The Schwa… Then What?

By Pam Marshalla

Q: My client can produce only the schwa––“Uh.” He is 3-years-old and pretty smart. But he cannot imitate any consonants or vowels at all. What can I do?

This is what I would be thinking about–––

Teach him to prolong the sound he has––the schwa. And teach him to tolerate your hands on his jaw. Once he can prolong his schwa and tolerate your hands, move his jaw up-and-down while he is vocalizing.

If he can prolong his sound while you are moving his jaw up-and-down, then you will have created a vowel babbling sequence.  Research shows that babies babble with vowels before they babble with CVs, and that might be what this kid needs.

The jaw moving up-and-down while vocalizing is called a movement “frame.” Once the frame is developed, then it should be played with, rehearsed, stabilized.

MacNeilage (1998) proposed that “cycles of mandibular oscillation” underlie the basic up-and-down jaw movement patterns of babbling and early speech.  This up-and-down pattern is called a “frame” and it was postulated that the frame evolves from chewing.

Therefore chewing activities would be appropriate here too.

The jaw going up-and-down in this frame will make the schwa turn into several different vowels, and you are on your way.  You have taught him how to Vowel Babble.

Next, teach him to move the jaw up more firmly.  If that happens, consonants will emerge.  It is the jaw banging upward within the up-and-down movement frame that causes the anterior consonants to emerge––P, B, M, W, T, D, N, L.


  • MacNeilage, P. F. (1998). The frame/content theory of evolution of speech production. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, p. 499-546.




0 thoughts on “The Schwa… Then What?”

  1. I work with very young children and have success by backing up and encouraging gross motor imitation first (fingerplays, toddler songs…). Then I look at imitation with mouth movements without sounds, for example, sticking tongue out for panting dog, lip rounding for fish… . I reward the child verbally for just looking at my mouth and treat any slight change in his mouth as an attempt: “Good try!” “You are watching my mouth.” Often these smart but severely apraxic kids have repeatedly failed in their attempts at talking / imitating and have benn inadvertently pressured by well meaning parents for two+ years! It is often a slow process and I make sure parents realize that so the expectations are appropriate.

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