Schwa sound, how (if at all) is it taught? (For teachers and experts in general)

(86 Posts)
Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 09:31:09

For my benefit, are schwas taught at all in England, within the teaching of phonics I mean.
If yes, how is the subject tackled?
If no, how do you overcome it when learning to spell?

OP’s posts: |
IHeartKingThistle Fri 24-May-19 09:34:35

I've never seen it taught in schools but I might be wrong. I was taught about it at university!

I have occasionally shown a class what it is to explain why a particular spelling is difficult, but not because it was on the curriculum.

Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 11:08:34

(still no notifications...)
How does one deal with words like "furniture", then?
This week they had to do the phoneme "t" pronounced "tch", but (I am told) the kids found it difficult because they didn't know what to do with "ure", not to mention the "ur".
At home I explained about schwas and it seems to make sense to them and they were fine.
BTW, we are in Scotland and goodness only knows what method they employ to teach phonics, but I was still surprised that you can throw at them a words like "furniture" and "signature" without mentioning the schwa. I thought in England they would be better equipped, but perhaps not ;)

OP’s posts: |
IHeartKingThistle Fri 24-May-19 13:00:20

I'm almost positive they teach -ure as a trigraph for words like pure but I agree that's a bit pointless when you come up against furniture!

brilliotic Fri 24-May-19 13:19:33

My kids' school (not great on phonics) use the 'song of sounds' in which there is 'Flower in the shower, er er er' for the 'main' spelling for the schwa sound. So in reception when they are meant to mostly write in phonically plausible ways, we get lots of 'er's in the kids' writing as the schwa sound is very common!

Later when they are supposed to be learning alternative spellings etc the schwa has been pretty much ignored. One thing that helps with the schwa, which I picked up here on MN is to develop a 'spelling voice'. Many 'schwas' are derived from un-stressed other vowel sounds, so say the word but stress that sound (as you wouldn't in normal spoken language, hence 'spelling voice') and it becomes clear which spelling you need for the schwa.

Your example furniture
f-ur-n-i-ch-ure (rhyming with pure). You wouldn't say it like that normally, but you can say it like that in 'spelling voice'.
then you just need to know that it's 'ur' (not 'er' or 'ir') in the beginning, and 't' (not eg ch) later.

My phonics spelling dictionary on the other hand, gives -ture as a spelling for /ch/ (or /chu/) and as regards the following schwa, merely states 'note the small difference in the sound at the end of these words'.
(It gives adventure, future, mixture, and picture' as examples.)

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 13:25:05

I don’t really understand the concept of schwa. For furniture, mine would sound out f-u-r-n-i then ture as they’d see the ‘magic e’ as making the u say it’s name.

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 13:26:12

My 6yr old could read furniture by using her phonics knowledge as above.


Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 13:42:41

@TheWaiting, what you are describing is "pure" or "mature" which could be parsed as u_e and a schwa in the middle. A better example is "tune".
"Furniture" is totally different as the whole "ure" is a schwa. You could spell the word like "firnichar" (or in 100 different ways) without loss of information.
@brilliotic, the problem with stressing syllables the way you sugggest is that assumes you know how to spell "furniture" in the first place. It is much easier with words like "Pure".
I have come to realize that the vast majority of spelling mistakes people make are in fact schwa sounds that they don't know how to interpret.
I see it very clearly in the way my eldest writes. What surprises me is that the school doesn't seem to understand where the problem lies, so they don't really offer tools to overcome it. What I mean is that once you realize that most of the mistakes come from schwas, you train children to recognize it and try to find a way to make them make an educated guess.
I thought in England would do that, but it doesn't seem like it.
How can you solve a problem you don't know it exists?

OP’s posts: |
brilliotic Fri 24-May-19 13:45:58

TheWaiting, so she would say f-u- (with the u making a sound as in cup) rather than f-ur? Mine would, as she hasn't learned the digraph ur yet.

And in your accent, is there really a 'ew' sound at the end of furniture, as you say 'the magic e makes the u say its name' but 'u's name is 'ew'.

My DD would read it f-u-(as in cup) -r-n-i-t-u-(as in cup, again) r-e which sounds nothing like furniture.

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 13:52:06

Arkadia, but doesn’t the ‘ture’ in furniture rhyme with pure? It does in my accent.

brilliotic, yes, sorry, she would say, f-ur. I say u’s name as ‘you’ so I’m saying

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 13:55:35

Oh so is schwa the saying of a t like a ch? As in tuna? It only happens before a u, doesn’t it? So it’s just like teaching them that sometimes a c will make a s sound.

Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 13:59:44

In "furniture" you have the sound "er" (ur) and two schwas, "i" and "ure". Very difficult indeed to decode.

Anyway, for people down south, look on the bright side, my kids don't even know there is an "er" sound. The funny thing is that the teacher now and again makes them use what they call "diacritical markings" (a dot under a single letter symbolising a sound and a line under a diphthong) without really understanding it (not really her fault), but I digress...

OP’s posts: |
brilliotic Fri 24-May-19 14:01:07

I think in the long term it is only through gaining an understanding of etymology that you can determine (without knowing it already) which particular spelling is used for any particular sound in the word in question.

So yes, 'spelling voice' only helps if you already 'know' the spelling; but it then helps you to actually write it down correctly.

Maybe my phonics spelling dictionary has it right in the case of furniture.
-chu (ch with a schwa) at the end of a word is spelled -ture. Simple.

Except it isn't always, see e.g. the number crun_cher_. But here we know, from our understanding of words, that crunch is a word in itself and cruncher is a derivative of this word, so the spelling makes sense. Whereas there is no word 'furnich', so we are looking for the spelling for 'chu' (at the end of a word) and that is simply just -ture.

Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 14:04:47

@TheWaiting, to me "pure" and "furniture" don't rhyme at all.
To me "pure" = p-ew-ar (stress on the "w")
Furniture= f-èr-n-ar-ch-ar (stress on the "er").
I would say they are totally different ;)

OP’s posts: |
Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 14:06:35

@brilliotic, don't forget "mature" ;)

OP’s posts: |
brilliotic Fri 24-May-19 14:09:33

TheWaiting, I see, that would explain why you don't see our problem! When i speak, the end of furniture sounds like 'cher'. There is no 'you' or 'oo' sound in there.

The fact that different people pronounce the words differently, and some pronounciations are 'closer' to the spelling, probably means that if we expose our children to people who speak in a large range of accents (not to mention different but related languages), they will become better spellers.

eg bath: I say b-ar-th but plenty of people say b-a-th, remembering the correct spelling for the /ar/ sound is lots easier when I know that half the people I meet say b-a-th!

brilliotic Fri 24-May-19 14:13:11

*@brilliotic, don't forget "mature" ;)*

Ah, sadly, just because you spell -chu as -ture, doesn't mean that you (always) pronounce -ture as -chu!

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 14:18:28

I’d say mature as, ‘machoor’

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 14:20:10

But then my husband thinks (and says) Poor and Pour are homophones. To me, they sound completely different. The richness of accents! smile

babysharkah Fri 24-May-19 15:54:04

I am neither a teacher, or expert. My kids are in y3, have been through the complete phonics programme and have been free readers since y2. I have never come across this and had to google it.

I think accent must be making things more complicated!

Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 16:03:58

@babysharkah, the schwa is the single most common sound in the English language (by far). Most words with more than one syllable will have it and even some monosyllabic words (think "a" or "the").
Why it is not taught is a mystery to me...

OP’s posts: |
CountFosco Fri 24-May-19 16:04:36

I thought you were talking about the sound at the beginning of schwepps (that people get wrong when the say schedule!). As you were...

Anyway, for people down south, look on the bright side, my kids don't even know there is an "er" sound.

See, I come from the north and find it horrific that my children think farmers and pyjamas rhyme. DD1 actually wrote 'happy farther's day' last year in DH's card shock. That spelling mistake would never happen with rhotic accents (just like the confusion over bath and barth).

Arkadia Fri 24-May-19 17:23:52

Hahahahaha, but in fairness, faRther does make sense.
Shall we talk about "idears"? And "sawer".
This is again very common in English, depending on where you live.
A bit like in parts Scotland that add spurious schwas as in girol and filem ;)

OP’s posts: |
Norestformrz Fri 24-May-19 18:43:28

It is taught ask my Y1 class ...they know we have to use our special spelling voices to say words precisely to help us spell.

TheWaiting Fri 24-May-19 18:46:26

*@babysharkah, the schwa is the single most common sound in the English language (by far).*

But I still can’t seem to grasp exactly what it is. confused

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