Do you know the most common sound in English? The Schwa

Teaching English as a Foreign Language has its challenges and of the greatest is teaching English pronunciation to non-natives. It is also often one of the most in-demand skills of ESL teachers.

Almost every non-native speaker strives to sound native-like. Even though it is not always achievable, your students can get to a certain level where their accent sounds neutral and natural. While working on consonants is important, what our students usually leave out is the ¨laziest sound¨ in the language: the schwa. The phonemic symbol for this sound is /ə/.

“Schwa is the name for the most common sound in English. It is a weak, unstressed sound and it occurs in many words. It is often the sound in grammar words such as articles and prepositions.” –BBC Learning English

How can you identify the schwa sound?

The most important thing to remember is that the schwa is never stressed and therefore you have to identify word stress first.  For example, in the word ¨butter¨ the first syllable is stressed, which makes the second half of the word a lot less prominent. The second part of the word is where our schwa is hiding /ˈbʌ.tə/.

Non-native speakers are often fascinated when they discover that not every vowel in English is pronounced the same way. To create a rhythm when speaking, we stress content words (the important information in the sentence like verbs and nouns) and smooth out the vowel sounds in the function words (connecting words like prepositions, articles and conjunctions).

Getting the schwa sound correct is a good way of helping our students’ pronunciation more accurate and natural.

It is worth mentioning that it’s not recommended to introduce this sound at A1 or A2 levels, given that it is quite complicated and your students don’t have enough vocabulary to understand the words you are pronouncing. From  B1 level I usually start looking at the intonation and rhythm of sentences. It’s the perfect way to start tackling schwas.

How to teach the schwa sound

I have put together some suggestions on how to teach this tricky schwa sound.

  • Transcribing words using cut out phonemes

This game can help your students to start identifying schwas in words. Prepare some words that you are sure contain schwas and provide cut out phonemes that the students have to put in order to transcribe given words.

  • Crossword puzzles

Give a group of students cut out phonetic symbols and ask them to come up with as many words as possible and put them in a crossword. This game is similar to Bananagrams, but it definitely becomes more difficult with phonemes.

  • Who can read it faster?

Provide some sentences, for example, ¨It’s better to turn at that corner¨. You then encourage your students to identify the schwas in that sentence and read it out to each other. Make a competition of who can read it fastest.This a nice way to keep the energy up.

  • Storytelling

This activity is a lot less controlled compared to the previous ones. We usually stage this activity in the following way: students pick words that contain the schwa sound, write them on a piece of paper, and pass them over to their left. Each group will have a certain number of words that they have to incorporate into the story. After the story is ready, they read it to the rest of the class. Every time the students hear a word with a schwa in it, they clap.

Even though the topic seems pretty challenging, it’s a key element to teaching pronunciation and something we cover in detail on our TEFL course. On our TtMadrid website you can find more information on our TEFL courses and our Ongoing Professional Development courses that include support on teaching pronunciation.

 

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