all of the vowel letters: a, e, I, o, u, & y
- In oral language, the syllable containing a schwa sound may be omitted. This is referred to as a schwa syncope or a schwa deletion. (different -> dif-rent; Frederick -> Fred-rick; caramel ->car-mel)
- In oral language, additional schwa syllables may be inserted into a word.
- In some dialects, a schwa is inserted into a word to break up a consonant cluster that is difficult to pronounce.
- A schwa is sometimes inserted for emphasis. (realtor -> real- ə-tor; athlete -> ath- ə-lete; nuclear -> nuc- ə-lear)
- A schwa can be inserted to words for a dramatic effect. (please -> pə-lease)
Schwa is the most common sound in the English language and a student’s knowledge of it should not be left up to chance. The English language is considered to be a stressed-timed language meaning that when you pronounce polysyllabic words in English, each syllable does have the same emphasis when it is spoken.
A Guide to Teaching Schwa:
The most important thing to know about schwa is that it is always unstressed. Start building students’ awareness of the stress patterns in words. This can be done in a multisensory manner using mirrors so the students can see how their mouth moves while they say the words.
Begin by teaching words that begin with an unstressed vowel in the initial position (away, unopen).
When teaching etymology and morphology, remind students that schwa sounds are often found in words with a Latin origin.
When teaching students about etymological word families, students can learn that related words have similar spellings. This understanding can help them become better at spelling the schwa vowel sound found in the word in question.
When teaching morphemes, remind students that many prefixes and suffixes contain a schwa.
When reading words or dictating words for spelling do not over-enunciate a word by saying a schwa as a pure vowel sound.
* Remember the Greek prefix poly means more than one
Cooke, G. (2008a, Summer). Phono-logic: A treatise on the schwa, part 1. Toward a Common Goal, 7-8.
Cooke, G. (2008b, Fall). Phono-logic: A treatise on the schwa, part 2. Toward a Common Goal, 7-8.
Cooke, G. (2008c, Winter). Phono-logic: A treatise on the schwa, part 3. Toward a Common Goal, 7-8.
Henry, M. (2010). Unlocking Literacy: Effective decoding & spelling instruction (2nded.). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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