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The troublesome Schwa! ə

5A53CC9F-4F89-42F9-A49A-C0239FB70AAF.jpegIn phonetics and phonology, the schwa is the mid central vowel sound in the middle of the vowel chart, represented with the IPA symbol ə. In the Australian accent, we have lots of schwa sounds and I personally like to call it the ‘lazy vowel sound’. For example, in the word ‘System’- there is no clear ‘e’ sound, instead the e is pronounced as a ‘lazy’ middle vowel sound. We can teach students about the schwa sound in spelling/phonics lessons as it occurs in unstressed syllables and at the end of many words. For more information on teaching the schwa, see this great post by Phonics Hero.

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The schwa becomes problematic during phonics or phonemic awareness tasks when teachers unnecessarily insert the schwa after stop sounds (AKA plosives). This is particularly prominent after voiceless stop/plosive sounds (e.g. t, p, k). It sounds a bit like ‘t-uh’ ‘d-uh’ ‘k-uh’ with the schwa inserted. When we are presenting these sounds to students, especially in blending or decoding tasks, we need to ensure we are not slipping in the ‘intrusive’ schwa after saying the sound otherwise students will be trying to blend “t-uh….a…p-uh” for tap instead of “t-a-p”. This becomes problematic when they attempt to blend the sounds to form a word.

It often takes some practice to eliminate the pesky intrusive schwa sound when vocalising single stop/plosive sounds. Practice saying single voiceless stop/plosive sounds- your voice box (larynx) shouldn’t vibrate!

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