Subtracting the Schwa

Our downstairs neighbors include a set of second grade twins who love to “play” with my fourteen-month-old son. They frequently run back and forth between our apartments toting toy after toy to show him. While he is too young to play with the vast majority of remote control Barbie cars or BeyBlades they bring up, he enjoys watching them burst in and out of the house and revels in the attention.

Recently they came upstairs with a toy that seemed slightly more age appropriate than the rest. It was a Winnie-the-Pooh electronic phonics game. Just what a reading specialist mom wants to see her kid drooling over/on! If you press a letter on the board, a Pooh voice will tell you the name of the letter, the letter sound, or a word that starts with that letter depending on the mode you are in. With excitement, I began showing my son the letters in his name. When he switched it to sound mode however, with the dexterity all young children seem to have for flipping switches, my enthusiasm quickly waned. When Pooh told my son that the sound of the letter D was “duh,” I groaned. I pushed some other letters to confirm my growing exasperation and yes, S was “suh” and M says “muh.” Most of the letter sounds had the schwa sound attached to the initial consonant.

The schwa sound is that short u sound that finds its way into many English words where it seems it shouldn’t be—at the beginning of about and again, at the end of the and banana. It also makes its way into too many educational games on computers, tablets, and electronic toys, clinging to the end of sounds. Now this small addition to an initial sound may seem picky or a pet peeve that is unique to overly sensitive reading teachers but it is extremely important that beginning readers learn the appropriately clipped consonant sounds. The problem with adding the schwa sound is apparent as soon as a child begins blending sounds together to read. Trying to sound out a simple word like mat could be read as muh-ă-tuh. Hearing those sounds orally does not blend together to make the word mat. Reading is already complicated enough—we don’t need to make it harder!

I did a sample teaching lesson in a first grade class a number of years ago. The teacher had told me they were working on consonant blends and so I planned a lesson based on different blends with the letter L. As soon as I asked the students the sound of the letter S and they responded, “SUH!” I knew I was in trouble. Because letter L said “LUH!” the children struggled to find a blend of SL that wasn’t SUH-LUH. When I tried to rectify the confusion by practicing the proper sounds of /s/ and /l/, they looked at me like I was crazy, since both their kindergarten and first grade teachers had taught them something different. Luckily the principal realized what was happening and didn’t hold it against me in the job interview, but the lesson was not my finest hour.

As early educators we need to be more conscious of this than others. When my husband began work on an Elkonin Boxes app for sound segmentation practice (It’s amazing! Check the App Store or read my post on it soon!), the first thing I did was make him watch videos of speech pathologists carefully pronouncing each sound. We even had to redo some of the voice work because it is very easy to slip into that schwa! If you are now frantically reexamining your own pronunciation and want a reference, this youtube video is pretty solid.

If you notice educators where you work falling into this trap, share the wealth! We all need to be on guard against the schwa…

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