How to Teach Schwa Sound Words to Kids the Simple Way

Schwa sound words are interesting and unique. The schwa sound is considered the most common vowel sound in the English language because it can be made by all of the different vowels.

It is pronounced as a short, weak, unstressed vowel that is often described as the most relaxed and neutral sound in English.

In the context of English, the concept of the schwa sound has been present for a very long time, as English has a history of unstressed vowel reduction.

Linguists and phoneticians have been studying and describing these vowel reductions for generations.

As with any concept you will be teaching, there are relevant pieces of background information that are vital for you, as the teacher, to understand.

Having this foundational knowledge will allow you to deconstruct somewhat complex and abstract concepts for your students.

So let’s look at…

  • the characteristics of the schwa sound, 
  • a long list of schwa words, and
  • how to effectively teach this new concept to your elementary students.

Characteristics of Schwa Sound Words

Neutral Sound

The schwa sound is like an “uh” sound or a short u sound. 

It’s not a distinct vowel sound like /a/ in “cat” or /i/ in “bit.” Instead, it’s a sort of neutral sound that the mouth naturally gravitates toward with unaccented syllables.

If you simply relax your jaw and let your mouth open slightly, you have created a neutral mouth position.

This is the way a native speaker would create the schwa pronunciation without even thinking about it!

Unstressed Vowels

The schwa sound typically occurs in syllables that are unstressed because not all syllables are pronounced with equal emphasis in English words. 

Stressed syllables are the main beats of a word and are pronounced more clearly and prominently.

Unstressed syllables, on the other hand, are often reduced to the schwa sound because they have a reduced vowel sound.

Reduction

In connected speech or casual conversation, when a syllable is unstressed, the vowel sound in that syllable often gets reduced to the schwa sound.

This is why words like “banana” might sound like “buh-NAH-nuh” in casual speech, with the schwa sound in the unstressed syllables.

Linguistic Importance

The schwa sound is crucial for understanding the rhythm and flow of spoken English.

It’s what allows speakers to quickly and efficiently move through unstressed syllables, making spoken language more fluid and natural.

Multisyllabic Words

Most schwa sounds are found in multi-syllable words, and it is important to note that the schwa sound can be found in various positions within words. 

Here are some examples of the schwa words with the schwa sound in different positions…

  1. In the first syllable of “banana”: /bəˈnænə/
  2. In the second syllable of “sofa”: /ˈsoʊfə/
  3. In the second syllable of “elephant”: /ˈɛləfənt/

Schwa Sound Words List

While this word list is certainly not exhaustive, it contains many common words that contain a schwa sound.

To make it a bit easier to navigate, I have grouped the word list based on the number of syllables in each.

But before we look at the words, I want to clarify something.

As I mentioned before, in English, the schwa sound typically appears in unstressed syllables, yet one-syllable words generally do not have unstressed syllables.

So as a result, it’s not common to find one-syllable words with the schwa sound.

However, there are some cases where a one-syllable word can have a reduced vowel sound that is similar to a schwa sound, especially in fast or casual speech. 

One-Syllable Words

  1. the (pronounced like “thuh” in casual speech)
  2. a (pronounced like “uh” in casual speech)
  3. to (pronounced like “tuh” in casual speech)
  4. of
  5. was
  6. what
  7. some (pronounced like “suhm”…especially if you are from the south!)
  8. come
  9. love
  10. dove

Two-Syllable Words

  1. ago
  2. sofa
  3. color
  4. other
  5. often
  6. open
  7. soda
  8. panda
  9. pizza
  10. smother
  11. about
  12. vowel
  13. pencil
  14. taken
  15. total
  16. problem
  17. appear
  18. doctor
  19. listen
  20. family
  21. number
  22. mother
  23. brother
  24. button
  25. often
  26. rabbit
  27. kitten
  28. salad
  29. lemon
  30. student
  31. planet
  32. southern
  33. common
  34. garden
  35. guitar

Three-Syllable Words

  1. another
  2. banana
  3. camera
  4. animal
  5. potato
  6. together
  7. therapy
  8. relevant
  9. various

Remember that the schwa sound can appear in any syllable from the beginning of words to the end of words.

The key is to find where that “uh” sound occurs.

How to Teach Schwa Sound Words

Now that you have all of the background knowledge you need to successfully teach the schwa sound, you’re ready!

But remember, explaining this fairly complex concept to elementary students requires simple language and engaging examples. 

Here’s a kid-friendly way to teach it.

Introduce the Schwa Sound

Start with explicit instruction. Explain to the students that there’s a special sound in English that’s like a “hidden,” weak or lazy vowel sound.

This is the most common sound and can be made by all of the vowels. It is called the “schwa” sound.

It’s like a secret helper in words that makes them easier to say…especially when we talk to each other.

Provide lots of examples emphasizing the schwa sound in the unstressed syllables.

Also incorporate visual aids such as phonetic symbols (like the IPA symbol for schwa “ə”) and color-coded syllables that can help students identify and remember where the schwa sound occurs. 

Compare Strong and Weak Sounds

Encourage students to listen carefully to the difference between stressed (strong) and unstressed syllables (weak).

Explain that when we say words, some parts are strong and some are not so strong.

Imagine you’re playing with a ball. 

When you throw the ball, you give it a big push (strong sound). But when you gently roll the ball (weak sound), it’s like the schwa sound. 

It’s a small, relaxed sound that helps words flow smoothly.

Word Stress Patterns

Teach students about word stress patterns in English. 

Explain that content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are usually stressed, while function words (prepositions, articles, pronouns) often contain the schwa sound. 

Obviously, if you are teaching very young students, this will be a bit advanced for their level of understanding.

However, if you are reviewing this skill with older students or teaching more advanced non-native English speakers, this will help them understand the context in which the schwa sound is likely to appear.

Practice Together

Start with Individual Words

Begin by finding the schwa sound in words. At first, just say the words out loud and see if students can hear the schwa sound.

Model the correct pronunciation and then have them repeat after you.

Once they start noticing the patterns and can hear the “uh” sound, show them flashcards with schwa words.

This is the perfect opportunity to show them how each vowel letter can make the schwa sound.

It is also the ideal time to explain how they can’t let their eyes trick their ears.

In other words, just because a word is spelled with an “a” doesn’t mean it makes the /a/ sound.

Add in Short Sentences

You can continue to find the schwa sounds in words, but then introduce short sentences like “I am going to the park.”

Allow students to see how the little words (like “to” and “the”) have the schwa sound because they’re not the star of the sentence.

Also remind them that the schwa sound can make figuring out which vowel letter (or vowel combination) they hear a little tricky.

This is will become even more evident when students try to figure out the correct spelling of words they are sounding out.

Move on to Short Passages

Give the students short stories or passages and ask them to find words with the schwa sound. Make it like a treasure hunt!

Keep Practicing

Any new skill requires lots of practice to master. And as with any other skill, learning the schwa sound will take students a little time to truly grasp.

Incorporate the teaching of the schwa sound into your regular lessons.

Use it as a part of vocabulary exercises, reading comprehension, and speaking activities.

Whenever you read together, remind them to listen for the schwa sound.

Make it a part of your language lessons and celebrate by providing positive feedback when students spot the schwa sound in words and sentences.

The schwa sound is a fundamental aspect of English pronunciation and plays a significant role in shaping the way words are spoken in connected speech.

Therefore, repeated exposure plus opportunities to practice and apply the schwa sound in a variety of contexts is vital for mastery.

But it is imperative that you make the learning process enjoyable, interactive, and playful so your elementary students will be able to grasp this new concept with excitement and enthusiasm.