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Understanding Accents and Schwa Sounds

You say tom'ay'to, I say tom'ar'to. There are many ways to say words in the English language. How we pronounce words is somewhat dependent on where we live in the world or even within our own country.

Despite all the different accents there are, Letterland can be used successfully across the globe, it just takes a little know-how...


Regional Accents

Letterland was initially developed in the UK in British English, used by teachers and students with a Standard English pronunciation.

As its popularity grew and Letterland spread throughout the UK, those with differing regional pronunciations noted that some of the Letterland characters (especially vowel sounds) and example words did not work so well in their accent. Ever resourceful teachers simply adapted the programme so that it worked for them. Letterland is now a global teaching resource, so we strongly encourage you to do the same where necessary.

Here are some of our tips for adapting Letterland to your local accent:

  1. Swap out the pictogram to suit the accent. For example, if we look at the word apricot, it is a short a sound at the start of the word for some, and a long a sound for others. There is no right or wrong – just different, and it is easy to adapt by coding in a different way.

  2. Swap out the pictogram to suit the spelling. Spelling also differs from country to country, for example, we write the word colour in the UK, but it would be color in the US. Just pick the pictograms that match how you spell it.

  3. Remove pictograms that don’t work for you. There are some cases where teachers may prefer to exclude a pictogram. For example, Vowel Stealer pictograms in Scotland, where the pronunciation of ar, er, ir, or and ur is scarcely different from the single letter sounds.

  4. Dealing with anomalies. If you are unsure what to do as your accent does not seem to correspond to the phoneme you are trying to teach in a word, don’t let it worry you or your students. Our advice would be to simply draw a box around the letters. The box signals the disparity. Let your students know that accent is playing a role in changing how the word is pronounced.


Unaccented Syllables (Schwa)

There are, in everyone’s speech patterns unstressed syllables where a sound is ‘swallowed’. The most common sound in an unstressed syllable is a schwa sound. Schwa is a quick, neutral vowel pronunciation very close to a ‘short u’ /uh/.

We do have a pictogram for when the short ‘a’ sound of Annie Apple parachutes and thuds down in a word with an ‘uh!’ as in ‘alone’. We use Annie Apple as an example. We could say that at times, all the short vowel sounds do the same. In fact, there are a vast number of words where vowels are unstressed, but we have found it helps children learn to spell words if we use the short vowel pronunciation.

Letterlanders are not primarily a pronunciation guide; they are a decoding device for reading and an aid to accuracy in spelling.

There are no specific cards for the schwa sounds of e, i, o, u, y. Just use the short vowel sound cards to aid reading and spelling and if anyone asks, tell the story that these characters sometimes like to parachute into words just like Annie Apple. Alternatively, you could say they are just super-relaxed, non-stressed, so they are not making their usual sounds and instead you’ll hear ‘uh!


If you need any further support or advice about teaching with Letterland, whether it’s about accents or something else entirely, you can get in touch here. We're here to help!

Why not take a look at some of our other tips and tricks on the blog, just click the tag below.


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