Unit 24 - Spelling the 'schwa' sound.

Teaching point The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language. It is also the cause of more spelling mistakes than any other sound - yet many spelling courses ignore it completely.

So what is this schwa sound and why does it cause such a problem?

To find out what the 'schwa' sounds like, read these words aloud
in your normal voice:

Spelling the schwa sound in English language Spelling the schwa sound in English language Spelling the schwa sound in English language Spelling the schwa sound in English language
parrot lion camel zebra

In each case, the vowel in the second syllable has a very weak sound:

In parrot and lion, you cannot hear the sound /ŏ/.
In camel you cannot hear the sound /ĕ/.
In zebra you cannot hear the sound /ă/.

The sound in each case is more like a soft /ŭ/, or /er/ sound. This sound is called the 'schwa' (say 'shwar' to rhyme with car. ) The word 'schwa' is German, but it comes originally from the Hebrew word meaning 'emptiness' - because it often sounds as if there is no vowel there at all.

; Click here to hear the schwa sound.
Listen hard or you might miss it!

Dictionaries which tell you how to pronounce words have their own codes to show the different vowel sounds. For example:

The long /a/ sound, as in alien, may be shown by a line, called a macron,
above the a: ā
The short /a/ sound, as in ant, may be shown by a mark called a breve,
above the a: ă

For the schwa sound, dictionaries often use this symbol : Ə

Find a dictionary which tells you how to pronounce words. See what code is used for the schwa sound. Note down some examples and mark the schwa sound


Go to a test in spotting the schwa sound.

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Unit 24: Spelling the 'schwa' sound - the neutral vowel
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