Number one for English language teachers

Skills: teaching phonics: schwa

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

The schwa – the only phoneme with its own name – is important for learners to recognise and produce as it is the most common vowel sound in English. Here are some awareness-raising and practice ideas.

Many unstressed vowel sounds tend to become schwa. Because it is a short and unassertive sound there is a danger that in focussing on it in classroom sentences, it might lose its naturally weak character.

De-schwaed texts

  • Prepare a short text (three or four lines long). Wherever a schwa would be said in a word – insert a gap-line instead of the vowel(s).
  • Leave all other vowels as they are. In class give out the text and explain what you have done.
  • Learners must now go through the text and work out what the missing written vowels must be. This will raise awareness about the many ways that the schwa sound can be spelt in written English.

Stress and unstress

This would follow on well from the previous activity.

  • Hand out a short text and ask learners to go through and mark every syllable that would probably be stressed e.g. "When did you come to this college?"
  • They then practice reading it to each other – but reading only the stressed syllables e.g. "When … come …coll … ?" This will obviously sound odd – but encourage them to really emphasise these syllables and find a sense of rhythm in saying them.
  • The next task is to keep that stress and rhythm – but to insert the other syllables in the spaces between stresses without slowing down too much! This can help learners to get a sense of the important structuring and timing effect that stress has in English; it also encourages them to keep weak syllables weak.

Count the words

  • Record yourself saying about 6 - 10 naturally pronounced sentences at a fast natural speed e.g. "Are you going to give her that present for her birthday?" (Record – rather than read out in class – because you want to offer a consistent pronunciation when you replay it).
  • Take special care not to over-pronounce (i.e. not making weak syllables strong). Ask students to listen and count how many words are in each sentence. They will tend to miss the weak syllables.
  • Replay a few times and encourage students to discuss and agree, maybe "reconstructing" missing words by thinking about the surrounding language.

Learn a limerick

Poems are a good way to pull together some of these ideas. Teach a short poem line by line – modelling it and getting students to repeat it. Make sure rhythm and stress are good. When it's really well learnt, hand out the text and ask students to mark it first with stresses – then with schwas. Here's a silly limerick to close this month's ideas:

A curvaceous young phoneme called schwa,
Said "I never feel strong. It's bizarre!
I'm retiring and meek,
And I always sound weak, 
But in frequency counts – I'm the star!"

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Thank you very much for your feedback on this particular skills article, Jeremy! We're always pleased to hear that our teaching material is being received so positively and we do hope your students benefit too!

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  • I do a lot of pron work with my students- both word and sentence stress. It's always good to get some new ideas which not only give some fun ways for students to practice their pronunciation, but also for me to deepen my understanding of teaching it!

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