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Family Cinema

Family Cinema

The final stop on our quest to master schwa will take us to the movies, so pile your crew into the car and get ready to enjoy the latest flick. If you close your eyes, you may just pick up the scent of fresh, buttery popcorn and detect the excited whispers of families settling into their seats as the previews begin to roll.

Recently, we’ve begun our quest to better understand the most common vowel sound in the English language: the schwa sound. We’ve discovered that all schwas say that lazy sound, /uh/, and they must be in unaccented syllables. So far, we’ve learned three different types of schwa patterns. Our Majestic America rule teaches us about the open ‘a’ schwa. We also learned that closed ‘a’ and ‘o’ will make the schwa sound as demonstrated by the Bacon Salad rule. Finally, we discovered that any vowel followed by the letter ‘l’ will change to schwa at the end of a word, and we called this rule Travel by Camel. If you’ve yet to check out these rules, follow the links above to learn more! We will see you back here when you’re done.

Now that the stage has been set, let’s get to our featured presentation!

Photo by Corina Rainer on Unsplash

Before You Begin

Before teaching these concepts to your student, make sure they can...

  • Distinguish between one-syllable and multi-syllable words.
  • Know how to divide multi-syllable words into individual syllables. For strategies on multi-sensory spelling, check out our video here. For strategies on multi-sensory reading, check out our video here. Our syllable division rules guide can be downloaded here.
  • Understand the differences between long vowels, short vowels, and consonants. (Note: It’s helpful for students to have previous knowledge of open vs. closed syllables and how they correlate with vowel sounds)
  • Understand what an accented syllable is versus and unaccented syllable.

Getting Started

This schwa rule is a bit different from the previous schwa rules in that, it is dependent on a word having at least three syllables. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say that I’m trying to spell the word optimist. If I split it into syllables, it sounds like this op/tuh/mist. Hmm...that middle syllable is making a familiar sound. It’s that schwa again! Well, this schwa sound just keeps coming back! It’s almost like part four in a multi-movie series—Schwa Strikes Back: Coming to a blog near you. Alright, back on track.

If we look at that word again, notice that the schwa sound is both open and in the middle of the word. I’ll show you what I mean by using the schwa symbol to represent that /uh/ sound:

This is where our new rule comes in. This rule pertains to:
✓ Middle syllables
that are...
✓ Unaccented
✓ Open I’s or E’s
When we see this, we have the perfect conditions for a schwa.

Lights, Camera, Action, Schwa!

That’s right, folks! We’ve reached that point where I reveal our new rule. The name of the rule is Family Cinema, and it echoes the sentiment that we began with—the thrill of going to the movies. Here’s the complete rule:

The Scoop on Spelling

As with every schwa, spelling is the hardest part. As we know, all schwas, no matter how they’re spelled, sound the same—/uh/. So how do I know which letter to use when I hear schwa? Well, let’s use some of our other types of schwas to rule out some options. If you’ve been following along with our previous schwa rules, you’ll notice that both Travel by Camel (Ə+L) and Bacon Salad (Ə+ any consonant) won’t work here because these two rules require the schwa to be closed. Majestic America might work, as this rule states that open ‘a’ will change to schwa if it’s unaccented. Hmm...and now our new rule, Family Cinema, tells us that open ‘e’ or open ‘i’ will change to schwa if they’re open, unaccented, and in the middle. In reality, if we hear a schwa sound that’s open and in the middle, it’s difficult to know if it should be spelled with an ‘a’ (Majestic America), an ‘e’ (Family Cinema), or an ‘i’ (Family Cinema).

If you think this sounds familiar, then you really have been following along! This is a similar conundrum that we had in our last blog, so let’s follow a similar format using the word optimist. I am truly a fan of using guided practice like this with my students!

“Optimist. Hmm...I’m going to tap out each syllable.”


“Now, I’ll just say and spell the first syllable, Op”

“Okay. That was easy! Now, I’ll say and spell the second syllable, TƏ. What I hear is T-Uhh. Whenever I hear an Uhhh sound at the end of the middle syllable, it’s going to be a schwa. I’m going to leave it blank for now and just spell the sounds I know for sure.”

“I’d like to finish the word before I figure out that schwa. Mist. That’s easy too!”

“Voila! Now, I have to tackle that missing schwa letter. I know that I have a couple of schwa rules. Let me see which one fits this word. It’s open and in the middle syllable. I can either choose Majestic America or Family Cinema.”

“I have three choices for spelling this type of schwa, A, E, or I. Which one do I choose?”

This is the point in my teaching where students learn how to effectively use spell check either on the computer or using a spell-checking device to assist in this choice.

“There really isn’t a way to know for sure, so I’m just going to take my best guess. Let’s see how the letter E looks.”

“Hmm...that looks a little strange. Let’s see if I can check it using spell check.”

“Okay, great! The first option looks perfect. It must be the letter I that has changed to schwa.”

This thought process can be challenging to teach without the use of modeling, auditory drills, and visuals. If this sounds overwhelming, have no fear! I have the resources to assist you with each of these objectives. Best of all, they’re FREE! This blog is honestly just the preview before the grand finale where I give you—yes, you heard me right—I GIVE you some free reproducibles to practice schwa with your students. Of course, you’ll find even more, including our amazing spelling rule collector cards contained in each of our Silver Moon Spelling Kits.

Important Tips to Consider

  • Reinforce correct syllable division.
    Syllable division does not come naturally to many students! Practice syllable division regularly, helping your student to use multiple senses while dividing words (tactile, auditory, and visual). All schwa rules depend upon dividing words correctly. Download our syllable division resource guide here.
  • Provide your student with a resource that already has the rule written
    This allows you to focus on what matters most: learning and applying the rule. I highly suggest the Silver Moon Spelling Rules cards complete with illustrations for this rule. Both student and instructor sets of cards can be found here.
  • Practice identifying the accented syllable in a list of words.
    Remember that schwa cannot exist within accented syllables. If your student cannot identify the accented syllable in a word, working with schwa will be difficult. If your student struggles to hear accenting, try asking them to “call the dog.” To do this, ask your student to say the word as if they were calling a dog from across the yard with that word as its name. “Faaaaamily!” The syllable that gets dragged out the longest, is the accented syllable. In this example, it is the first syllable that is accented. That’s why the schwa appears in the second syllable. By the way, the first syllable is most commonly accented in 2-syllable words.
  • Teach with both auditory and visual activities.
    Your student may struggle to see the pattern of schwa right away, so work on listening for the schwa sound within words. From here, you can highlight the letters that are making the schwa sound to help your student understand the pattern. This can also be done in reverse if your student struggles to hear the schwa sound.
  • Model the thought process.
    I know I already mentioned this, but I think it’s so important that I’m going to mention it again. Model the thought process that goes into identifying schwa, reading schwa, and spelling schwa just as I did above.

As the Credits Roll...

Okay, I know there’s that family in the front who have already begun to put on their jackets and pack up their popcorn, and there are a few antsy folks who have already begun to descend the stairs to leave the theater as the credits begin to roll on the screen. However, you and I both know that there’s usually a little something special
waiting for those who are patient enough to sit through the endless names of cast and crew. The lights are beginning to go up on those who made it to the very end, and here it is—the reward you’ve been waiting for! I have not one, not two, but FOUR pages of free resources to leave you with as you practice schwa with your students. You can find them at the link below.

Family Cinema Reproducibles HERE

As always, if you found this blog helpful, please share it with your fellow teachers, parents, and interventionists. Interested in learning more? You can find our other spelling topics HERE, and don’t forget to check out our complete guide to spelling at . If you need help understanding syllable division rules, see our video section (vlogs) HERE.

Happy Teaching!
Written by:
Kate Wagner, BSE
Reading Interventionist, Remote Learning Coach

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