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

Jura Kool


Now that we have discussed Schwa and have a better understanding of stressed and unstressed syllables and where Schwa occurs, this can help us narrow down the many different schwa spellings in words. We already know how problematic schwas and vowels can be, now for a solution, we need S.O.S!

Simultaneous Oral Spelling
As mentioned before, we are not talking about the S.O.S. distress signal, but S.O.S known as simultaneous oral spelling. The origin of S.O.S was originated and was developed by master teachers Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman in 1954, based on the research done by neuroscientist Samuel Orton. Samuel Orton took a particular interest in the way we learn to read, write, and spell from a neurological perspective, especially students classified as Dyslexic.  This S.O.S method is commonly used by reading and literacy specialists today as a multisensory approach to spelling. Emily Gibbons from the Literacy Nest states that S.O.S  “uses visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning modalities all at the same time during spelling dictation.” (Maestoo et al., 2018).  Listed below is an example of traditional simultaneous oral spelling steps and how they can help find the Schwa in words. 

Traditional S.O.S. Procedure

Simultaneous Oral Spelling

1.  LISTEN (Instructor says, “pat”) – critical student is watching mouth and facing instructor, preferably speaking to the student on the right side of them to take advantage of the ‘right ear advantage’ (Yule, p.193).

REPEAT (Student says, “pat”) – instructor makes sure not to proceed unless student articulated word correctly.

3. SLOW DOWN  - simple → complex tap syllables; what are the spelling rules?,  for bigger words or slow down and identify baseword, roots, morphemes, etc.


5. WRITE WHILE SAYING SOUNDS EX. for pat /p/ - /a/ - /t/ 


7. The student will then Proofread “pat” 

Outline created based on Orton-Gillingham S.O.S method by Jura Kool, Reading Specialist, A/AOGPE

Schwa Identifying S.O.S. Procedure – Example using the word ‘ENEMY’

 1. LISTEN (Instructor says, “enemy”) – critical student is watching mouth and facing instructor. preferably speaking to the student on the right side of them to take advantage of the ‘right ear advantage’ (Yule, p.193).


2. REPEAT (Student says, “enemy”) – The instructor makes sure not to proceed unless the student articulates correctly.

3. LISTEN FOR SPELLING (Instructor says, “enemy” again [ ɛn.ə.mi], then repeats word enunciating each syllable based on spelling saying it like “enemy”[ ɛn.ɛ.mi] with a slight hesitation between syllables, and then says it traditionally again, “enemy”[ɛn.ə.mi]) – instructor makes sure not to proceed unless student articulated word correctly and has identified this word having a schwa.

4.  SLOW DOWN  - simple → complex tap syllables; what are the spelling rules?, for bigger words or slow down and identify baseword, roots, morphemes, etc.

5.  STUDENT TAPS SYLLABLES EN-E-MY – instructor guides the student on hearing the schwa sound, then phonetic sounds based on spelling.

6.  WRITE WHILE SAYING SOUNDS EX. for EN-E-MY – if the student does not know whether to put a medial i/e in the middle based on the spelling rule medial i/e. The student will be guided to provide a space or a blank circle, or even a schwa symbol to help them get the word on paper and figure out the Schwa later.


7. DOUBLE-CHECK – the student will double-check by dividing the word into syllables to check their spelling. If schwa sound is not discovered already, a spell checker can be used to determine if the word enemy has a medial i/e in the middle syllable. Last resort if the student really could not identify Schwa.  The important thing is that the student can hear the Schwa when it occurs in the word. For example, the spell checker is used solely to identify the Schwa, for instance, en?my → enemy.


Proofread “Enemy” said phonetically and traditionally with schwa sound.

The Spelling Instruction Debate
The Limitations of S.O.S.

Some linguists argue that the difficulty with S.O.S. is that it forces us to follow the spell-by-sound method for English, which we know already is not all phonetic. Some would argue because we don’t hear the phonetic spelling sound in speech (we just hear Schwa), it’s too difficult to spell the correct vowel sounds when spelling. Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D, describes our English writing system as more morphophonemic (meaning that in English, a word’s morphemic structure will dictate how it is pronounced). She quoted Richard Venezky when he described English spelling as “the simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but, instead a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles (Venezkey, 1967, p.77).” (Sandman-Hurley, 2019). As described earlier, a skilled reader and speller understand the components involved in spelling that involve more than just phonology but also morphology and etymology. An experienced practitioner who teaches reading will use guided discovery to incorporate word discovery when the student debates that they cannot hear those hard-to-spell vowel sounds as word formations become more complex. When this happens, it means the student has moved from the primary stages of spelling and is ready for a new technique to be added. The method that can be used with S.O.S. is called structured word inquiry or S.W.I. 

Structured Word Inquiry

S.W.I. or structured word inquiry uses matrices, word sums, morphology, and etymology of words to help with spelling. You can create your matrix by going to www.neilramsden.co.uk/spelling/matrix/temp/index.html, or you can do it on a piece of paper (Sandman-Hurley, 2019). Below is an example of a matrix for the word ‘mode,’ including word sums (See Figure 4). Some S.W.I. practitioners swear by this approach as the only method that is the most effective for reading and spelling and will boldly state that no other process will produce strong spellers.
Figure 4 –  (Ramsden, 2021)

A Balanced Approach

To solve this overwhelming difficulty that Schwa creates regarding spelling vowel sounds, let us consider a balanced approach that works with an individual’s learning style. Whether S.O.S. or S.W.I. or a combination of the two helps educate others on English structure, that is the first step to producing stronger readers and spellers. We can’t argue that English is entirely phonetic, nor can we say that it isn’t phonetic at all.


In a world where everyone knew about Schwa, spelling vowels wouldn’t be so mysterious. It would mean that words would be explicitly taught, and students would be required to recognize the Schwa in everyday language. As a result, the spelling of most words would significantly improve. An individual would be able to use phonology, morphology, etymology, probability, common patterns, and better encoding strategies such as S.O.S. and S.W.I. to help them identify the correct spelling of the schwa sounds.


In a world where this is not possible yet, do not be distressed. It’s only a schwa. This common vowel sound can be taught as commonly as it is produced. It is very natural for us to use a schwa in spoken language, and reading words with a schwa in them is not difficult. If we apply these taught principles of Schwa, we might be less ‘stressed’ no pun intended, let’s be like Schwa - ‘unstressed.’ We can start by learning (or teaching if you are an educator) about stressed and unstressed syllables and the spelling patterns where Schwa is expected, why wait? As soon as we start learning about function words in sentence structure, we can begin to understand when Schwa occurs in ‘a’ and ‘the’ articles first and then move on to more complex words, phrases, and sentences. Applying these strategies will hopefully shed some light on this unseen vowel sound. Next time you hear the schwa sound, you will recognize it automatically. Knowing these strategies may help your spelling next time you recognize that frequently used Schwa.

Click here to read the entire article on Schwa!

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