What’s in a Schwa? Orton Gillingham Unlocks the Secrets to What and How to Teach It

I’ve written about Schwa before, but I’m seeing a lot of questions around this topic so I want to take a deeper dive into the topic of Schwa.

What is a Schwa?

Schwa is a term used when a vowel takes on (or gets “swallowed up” by) the “uh” sound. Any vowel can do this and some vowel combinations make the sound as well, for example, doctor (the or takes on a schwa sound) or dollar, (the ar is a schwa).

Schwa is represented with an upside-down e.

Because any a, e, i, o, u, or y can make this sound, and even some letter combinations, it can be a tough concept at first, and makes spelling these words even harder.

A Few Schwa facts

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language. For this reason, I put it early in the Scope & Sequence and review the concept again later in the Scope & Sequence, and review the concept often in between, when appropriate. In Orton Gillingham, schwa is not a one-and-done concept.

Some will say that schwa can appear in a one-syllable word. I was not taught this way, so I always say that schwa is in multi-syllabic words, and schwa will only fall on the unaccented syllable – a schwa is never accented (which is why it cannot be in a one-syllable word).

When a word ends in an a, that a will always be a schwa. Examples, cola, mocha, umbrella, pizza.

Most schwa are in o and a words, they are less common in e and i words.

When to teach Schwa?

Once you’ve covered long and short vowels, or the fact that vowels have more than one sound, you can introduce schwa as a vowel sound. You can say, all vowels have three sounds, short, long and schwa. The schwa makes a vowel say short u.  

Later, you introduce that schwa is on unaccented syllables.

Later than that, when covering r-controlled vowels, you can illustrate the schwa sound again. There are multiple times you will find to point out schwa throughout the OG scope and sequence.

How to teach Schwa?

One important tip for teaching schwa is that when you are doing dictation and a word contains a schwa, do not pronounce it as a schwa, pronounce it as the letter it would be. For example, about – you would not dictate, “uh” bout, you would say, “a bout,” or cotton, you say, “cot ton” rather than “cot tun.” The reason is that no student will be able to discern the schwa letter from hearing “uh.”

Teach students, every vowel makes three sounds, short, long, and schwa. Introduce the concept early and be prepared to add more information as time goes on. (Do this when the time is right in your scope & sequence). On your drill cards, include the schwa sound with a key word, especially for a and o cards.

When teaching accenting, teach schwa again, by saying the schwa will never be accented.

Teaching schwa is a process – start small and build on the information and do it over time, using different strategies at different times in the process.

Very important to the Orton Gillingham method: make sure the student sees it (visual), hears it (auditory) and writes it (kinesthetic). Schwa is no different than any other concept in Orton Gillingham’s multi-sensory approach. Drill cards (visual), writing words with dictation (auditory) and activities (kinesthetic) are all part of the process – it’s not fast, it’s thorough.

Some activities (kinesthetic) for teaching schwa can be to highlight the schwa in words, read stories with schwa words represented, and find the schwa words from a list.

When covering accenting, you might have a worksheet of pictures like a banana and ask the student what’s that? Have them say banana, or a kitten and have them say kitten. Have them clap out the syllables of those words and ask where the accent falls. This is when you say, in banana, that last syllable, what does it say? Do you see that it is a schwa? Or something along those lines. It can be a discussion about accenting, which includes schwa in the discussion.

Final word on Schwa

You might have a lesson specifically on schwa to introduce the concept, but schwa is not something to linger on in each lesson – it’s a concept that is taught over time. It doesn’t require a lot of worksheets and deep dives as far as lesson plans go. It’s a part of a lesson. The reason is that any word containing a schwa is at its heart a learned (sight) word.

You can’t determine a schwa by hearing it – they all sound like a short u! So, the best you can do with this concept is teach it, review it, and when appropriate, review it again as part of a larger concept. For example, you wouldn’t concentrate a whole lesson on the fact that schwa is not in the accented syllable. It would be a part of the lesson on accenting that schwa is not accented.

Do you have any special ways of teaching schwa? Let everyone know in the comments!

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(3) Comments

  1. The only one syllable words that I believe schwa is in are “the” and “a” because they are hooked on to the word they come before and are unaccented. We don’t pronounce these words with long vowels in connected speech.

  2. I love your banana drill card, but if you write it ba na na, the syllables are open and the word would be pronounced with 2 long a sounds. Wouldn’t it be better to write it ban an a?

    1. Hi Alice, great point! So, I probably used a not-so-great example word. When I hear the word banana, I hear ba-na-na (with -na as the final syllable, and yes, it does make the syllable division an exception word because the middle a should be short). For that reason, you could teach it, ba-nan-a, just as easily and it would probably be better. I think I used that word because it was cute as a title for the article, but you are inspiring me to change it.
      I found this article that says either way is “correct,” (https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/118675/which-is-the-correct-syllable-division-for-banana) but I believe for OG teachings, your thought of ba-nan-a would be better because we can then accent the “nan” syllable and have the a closed — much easier.
      Thank you for pointing this out 🙂

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