Learning not to schwa

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me since starting my new job has not been the step change from leadership to teacher, nor the move from state to independent sector, but the move from Junior to Infant (or Prep to Pre-Prep as we would say in my school). And in this move teaching phonics has been the single biggest difference.

The principle of teaching phonics is simple enough: teach phonics well and children will read. They can use their phonic knowledge to decipher, sound out and blend words, becoming increasingly fluent. When I started teaching twenty years ago (admittedly in Year 4) I remember hearing readers and teaching them to look for contextual clues in the pictures or the sentences they had previously read. Not so anymore: phonics is king.

And I thought I had a pretty good grasp of phonics myself, until a teaching assistant pointed out that I sometimes ‘schwa’ my letter sounds. Schwa may be a word you have not come across before. Mr Thorne (my go-to Youtuber for all my phonics teaching) gives a pretty good explanation of the schwa here. If you watch the video you ‘ll see that obviously learning where a sound is a schwa is really important. But I was adding schwas to letters I shouldn’t have been.

For example when I said the sound for the letter ‘S’ I would sometimes say ‘suh’ not ‘ssss’. Or I would say ‘huh’ instead of the breathy ‘hhh’ for the ‘H’.

As I write this, the school leader in me is screaming ‘Teacher Standards’, because as everyone knows a good working knowledge of phonics teaching is part of the 2014 UK Government Teacher Standards document, teachers should:

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics

Well. I’m working on it.

The problem for me is that I’ve come down to Year 1 from older years. Many year 1 teachers come up to Year 1 from Reception and have taught the phonics knowledge that children learn right at the start. I’m lucky though because I have a helpful and experienced team around me who all have excellent knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and I’ve been enjoying learning off them!

Brummie Phonics: boy or bye?

When @Mr_Thorne uploaded his new ‘oi’ sound video on mrthorne.com, it reminded me of a seminal experience I had when teaching a year 4 class in North Birmingham some 10 years ago.


I was teaching homophones and during the introduction, after a hesitant start, a boy enthusiastically joined the discussion with that face that just says: ‘I’ve got it!’ You know – that AHA moment that all teachers thrive on.


What he actually said was: “Oh, I know! It’s like ‘boy’ and ‘buoy!'”


I could have left it there. Moved on to the next child for more examples of homophones they could think of. But I was astounded: an eight year-old living in one of the most deprived council estates in Birmingham who knew the word ‘buoy’. I had to investigate the further.


So I asked “What do you mean, ‘boy’ and ‘buoy’?”


His response was “‘Boy’ as in me. And ‘buoy’ as in ‘buoy buoy’!”


And then he waved at me.


My turn to have an AHA moment! I realised: in Brummie (the Birmingham accent) ‘boy’ and ‘bye’ ARE homophones.


Anyone got any other interesting regional phonics stories?

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