S.O.S.! It's a Schwa! Part 1 of 3.

Jun 29 / Jura Kool


If you ever struggled with spelling and you have never heard of the vowel sound Schwa, you may be suddenly getting flashbacks of sitting at your desk in the 2nd grade.

The teacher suddenly dictates a multi-syllable word and your palms get sweaty, your awkward pencil grip tightens, knuckles whiten, and your heart races.

Suddenly the survival part of your brain hijacks the frontal cortex part of your brain, preventing you from thinking clearly or retrieving information.

The last two years of your academic career thus far have been no different. After all, your exposure to reading, writing, and spelling language started in kindergarten, and spelling then was just as tricky as it is now.

You want to spell the word correctly; your mind races as you are stuck on just one vowel sound that keeps you from the accurate spelling of the word. Vowel sounds have always eluded you, and now we must worry about a Schwa?

Whether you are a student, teacher, or parent and have never heard of a schwa, do not panic; most people have not. Turn that S.O.S. signal off in your brain and relax. It’s only a schwa! The most common vowel sound in English (Phonetics 2 - Vowels: Crash Course Linguistics #9 2020). You may think, “How can this be?”, “I have never heard of a Schwa? I thought there was a letter or group of letters for every vowel sound in English?”

S.O.S.! It’s a Schwa!

Schwa is the most frequently spoken phoneme (sound) in the English language. Schwa is not represented by a grapheme (letter). Once we explore the schwa sound and understand Schwa’s origin and how it occurs in words, we will better understand how it is represented in English orthography (spelling). To begin to do this, we need to debunk a couple of English spelling myths.


1. The first myth we need to debunk is that our phonetic alphabet represents all sounds.

We only have twenty-six letters in our alphabet. However, in English, we have over 40 sounds. Depending on which linguist or educator you talk to, it ranges between 35-45 phonemes (sounds), which are influenced by an individual’s dialect (a specific regional accent that involves all aspects of language), education, training, and expertise.

Depending on where you are from, you may disagree with the pronunciations in this article. This article’s pronunciation will be done based on General American English, a.k.a Standard American English.

Historically, English dialect, education, training, and expertise have always influenced English spelling until the printing press was invented, and English became a bit more consistent with its spelling. Still, many of the origins of words remained the same despite the continued evolving of the way words are pronounced today.
2. The second myth we need to debunk is that all words are phonetically spelled.

If that were the case, we would be spelling words such as ‘queen’ like ‘cween’ or ‘come’ like ‘cum’. We know that a good portion of English is phonetic. However, there is not an agreed-upon percentage. Depending on the linguist or educator you speak to, between 30%-70% of English is truly phonetic, and 30%-70% of English comes from other languages and historical influence. Can we safely assume the average, about 50% of English, is phonetically predictable?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because a skilled speller understands more than just phonology; they also have a deeper understanding of language, which combines phonology with morphology and etymology.

Morphology is the study of the morphemes, which are the smallest unit of meaning in words.  Morphemes such as the prefix pre- meaning ‘before’ and the suffix -ly meaning ‘how’ are examples of morphemes in English.  

Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words (Yule, 2019). A classic example of etymology may be a word we use in English originally borrowed from another language, such as the French word ‘Castle’ from Old North French or Norman French and ‘Chateau’ from Modern French (castle (n.), 2021).  Over time, English has evolved, and one of those evolutions has been the Schwa sound.

Spelling and I.Q.

Students have a lot of unnecessary pressure on things being spelled correctly. In our present day, you can see it happening in schools or social media when individuals curtly correct one another on which ‘there’ to use.
Spelling has nothing to do with intelligence. However, if you don’t spell well, you may get labeled stupid or less intelligent than your peers. We must stop this misconception immediately, especially if you’re an educator, as this can be very damaging to a student’s self-esteem.
Spelling has more to do with knowing the structure of language than intelligence. It’s comical to think about getting ‘bent-out-of-shape’ over the stress-inducing weekly spelling tests when we know historically; writers had many different spellings of simple English words like milk [mɪlk] (Writing Systems: Crash Course Linguistics #16 2021).


Schwa [ʃwa] was initially introduced and recognized in Western European languages by German linguists Johann Andreas Schmeller and Alexander John Ellis in the 19th century. The schwa sound was adopted from Hebrew’s phoneme schva [ʃva]. Hebrew adopted schva from Aramaic, which defined this sound as ‘even and equal,’ which is interesting considering Schwa is a mid-central vowel that has the appearance of an even opening between the tongue and roof of the mouth (see Figure 1). Although there is no exact date, we know that the Schwa was first used in English texts around 1890-1895. The schwa symbol is represented in I.P.A. (International Phonetic Alphabet) as the symbol [ə], a symbol that looks like the letter ‘e’ turned 180 degrees (Schwa 2021).


Why is the pronunciation challenging to teach?
If a teacher or educator is familiar with Schwa, it is challenging to teach because there is no letter representing this frequently occurring vowel sound. It simply does not exist in written language. Reading and literacy specialists who are not linguists will often associate the schwa sound with the similar wedge sound of [ʌ] or the short vowel sound /u/ like ‘upper’ to help students avoid omitting this vowel when writing (Yule, p.37).

As any vowel can present as a schwa in an unstressed syllable (Mehlin, 2020) (see the section where is the Schwa?), this makes spelling the schwa sound especially difficult. The vowel sounds can be challenging, especially since we have only five vowel graphemes (letters), six if you’re counting y, representing the different vowel sounds in English. There is some debate about exactly how many spoken vowel sounds there are in English. According to linguists, between 12-14 vowel sounds can be produced, but are represented by a single or combination of graphemes in English (Phonetics 2 - Vowels: Crash Course Linguistics #9 202, Yule p.35). Schwa is the only vocalized vowel sound that is not represented by a specific grapheme(s).

What is the difference between [Ə] and [Ʌ]?
Let’s investigate briefly the difference between the Schwa [Ə] and the wedge sound [Ʌ] as these sounds are easily confused. As shown in Table 1, these are the significant characteristics of each sound that set them apart. In Figures 1 and 2, each figure is a screenshot of the rtMRI of the same person paused at the exact moment in phoneme production where you can see those physical differences of articulation when the sounds are produced. The yellow outline is drawn to emphasize the shape, notice in the schwa sound how ‘even’ and ‘equal’ the tongue is. Maybe the Aramaic’s ancient definition wasn’t so off. Not only is it clear to see how central the schwa sound is, but this proves that the schwa and wedge sounds are not the same sound.

 In Figure 3, you have the I.P.A. vowel chart that reflects the positions of the mouth when making the vowel sounds. Again, Schwa appears in the middle in black font to represent how it looks in the mouth as the most centered vowel sound. It can be easily assumed why this may be the most frequent vowel sound. Just look at the sound anatomy and how easy it seems to pronounce. It makes sense why this sound replaces other vowel sounds frequently in English.

Table 1: Outlined Characteristics (Schwa 2021, Wedge 2021)
Characteristics of Schwa [Ə] Characteristics of Wedge [Ʌ]
Occurs in unstressed Syllables Occurs in stressed syllables
Mid-central vowel or mid-central unrounded vowel – it occurs precisely in the middle of all vowel sounds (see Figure 1) Open-mid back unrounded vowel or low-mid back unrounded vowel
 (see Figure 2)
Sound is quick, fastSound can extend, last longer
           Figure 1: Schwa [Ə]  
Schwa [Ə]  (CSSTemplatesMarket, the rtMRI I.P.A. chart (John Esling))
       Figure 2: Wedge [Ʌ]
Wedge [Ʌ] (CSSTemplatesMarket, the rtMRI I.P.A. chart (John Esling))
Figure 3: I.P.A. Vowel Chart (Vowel diagram 2021)

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