What is Schwa?

Written by Jill Hodge.

I would like you to visualize a drummer, hitting a snare drum at a consistent beat in the same intervals: ti-ti-ti-ti-ti and the only change is in the pace, which can be fast or slow.  Now, imagine a second drummer whose beat is: ti-ti-tissss, ti-tiss-ti-ti-ti, tisssss-ti-tiss. These are two distinct sets of rhythms.

Believe it or not, rhythm is an important part of language.  English is a stress-timed language.  Many other languages such as Spanish, French and Italian are syllable-timed languages.  The difference between the two is simple and important. Syllable-timed languages are like the drummer who plays at a consistent beat in the same intervals.  Each syllable is spoken in approximately the same length of time. Stress-timed languages are like the second drummer; some syllables are long (stressed), and others are short (unstressed).   

The stress, or accent, in a word can be hard for some people to hear.  Luckily, I have found success with the following strategy: Pretend your lips are glued together and hum the word.  The accented syllable is louder and stronger. I would like you to try humming the following words:

  • comma
  • elephant
  • family
  • ribbon

Now, read the above words aloud.

Do you hear how the bolded vowel does not make one of its normal sounds?  I also would like to point out that it occurs in unstressed syllables. There is a special name for this sound.  It is called, schwa. In a nutshell, schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language. However, it does not make the sound, ‘schwa.’ It usually sounds like a weak /ŭ/, and at times, a weak /ǐ/. Ironically, the most common vowel sound is also essentially the laziest vowel sound. To make schwa, your tongue does not have to go up or down, or forward, or back.  It stays right in the middle. Your tongue is not tense, it is completely relaxed in the middle of your mouth.

Schwa can be represented by any of the the five vowels: a, e, i, o, or u.  This makes reading and spelling much more challenging!  In the dictionary, you will see it represented by an upside down ‘e’ –  /ǝ/. Think of it like an ‘e’ too lazy to sit up! It takes very little time to say in a word, such as the ‘o’ in chocolate.

Fascinating, right?!  Well, as a reading teacher, I think it is. True fact: Discussing language structure can be exciting.  It is especially important for students with learning disabilities – they need this! I also love to spark a little small talk of linguistics outside of the classroom when I wear one of my favorite sweatshirts – this is schwa.  Everytime I wear this sweatshirt, I hope at least one brave soul during the day approaches me to ask, “What is schwa?”

Once that magical question is asked, you will often hear me spring into an enthusiastic response of, “I love schwa!” I then proceed to give them a concentrated rundown of what you’ve just read today.  

The chances are that, like me, you managed to learn to read and spell without being explicitly taught about schwa. Schwa remains, however, an important part of English. At Horizon Academy, we use an explicit and systematic approach to literacy instruction through the implementation of the Orton-Gillingham methodology.  Intensive, explicit instruction and practice of concepts such as schwa, helps our students deepen their understanding to fully ‘crack’ the code of language patterns and make maximum progress in reading and writing.