SCHWA ACTIVITIES - The ultimate guide to schwa

How to Improve Your Pronunciation of The English Schwa Sound.

What is ‘schwa’? ‘Schwa’ is an English vowel sound. In the International Phonetic Alphabet it’s written as /ə/. Schwa has a special name because it’s the most common English vowel sound. Schwa is a weak vowel found in unstressed syllables. It sounds like a weak ‘uh’ sound eg. ‘carrot’ is pronounced /ˈkæ.rət/ KA.ruht.

Improve your schwa with these schwa lessons below in video and audio. You’ll improve your ‘schwa’ in words and sentences.

Practice using schwa with the voice recording tools. Using schwa will improve the sound of your English!

Something to remember – before practising your schwa sound, you need to be confident that you are using good word stress when you speak English. Refresh your English word stress here.  

Ok, let’s jump right in and practice using ‘schwa’ with the schwa exercises below.

See Clearly How To Pronounce Schwa

Watch and listen to the video on how to pronounce the English vowel schwa /ə/. 

 

 

Facts about the schwa sound. 

 

  • Schwa is pronounced ‘shwaa’ /ʃwɑː/. 

  • Schwa is the name given to the most commonly used vowel in English.

  • In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) schwa is written with /ə/.

  • Schwa is a weak vowel. It is pronounced like a very weak ‘uh’ sound. The tongue and lips and jaw position are in your resting, relaxed position. Just exhale some air with voice to make a weak ‘uh’. 

  • You cannot tell by the spelling of a word whether it has a schwa sound in it or not. You need to learn to hear it or look at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in a dictionary. 

  • Any vowel letter in English (a, e, i, o, u, ) can become schwa and sometimes the letter ‘y’ too. Practice examples of each below. 

  • Schwa is never in the stressed syllable of a word. It is always in the unstressed syllables,

English Schwa Activities In Words 

Practise your schwa with the English schwa examples in words below. 

Remember as you’re practising, make sure that you focus on making good word stress. Each multi-syllable word in English has 1 stressed syllable. 

Using good word stress and emphasis on the right syllable in words is MUCH more important for clear English than using schwa, so focus on the pitch and emphasis on the stressed syllable in each word as you go. 

Before watching the schwa video say the word ‘purchase’ out loud.

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Which syllable in this word is stressed? The first or the second?

  • Did you pronounce the ‘a’ vowel in the second syllable?

  • Is there a schwa vowel in this word?

Now say the word ‘complete’ out loud and ask yourself these questions: 

  • Which syllable in this word is stressed? The first or the second syllable?

  • Did you pronounce the ‘o’ vowel in the first syllable?

  • Is there a schwa vowel in this word?

Watch the videos below to find out and improve your pronunciation of these words below.

Watch the video and practice schwa in:

purchase 

You try it now with good word stress.

Record Your Pronunciation of ‘purchase’.

Watch the video and practice schwa in:

complete 

You try it now with good word stress.

Record Your Pronunciation of ‘complete’.

More Schwa Exercises & Examples

 

Let’s cover some more great schwa exercises. It’s good to do some practice with video and some practice with audio only.  Why? Using only audio improves your listening skills.

When people watch a video, they tend to stop listening and watch instead. To improve your schwa and word stress you need to LISTEN and focus on the sounds that you hear and the sounds you are making. 

Next we’ll look at schwa examples of each vowel letter becoming schwa in an unstressed syllable. Complete the schwa exercises for each example. 

Which English vowels can be schwa? Any of the 5 English vowel letters can become schwa when they are in the unstressed syllable of a multi-syllable word in English. The letter ‘y’ is also pronounced as schwa in a small number of words. 

It’s essential to remember vowel letters don’t always become schwa when in the unstressed syllable. For example, in the words ‘contact’ and ‘damage’ the ‘a’ letter in the unstressed syllable does not become schwa. 

Here are some schwa word lists showing 4 schwa examples for each English vowel letter and when the letter ‘y’ becomes schwa. 

Practice schwa in these schwa exercises and examples below.  REMEMBER – focus on your word stress. 

Schwa Exercise 1

 

Schwa Sound Examples when the letter ‘o’ becomes ‘schwa’:

confirm       /kənˈfɜːm/

combine    /kəmˈbaɪn/

purpose     /ˈpɜː.pəs/

famous      /ˈfeɪ.məs/

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
confirm    combine    purpose    famous

Schwa Exercise 2

 

English Schwa Examples when the letter ‘a’ becomes ‘schwa’:

thousand       /ˈθaʊ.zənd/

atlas               /ˈæt.ləs/

salad             /ˈsæ.ləd/

amount         /əˈmaʊnt/

 

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
thousand     amount    atlas    salad    

Schwa Exercise 3

 

Schwa Sound Examples when the letter ‘u’ becomes ‘schwa’:

focus           /ˈfoʊ.kəs/

virus            /ˈvaɪ.rəs/

August        /ˈɔː.ɡəst/

supply         /səˈplaɪ/

 

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
   focus    virus     August    supply

Schwa Exercise 4

 

English Schwa Examples when the letter ‘e’ becomes ‘schwa’:

 item              /ˈaɪ.təm/

       perhaps      /pəˈhæps/ 

 develop      /dəˈve.ləp/

 business      /ˈbɪz.nɪs/

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
item    perhaps    develop    business

Schwa Exercise 5

 

Schwa Sound Examples of when the letter ‘i’ becomes ‘schwa’:

pencil /ˈpen.səl/

cousin  /ˈkʌ.zən/

mention /ˈmen.ʃən/

permission /pəˈmɪʃ.ən/

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
pencil    cousin    mention    permission

Schwa Exercise 6

 

English Schwa Examples of when the letter ‘y’ becomes ‘schwa’:

syringe       /səˈrɪndʒ/

vinyl            /ˈvaɪ.nəl/

catalyst      /ˈkæ.tə.lɪst/

pyjamas     /pəˈdʒɑː.məz/

Record Your Schwa Sounds:
syringe    vinyl   catalyst   pyjamas

Which vowel letters most commonly become schwa? The letter ‘o’ is the vowel letter that most often becomes schwa when it’s in the unstressed syllable of English words. The letter ‘e’ would be next common, followed by the letters ‘a’ and ‘u’.

For the letter ‘i’, it varies between different English accents. In Australian and American English, the letter ‘i’ also often becomes schwa. In British English, the letter ‘i’ becomes schwa less often, it is usually pronounced as a weak ‘i’. 

Do you need to think about this as a non-native speaker of English? No. Your main focus should be on getting the right word stress and weakening the vowel in the unstressed syllable. Whether this is a weak ‘i’ or a schwa it doesn’t matter as the difference is small and either pronunciation will be clear to your listeners, providing you got the right word stress.  


Schwa Sound English Dictionary Example

 

So, how does schwa look in the dictionary?

Let’s look at some examples of schwa in words in the IPA/ə/. Schwa is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in many English dictionaries using this symbol: /ə/. 

Schwa Sound In The IPA

This image shows the schwa symbol written in the word ‘confirm’ in the Cambridge Online Dictionary

It’s free to use and very helpful because you can click to hear the word pronounced in both British English and American English. It clearly shows the English schwa sound. 

Many learners use dictionaries with incorrect IPA transcriptions. Even dictionary.com has some incorrect word stresses! 

We recommend you use a dictionary such as Cambridge Online, as it will give you accurate information about word stress and schwa.

Schwa Sound & Google Pronunciation Tool

This image shows the pronunciation for the word ‘confirm’ with the Google Pronunciation Tool. The stressed syllable is in bold. This tool does not use the schwa symbol /ə/. Instead of /ə/ it’s written as ‘uh’. This is because most people do not know the IPA symbols such as the schwa sound symbol /ə/. 

Why Is Schwa Sometimes In Raised Text In The IPA

You may have noticed that schwa is sometimes written in higher text or slightly raised when written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). What does this mean and is it important?

When the /ə/ symbol is raised, in superscript, it just means that the schwa is so weak that it’s often omitted by speakers.

Is it important?

Not really. They are very, very similar – almost the same thing. The sound schwa is so weak anyway that it always sounds like it is almost or fully omitted.

Keep things simple and treat all schwa sounds the same, which is as very weak.

In some words in English we omit the schwa syllable. Examples of these are the words restaurant, comfortable, camera, library. Practise these words where we often omit a syllable or leave out a syllable here. 

ENGLISH SCHWA TEST 

Commonly Mispronounced Words With Schwa

Here is a list of 13 of the most commonly mispronounced words with schwa. Non native English speakers often miss schwa in these words and it results in the pronunciation of them sounding quite different to a native speaker.

These are all common words that we use everyday that have schwa. It’s important to use clear pronunciation with the correct word stress so listeners can understand you easily.

As you work your way through these 13 English words with schwa, focus on the word stress too.  

Remember that is you focus too much on schwa you are likely to pronounce it too strongly. 


Schwa Word List – 12
 Words With Schwa That You Should Check

focus /ˈfoʊ.kəs/  
effort /ˈe.fət/
onion /ˈʌn.jən/
occur /əˈkɜːr/
forget /fəˈɡet/
today /təˈdeɪ/
famous /ˈfeɪ.məs/
support /səˈpɔːt/
success /səkˈses/
awkward /ˈɔː.kwəd/
backward /ˈbæk.wəd/ forward /ˈfɔː.wəd/
toward /təˈwɔrd/

 

English Schwa Exercises In Sentences

 

Here’s a quick schwa lesson to help you understand how schwa works in a sentence.

Let’s look at this sentence: I’ll suggest it to Charlotte on Wednesday. 

In that sentence there are 3 stressed syllables. I’ll suGGEST it to CHARlotte on WEDNESday. 

Some (but not all) of the unstressed syllables will become schwa.

Listen to the audio schwa lesson below to practice this sentence using good words stress, rhythm and schwa sounds.

Audio Schwa Lesson 


Audio Schwa Lesson on using good word stress and pronouncing schwa in the sentence:

I’ll suGGEST it to CHARlotte on WEDNesday

Now Record Your Sentence:
I’ll suggest it to Charlotte on Wednesday. 

Video Schwa Lesson 

And now, watch a quick schwa video lesson below. You’ll practice schwa in 2 sentences 

Schwa video lesson to practice schwa in:

forget  /fəˈɡet/ focus /ˈfoʊ.kəstoday /təˈdeɪ/

Don’t forget to focus on today.  

second  /ˈse.kənd/ occurred /əˈkɜːd/ region/ˈriː.dʒən/ 

It’s the second time it occurred in the region.

Schwa video lesson to practice schwa in sentences.  

You try it now with good word stress & schwa.

When Should I Start Improving Schwa? 


Are you wondering if using schwa is an important thing for you to do. You’re right in asking this question. 

It really depends what your goals are. 

Basically, if your English is clear to listeners and easy for them to understand then yes, it’s a good time for you to work on improving your schwa sound. 

If your English is sometimes unclear to listeners then there are other areas of English pronunciation that you need to work on improving BEFORE you work on improving your schwa sound. Areas like word stress, word endings, rate of speaking, diphthong vowel sounds for example. If you don’t use schwa, it won’t have a big effect on how clear your English is, but it does give you an accent

Your word stress is important to consider! If you are not using good word stress (in other words if your word stress is flat or sometimes on the wrong syllable) and you focus on using schwa sounds, it will make your speech more unclear to listeners. 

It’s essential that you check you have a good understanding of word stress and work to improve your word stress in multi-syllable words before you work on improving schwa. Otherwise, in an effort to use schwa people’s word stress becomes even flatter – PROBLEM! This will make things more unclear. 

If you are confident that your English is already clear to listeners and you are using good word stress then you are ready to work on improving your schwa! 

For very advanced non-native English speakers, not using schwa like a native speaker is usually one of the main factors that gives them a detectable accent.

For many advanced learners not using schwa is one of the last remaining features of their foreign accent. 

Does Use Of Schwa Vary Between Different English Accents?

 

Yes, the use of schwa does vary between different types of English. Out of the main types of English accents – North American accent, British accent and Australian Accent – British speakers use schwa the least.

In British English, speakers often pronounce the letter ‘i’ in weak syllables as a weak ‘i’ vowel, rather than schwa. 

So people with American accents and Australian accents use more schwa sounds than speakers of British English. 

In American and Australian English the ‘i’ vowel in unstressed syllables often (but not always) becomes schwa.

Here are some examples for advanced learners. 

office         UK  /ˈɒf.ɪs/              US  & Australian   /ˈɑː.fəs/

service      UK /ˈsɜː.vɪs/           US  & Australian  /ˈsɜː.vəs/

mistake     UK /mɪˈsteɪk/        US  & Australian /məˈsteɪk/

In the words above a British accent the ‘i’ in the unstressed syllable is weaker than an ‘i’ in a stressed syllable – but it’s not a schwa, it’s a weak ‘i’. 

In American and Australian accents the ‘i’ in the second syllable is pronounced as schwa.  /ˈɑː.fəs/

Should you worry about these differences as non-native English speaker? No way! The difference is so small. For most people, when they focus that much on what they’re doing in the unstressed syllable, they put too much stress on it!  So remember, your focus needs to be – GOOD STRESS ON THE STRESSED SYLLABLE. WEAKEN THE UNSTRESSED SYLLABLE. Don’t worry about if it’s a weak ‘i’ or a schwa vowel.

Mastering schwa takes time.

The best way to improve your English pronunciation and schwa sounds is as follows:

  • learn about schwa and understand it

  • understand how to hear it and make it

  • focus on improving the other areas of your pronunciation that are important for speaking clear English that listeners will understand easily. 

  • keep schwa in mind but don’t worry about it too much – focus on good word stress. 

To master the stress and rhythm of English and develop clear English that is easy for people to understand, check out our English Pronunciation Courses. 

Speech Active English Pronunciation Courses are tailored specifically for speakers of your first language. 

 

Join our free Starter English Pronunciation Course.

Schwa words, examples & activities. Record & Check.

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Georgie Harding has assisted thousands of people from all over the world with improving their clarity and spoken English skills. A Speech Pathology degree (BAppSc(SpPathand CELTA qualifications and over 15 years of experience providing 1:1, group and online training make Georgie a leader in her field.  

Georgie is the creator the world’s leading English Pronunciation online courses that are tailored to the language background of the student and presents regularly at Universities.

If you’ve ever met Georgie or completed her award winning courses you’ll know how passionate she is about helping people move forward with better spoken English and more confidence. 

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