Teachers of reading must be aware of the schwa. The schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language – it accounts for 20% of all vowels spoken, but is the one that teachers usually know least about.

The schwa is an unaccented syllable or as Louisa Moats describes it, “a vowel with the stuffing taken out”.

The schwa is more prevalent in multisyllabic words but it is present in one syllable words such as ‘a’ and ‘the’. In multisyllablic words, one syllable usually gets greater emphasis than the others. We call this the stressed syllable and the vowel is clearly articulated. The unstressed syllable also contains a vowel however its pronunciation is weak and the vowel not clear – this is the schwa. The schwa can also be influenced by accent.

To demonstrate the effect of the schwa, say the word ‘lemon’ and listen carefully. The first syllable is stressed and we clearly articulate the ‘lem’, however the second syllable is unstressed and we pronounce it more like ‘uhn’, giving us ‘lemuhn’. Similarly, the word Melbourne: Australians tend to say ‘Melbuhn’. The first syllable, “Mel” is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed and pronounced more like ‘buhn’. When American visitors ask for directions to this city they nearly always ask for “Mel-born” and clearly articulate both syllables.

Stress pattern changes according to syllable structure. This is something that we automatically apply because as speakers of the English language we are familiar with these patterns. Say the words builder, dollar, doctor, photograph, about, and think about how the stress patterns vary in these words. What do you notice in the syllables marked in red?

Schwas do not present so much of a problem when reading, but they can make spelling difficult because the vowel in the unstressed syllable does not have a clear identity. Students may leave out the vowel or substitute it with another, for example, the word camera is pronounced ‘camra’ or government becomes ‘gov-a-ment’. Knowing syllable patterns and teaching meanings of word parts through morphology helps overcome the problem with spelling unaccented syllables. The morpheme ‘er’ means ‘one who’, therefore build + er, means one who builds. If students are exposed to this morphological knowledge spelling becomes easier.

Teachers can also facilitate student understanding by carefully annunciating or emphasising each syllable – some programs refer to this as a ‘spelling voice’. Have fun with the schwa and perhaps refer to it as the “sneaky schwa” because it likes to hide in words and trick new readers and spellers. Students could become ‘Schwa-lock Holmes’, schwa detective, listening for the schwa and finding where it is written in the word.

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