Revenge of the Schwa:

A Metaphor for Teaching English Word Stress in Academic Vocabulary


"I used to feel sorry for the schwa; now I know that she can take care of herself."

~Anne West-Leclou, Intensive Language at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (ILUNO)

Presentation to the AsiaESP (English for Specific Purposes) Conference, 28 October 2017, Beijing, China.

Abstract: Academic vocabulary presents myriad challenges for English Language Learners (ELLs). Among these challenges is the phenomenon of word stress alternations when derivational affixes are added to change the lexical category or “part of speech” of a word. Adjectives ending in –ic, based on one of these rules for instance, always exhibit word stress in the syllable just before the adjectival ending. For example, when the adjective academic is derived from the noun academy by addition of the –ic suffix, an English word stress rule requires that the stress now fall on the penultimate or second-to-last syllable. Unstressed vowels are often reduced to a sound known as schwa, which some pronunciation experts regard as “the most important sound in English” (Kenworthy, 1987, p. 51). Knowing this and other word stress rules helps to facilitate learners’ pronunciation, as well as their listening comprehension in academic lectures and other situations where multisyllabic words and scientific or technical terminology are spoken. English word stress rules are complex to learn and teach, both for instructors of English and for students of linguistics. One solution to this problem is to create and implement metaphors for abstract concepts that can aid in presenting simple explanations of complex phonological processes. Teaching through metaphor has enormous benefits in the classroom for both learners and teachers, provided that certain cultural conditions obtain. After a brief history of metaphor generally and its application in teaching specifically, this paper establishes the phonological processes governing English word stress rules and then presents a metaphor for teaching some of these rules. Cultural considerations about the specific metaphor proposed are also addressed. Finally, a discussion of how to leverage classroom-based metaphors in order to boost ELLs’ metaphorical competence is included.