Linguistically, schwa (represented using the symbol ǝ) is an unaccented vowel sound that sounds something like an unclear grunt. It occurs in unaccented words and syllables and is the most commonly occurring sound in English. The problem with schwa (which makes it a very confusing sound to teach and for children, especially those with reading and spelling difficulties), is that it may be represented in a word by any one of the vowel sounds (as well as a whole range of other graphemes such as ‘er’) and it can sound different in different dialects of English.
For this reason, rather than teaching schwa, I teach my students to ‘over pronounce’. So, for example, when they are learning to spell words ending in ‘er’, they have a ‘spelling voice’ that pronounces river as /riv-er/ rather than /riv-u/.
Alternatively, I given them other strategies that will assist in determining the required vowel such as the ‘ant’ was the most important (to help remember the vowel at the end is an ‘a’), the button is ‘on’ the shirt (to help remember the vowel in the second syllable is ‘o’), the water is ‘in’ the basin or ‘Ron’ wears the apron to cook and will iron the clothes – I would like a Ron in my house!!
Sometimes knowing the rules or reasons behind how the word is spelled is also useful. For example, if you know that ‘est’ is used when comparing 3 or more items and ‘ist’ is used to indicate ‘a person who’ then you can logically work out the correct spelling of artist (a person who does art) and coldest (the most cold).
Similarly, being able to determine the root or base word can be useful. For example, it is very common for students to miss out the first ‘e’ in different. However, if they know that ‘different’ comes from the base word of ‘differ’ with the suffix ‘ent’ added, this may help eliminate this problem. I also make sure students over pronounce the ‘er’ in this word saying: diff-er-ent. Another example is relative which students commonly write as ‘relutive’. However, again, it is often helpful if they know that it comes from the base word ‘relate’ with the suffix ‘ive’ added.
Since schwa is somewhat of a ‘lazy’ sound in that it can be very difficult to even hear, it is important that students are also taught that every syllable contains at least one vowel. So, when they write ‘sevn’ for ‘seven’, you can ask them to firstly clap the syllables. Once they have identified that there are two syllables, they are at least aware that there is a vowel missing in the second syllable.
Note: If students have difficulty identifying syllables, ask them to place their hand under their chin while they say the word. A syllable is a mouth movement containing at least one vowel. Therefore, for each syllable in a word, you chin drops down slightly.
In terms of reading, if students initially decode an unknown word pronouncing each grapheme clearly, as long as the word is in their oral vocabulary, they are very good at quickly changing the pronunciation to how the word is commonly pronounced in every day speech with the schwa sound.