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The Schwa - ?

Many have probably never seen or heard of the schwa before. But yet, the schwa is the most common vowel sound in English. We'll discuss it here and give some examples. After reading this, you might start to realize "ah ha, so that's why I couldn't sound that word out properly using regular short/long vowel sounds!"

For something that is the most common vowel sound, the Schwa is certain not commonly taught, and for good reason. The difficulty with it is that the Schwa can be represented by all the vowels and also by various letter combinations. Furthermore, the sound of the schwa will vary depending on adjacent letters, and there is also no steadfast rule to help students determine whether a vowel sound in a word should be a schwa or a regular long/short vowel sound!

What is a Schwa?

The Schwa is denoted by the upside "e" that looks like this:


You will never see that in regular print, but only in dictionaries where it is used as a phonetic notation and a representation of a sound. For example:


The "A" in WHAT normally makes a short /a/ "ah" sound; however, in WHAT, it makes an 'uh' sound, and is denoted by the schwa. In most cases, the schwa makes a fairly neutral "uh" sound, and is typically found in unstressed/reduced vowel positions. This is where the vowel's sound is "weak" as compared to how it would normally sound. There are countless words in English where there is an unstressed or reduced vowel sound, and this is why you'll find that you cannot properly sound out many words using a standard short or long vowel sound. "WHAT" is a perfect example of this. Here are a few more examples:


Even more confounding is that certain schwa sounds are treated differently depending on the regional pronunciation (dialects). Using the word "mother" as an example again:

In American English, Mother is pronounced as:


The "e", which is the schwa, in the ending "er" is severely reduced and almost just skipped over, where you just hear the /r/ sound. However, in British English, the ending "er" together becomes a schwa, and is pronounced as:


The ending "er" is the schwa.

Here's another example, where you have a letter combination making the schwa:


The 'ai' in 'mountain' is a diphthong that normally make the /ay/ sound. But in the word 'mountain', the 'ai' is the schwa, making a very reduced vowel sound, where you almost don't hear it - we may as well spell 'mountain' as 'mountn', but please don't.

Do I Teach the Schwa?

Well, that depends - typically on the age of the student I'm working with. There are countless words in English where you will find the schwa, and you will have a tough time sounding out these words using the typical long or short vowel sounds. You will quickly discover this if you start teaching your child to read. However, the schwa is not something I explicitly teach in my reading lessons due to the complexities as explained above [?b?v], especially when working with young 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old children.

It's hard enough for these little one when just starting to learn to read - we don't want to add in extra concepts that may just end up confusing them.

With older 6 to 8 year old students, I only bring up this concept of the schwa briefly if we come across words containing it. I only do this when I feel the student has already developed a strong foundation in decoding and reading.

I hope that after reading this, you will have gained a better understand of the schwa and its function within the English language. Hopefully when you come across words you can't decode properly using standard short/long vowel sounds, you'll remember the schwa!

Learn about all the intricacies and complexities of the English language, and click here to discover how you can easily teach your child to read following our simple, step-by-step reading lesson plans.