I once heard a teacher refer to the schwa as the last sound you’ll ever make on earth, and it could be. The schwa is a small, barely noticeable sound, but it is important nevertheless as it appears in articles, prepositions, and, in fact, most English words of more than one syllable.

The following activity combines article rules with the schwa sound and stress patterns to help raise grammatical awareness and enhance listening skills.

Level: low intermediate

Purpose: to raise awareness of the article a in spoken English

Time: 20 – 30 minutes

Stage: This can occur as a practice after students are familiar with basic rules governing the article a and the sound of the schwa.

Materials: four game sheets (download). There should be enough copies so that each member of each group has a different sheet. Each group should also have two half sheets, one with a and one with a circle slash x.

1. Tell students they are going to listen for articles in connected speech. Then prepare for the activity by doing a few oral drills of nouns and noun phrases with and without a. I like to build up from the noun to a familiar phrase.

fruit                 a fruit                          it’s a fruit

place               a place                         That’s a nice place

building         a building                    I see a building.

friend              a friend                        I have a friend.

2. Practice the listening skill by reading a short statement or question, and telling students to raise one hand if they hear the article a or an and no hands if there is no article. Include plural s in some of the phrases to provide variety and the occasional clue.

Below are possible phrases to choose from. Say sentences randomly and out of order.

get coffee         get a coffee      get my coffee

buy books        buy a book       buy the book

buy paper        buy a paper     buy the paper

3. Pay attention to students’ responses and clarify both the sounds made by the articles and no articles.

4. Explain the rules of the game. Tell students they will work in groups of four. The first player will read a phrase. The other players will slap their hand down on the a if they hear the schwa. The speaker will confirm the winners who get a point. After the speaker has said five phrases, the winner of the round is declared and the next player becomes the speaker.

Note: The aim is for the speaker to say it as clearly and naturally as possible. There is no incentive to garble the sound, but since it’s a game, they probably don’t want to make it too easy either, which is fine.

They should play at least four rounds, but they can play more if they like.

Extensions/adaptation: The game can be expanded to include phrases with the as well.