Have you thought about teaching your students the schwa sound? Maybe you’re not sure how to approach it, or you figured it’s something they’ll pick up themselves?
You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll show you how to teach the schwa sound effectively and why its pronunciation should be a priority for all your students.
Why It’s Important to Teach the Schwa Sound
So, why’s it important to dedicate time to schwa pronunciation?
- It’s the most common vowel sound in English.
- Awareness of the schwa will help develop good pronunciation habits.
- English is a stress-timed language and many learners often don’t notice unstressed auxiliaries, which leads to mistakes like “what you do?” and “he coming now!”. You can help your students avoid that with adequate schwa practice.
Practicing the schwa sound may not lead to an immediate improvement in listening skills or pronunciation, but it helps build the vital foundation and eventually contributes significantly to their fluency and listening skills.
How to Teach the Schwa Sound
A quick note: I’m a fan of the ESA method of teaching—engage, study, activate—so I’ve structured this post in that manner. The ESA method is just one of many and by no means the best, as each student and teacher is different.
Engage: open with a warmer activity to engage students
A class often only finishes as well as it started. Studies have shown that an emotional response helps us to learn and remember more. So if your students aren’t engaged from the get-go, they’re not going to get as much out of the lesson as they could.
Teaching the schwa sound is no exception to that. In fact, a warmer activity could be seen as doubly important when introducing the schwa, since it’s a source of much confusion and frustration for some students.
It would help to open the class by spiking your student’s interest by telling them that this pronunciation-focused class will have a massive impact on their overall fluency down the line.
Try to show an engaging phrase—something silly, funny, or thought-provoking— containing several schwas (of different vowels) and read it aloud once or twice.
Give your students a moment to think about it, then cross out the “reduced” vowels and get them to read it out loud a few times.
Explain what they just did and introduce the schwa sound.
You could also try some of these other common warmers to get your students engaged:
- Catch-up. The simplest warmer! Just catch up with your students for five minutes and discuss what you’ve been up to since the last class.
- Finish the thought. Write the beginning of a sentence on the whiteboard and ask students to complete it.
- Just a Minute. Write a random topic that the students have to talk about for 60 seconds without stopping.
Study: explaining the schwa sound
Let’s be more like the schwa. It’s never stressed!
Now’s the time to explain that the schwa is seen in two ways:
- As an unstressed syllable of a multi-syllable word.
- As a reduced vowel sound in a function word.
Give examples of both by showing words and phrases with the schwa syllable underlined.
Here are some to get you going:
- The majority of people I know want shorter working hours.
- We’re going to need a large quantity of food to feed this many people.
- We’re having some technical difficulties. Please bear with us.
It’s important to stress to your students that any vowel can become the schwa. It depends on whether that particular vowel is stressed or not because the schwa is never the stressed syllable.
Here you can show some words with different vowels as the schwa to help drill the importance of proper stress.
Some words to use:
woman, elephant, pencil, carrot, support.
Here’s a phrase to get your students thinking:
She’s content with the content I’ve been producing lately.
Here you can explain the importance of stress on opposite syllables to differentiate two words that are spelled the same.
At this point, it’d be good to give the students a worksheet or activity that requires them to mark the schwa vowel in a list of words and phrases.
Imagine what your students could achieve with native-level pronunciation. Our Creativa course Mastering North American English Pronunciation features high-quality, engaging videos designed to captivate students and get them speaking fluently sooner.
There’s even an entire video lesson on schwa pronunciation! Click here for a free video from the course.
Drill with fast dictation
At the risk of boring your students, or information overload, it’s important to start drilling the schwa sound during the study phase of the lesson.
Dictate some phrases at regular speed and tell the students to write whatever they hear and that you won’t repeat.
Needless to say, you should tailor the phrases to the level of the students, so pre-intermediate would be best with present simple phrases, and so on.
Allow the students a few minutes to compare in pairs, then correct them, making sure they pay attention to the corrections and remember them.
Be sure to maintain natural sentence stress while drilling. Although it’s done with good intention, there’s a risk of giving the schwa too much emphasis and confusing your students.
Here are some example phrases :
- I have a carrot and a banana.
- I was sitting alone on the sofa when she arrived.
- Father went around the apartment.
Ask some questions to raise awareness
You can use the last chunk of the study phase to test the students on what they’ve learned so far.
Be mindful of tailoring the questions to the points you’ve actually taught so the students don’t feel like they’ve misunderstood something and become discouraged.
Some questions you can ask to solidify their understanding of schwa:
- Why is it so important to use the schwa?
- How do we make the sound?
- What kinds of words are stressed? (Content words, i.e., nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs)
- What words are not stressed? (‘Grammar words,’ i.e., auxiliary verbs, pronouns, articles, linkers, prepositions)
- Do stressed syllables ever have the schwa? (No)
Activate: putting the schwa to work
Activating your students at the end of the class will help you know how well they’ve understood the material discussed during class.
This portion of the class should be purely interactive and heavily focused on speaking, so your students can freely use their new skills without being bogged down with worksheets and corrections.
Some activation activities you can try:
- Write phrases and practice in pairs. Students can then swap phrases and practice the vocabulary of their peers.
- Role-playing. A great way to focus the vocabulary on a particular topic, and students are free to create whatever dialogue they want.
- Debates. Everybody has a competitive side, so debating may work well with your students if their vocabulary permits it.
- Just chat! Since the schwa isn’t tied to any particular grammar rule or vocabulary, try just letting your students speak freely for a while. Often students feel the most comfortable when there’s less at stake.
Some of your students will likely be more determined than others, while some will revert to full-vowel pronunciation after drilling.
This is normal, and you should expect it to happen. Either way, they’ve had their preconceptions of English pronunciation changed, and what they’ve learned about schwa pronunciation will eventually stick as it should. Because some exposure to something is often better than none at all.
Be sure to give your students a short task or worksheet to complete at home so they can return to the topic after a brief pause and help solidify the information.
And most importantly, have fun with it! The schwa can be daunting to teach at first, but there’s relief in knowing you’ve taught your students something that will impact their pronunciation forever.