Tips for Teaching English Words with the Schwa Sound

The schwa sound is the sound a vowel makes in an unaccented syllable. The schwa sound is a vital part of the rhythm of English pronunciation and is heard in most multi-syllable words and in a few one-syllable words that do not receive the accent in the sentence.

There are two ways to help students to master spelling words that include the schwa sound.

1) Teach students to exaggerate the vowel sound as if the syllable were accented. This is an important way for students to create an "auditory picture" of the word as an additional memory hook for spelling.

2) Teach students to consider roots that have related meanings. This is because many times by finding a related root word, the student can "discover" the spelling of the unaccented vowel sound.

Here are a few examples:

pe des tri an The bold e is pronounced as a schwa. Teach students to exaggerate the long /e/ sound for spelling purposes. However, do not leave it there. Also teach them that "ped" means foot. Find other words that use the same root such as pedal, peddler, biped, millipede, and others where the root is in an accented syllable and clearly heard. In this way students will have an additional memory hook for spelling but also begin to learn to look for roots to find the meaning of words.

Pa ci fic Have students exaggerate the A in /pa ci fic/ to create an auditory picture. Then teach them the root "paci" means peace and relate it to the common derivatives pacifism and pacify - where the A's are clearly pronounced as a short /a/ in the accented syllable. This is also a great word to tie into history through an etymology lesson. Magellan named the ocean "peaceful" because he found it less stormy than the Atlantic. The goal here is to create an auditory picture by exaggerating the sounds and to demonstrate the relationship in meaning so that students have many hooks on which to hang both the meaning and spelling of words.

ma lev o lent Tell students to exaggerate the long /a/ and /o/ for spelling purposes. Then show students the roots. Mal is the root for "bad." I would encourage students to think of other words that use "mal" such as malicious, malady, malignant, malnutrition. We would also contrast it with benevolent and learn that volent means "wish." My goal is that students would see both the linguistic and morphemic structure of the word.

2014 Update:

We have begun teaching students about schwa as a spelling rule in Logic of English curriculum and supplements. See the Spelling Rules Chart on our Resources page and read our 2014 blog post series about Schwa and Spelling Rule 31