What is it that participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee worry about more than most? Why, the dreaded schwa, of course!
What is a schwa and why would it cause problems for spellers? Well, to begin with, schwas are the most frequently occurring vowel sounds in the English language and they are always associated with weak syllables in words. For example, in English English (as opposed to, say, Caribbean English, or Australian English), we tend to lay stress on (usually) only one syllable in any polysyllabic word. Thus, in a word like ‘gingerbread’ (three syllables), the stress is on the first syllable ‘gin’.
However, other syllables in a polysyllabic word may contain a syllable or syllables which are not stressed and it is these that often (though not always) contain a schwa, or weak vowel sound. So, in the word ‘gingerbread’, the two unstressed syllables are the ‘ger’ and ‘bread’. In the syllable ‘ger’, the [er] spelling represents the sound ‘uh’, which is a weak vowel sound or schwa.
How does this affect the Spelling Bee spellers’ spelling? The answer is that, if they’ve never seen a particular word before, if it contains one, they may not know how to spell the schwa. To compound the problem the weak vowel sound is realised in different ways according to accent. For example, a person from the southern states of the United States may say ‘chickun’; whereas people from most parts of the UK will say ‘chickin’. In each case, the weak vowel sound will be realised slightly differently – as an ‘uh’ or as an ‘i’.
Single syllable words can also contain schwas, For example, the word ‘the’, the most frequently occurring word in the English language often contains a schwa, the letter [e] representing the sound ‘uh’ very often. Again though, this depends on accent.
So, apart from spelling sounds in English in different ways, we also have the problem of the schwa to contend with. This phenomenon is yet another reason why teaching practitioners, many of whom who have never even heard of the word schwa nor been made to appreciate its significance in terms of how we teach reading and spelling, need proper training. It’s also another reason why teaching should proceed from sound to print and NOT the other way round!