Should We Build a (Word) Wall or Not?

  • 17 April, 2021
  • 14 Comments

Teacher question:

What are your thoughts about sound walls and word walls? I don't necessarily think these would replace a word wall...do you? The video and training can be found here for sounds walls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxV4Rq1F00M&feature=youtu.be My response was this: I think for oral language, phonemic awareness and phonics the sound walls are awesome, and very helpful visually for beginning readers to unlock how sounds, symbols and words are put together. I think these types of walls would be seen more in PreK, K and maybe 1st grade in the first semester. A word wall can be a broad term that can include multiple ways of highlighting words in the classroom. They can be used to highlight word families, word meaning, word patterns for spelling and for affixes, or even vocabulary terms students have learned. Usually when I think of word walls, one of the main focuses is either patterns, or meaning.

Shanahan response:

Word walls?… man, I saw a lot of word walls during the 1990s. Patricia Cunningham’s “four block” was very popular and many teachers (and administrators) thought the epitome of high quality teaching was best demonstrated by lists of alphabetized high frequency words hanging from the classroom walls (Cunningham, 1991).

To tell the truth, while I like many of Pat’s instructional approaches (like “breaking words”), I was not a big fan of word walls. The two major ways I saw them being used made no sense to me. Teachers, for instance, had students “reading” the words in unison to reinforce sight vocabulary. I put reading in quotes there because I’d watch the kids while they put on these performances. Often, they were mouthing without even looking at the words. Those word walls were an opportunity for the good readers to show off and for the poor readers to languish, a time waster at best.

The other popular use of the word walls was as spelling aides. During writing the kids could look up words they weren’t sure how to spell. In K-2 (the grades in which word walls were so popular), that’s not the best kind of spelling support. I’d much rather have kids try to spell words as they think they are spelled. That gives them a lot of practice with phonemic sensitivity and decoding/encoding and provides the teacher with diagnostic information. Copying spellings does little for building word knowledge.

Then I started to see some other uses for the word wall idea, often with older students. Those newer word walls focused on word meanings and I liked those a whole lot.

Your question, and those sound walls that you asked about got me thinking. As usual, my first concern was, “What does the research have to say?” That’s easy. Research is mute on this issue.

Although word walls have come in and out of fashion for 30 years, there isn’t a single published study on their effectiveness and the handful of relevant doctoral dissertations aren’t particularly helpful. I can’t tell you – based on any direct study —whether word walls, used in any way, are beneficial or not.

That’s important. What I will offer here will be opinions which may or may not be better than anyone else’s.

Let’s think about what a word wall may provide to learners.

A word wall can be just another display of information. Typically, such presentations list important points or reveal relationships (think of a list of classroom rules, a map of the United States with the states labeled, or a diagram revealing the parts of a cell or atom). That kind of thing can be a useful teaching tool, better than a whiteboard since it doesn’t have to be erased.

That, of course, was not what Pat Cunningham was going for. One of the ideas of the word wall was that it was developmental. It accumulated as kids learned – providing a motivational bump (“look at all the words you’ve learned”).

Teachers can provide a list of high frequency words (e.g., the, of, is, are, to) or lists of words that demonstrate particular spelling/ pronunciation patterns (e.g., can, man, pan, fan), morphological elements (e.g., s, es, ed, ing), or semantic relationships (e.g., transportation, air, land, water, boat).

Such displays have value but no more than a typical bulletin board or chalkboard display.

I suspect those sound boards that you asked about are mainly useful as an accompaniment to teacher-delivered instruction (more on that in minute).

Another possible value is that word walls may serve as memory supports; lists of information students might need to turn to in a pinch. The use of word walls as spelling resources are an example of that, as are the manuscript and cursive alphabets that have decorated classrooms over the past couple of hundred years.

Word walls tend to be pretty lousy memory aids when it comes to word reading because they don’t pronounce the words for the kids. If I come to “the” and can’t remember what t-h-e says, looking to the T part of the list and seeing “the” on the wall probably won’t ring any useful bells.

The “sound walls” you asked about are proposed as memory supports, reminders to kids about how to articulate the proper phonemes (language sounds) for the proper graphemes (letters and letter combinations).

They are certainly more supportive of turning letters into sounds than a traditional word wall.

But as a practical memory aid, they’re weak (more useful for the teacher as a guide to presentation than to the kids as a guide to reading words).

I guess the idea would be that when a student comes to a challenging word, he/she could go to the word wall, find the right combination of graphemes and examine the pictures of the articulatory apparatus in the hopes that replicating that shape would lead to proper sounding out of that word.

My take?

That’s far too cumbersome as a memory aid – about as practically useful as the lists of 3-cueing clues that some teachers provide: “if you come to a word you don’t know, look at the picture. If that doesn’t work, read to the end of the sentence…”

The problem is that these steps are neither much like real reading nor practical as efficient scaffolds.

Memory aids need to be easy to access or people just don’t use them.

I love reading French novels on my Kindle because I can look up definitions just by touching the words. I don’t like reading the paper versions of those books because I can get no flow – having to look things up online or in a paper dictionary is likely more efficient than a “sound wall” but even then, too distracting and downright unmotivating.

I’d rather that kids keep track of words that gave them a hard time. Then I can guide them to decode those words successfully.

Beyond being displays that can accompany teacher presentations or memory aids that kids can turn to when in need, word walls have one more possible benefit; a possibility noted in your letter.

Word walls can provide valuable opportunities for learning or self-teaching, if you will. Usually this use of word walls has been reserved for vocabulary (word meaning) learning.

The distinguishing characteristic of this third type of word wall is not between word meanings and word reading, however. No, the feature that makes this third type of word wall so interesting and potentially valuable is the children’s role in constructing them.

These word walls not only develop or grow as new information is presented to the children, but the children do much of the construction work themselves.

A couple of examples should suffice.

The first I observed in a classroom in Joliet, Illinois. Many vocabulary programs introduce words as semantic sets (e.g., words that describe walking or talking or transportation). That approach requires a program with lessons structured in that way. This teacher wanted to emphasize those semantic relationships but didn’t have such a program. She found a way to use word walls to get the kids to structure that knowledge themselves.

Each week as the kids learned vocabulary from their reading anthology, the teacher had her students determine the categories the words belonged to. They posted the words in those categories and as new words were added, they either grouped them into the existing categories or came up with new ones.

This system was terrific because it required students to constantly review the vocabulary they were learning and to make decisions about word relationships (a lot of thesaurus work took place!).

Although the teacher could use this display as part of a teaching presentation or kids could employ it as a memory aid to improve the diction of their writing, its real use was as an opportunity to socially-construct and reconstruct knowledge across a school year.

(In case you wanted to do something like this, the teacher did not have the kids list the words, but they used manila folders as the categories and affixed those to a bulletin board.)

The second example I drew from a journal on science teaching (Jackson & Narvaez, 2013; Thomas, 2016). These word walls are essentially graphic organizers; visual scaffolds that demonstrate the relationships among concepts. Originally, the idea of a graphic organizer was as a previewing technique in which the teacher (or author) would introduce the big ideas and their interconnections prior to having the students read about those ideas. Research back in the 1960s and 1970s found that those kinds of organizers didn’t support comprehension much, but having students construct their own organizers after the reading was more effective.

These science word walls are just that, graphic post organizers constructed by the students as they learn the science content. Thus, the teacher provides categories that organize the information (such as REFRACT – REFLECT, or a MATTER wall that has columns for mass, magnetism, density, physical state). The kids then add visual information to those categories to provide definitions, examples, and explanations of those categories or concepts. They do this by writing their own definitions, drawing pictures, making three-dimensional physical models and the like – using the wall to construct a science vocabulary that structures their understanding of the underlying relationships.

What sense do I make of all of that?

The original idea of word walls and sound walls is to help kids to read words. However, neither research nor logic is very supportive of the ways those tend to be used.

When teachers transform the word wall into a construction site that allows students to explore and demonstrate their understandings of word meanings and their relations, the result is more in line with research.

I suspect that teachers could easily develop those more productive kinds of word walls with a focus on decoding and word reading. By guiding students to build sets of words organized by spelling patterns (e.g., cone, bone, phone, tone), complete with exceptions (e.g., one, done). You might turn to Words their Way for ideas on how that might work (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2019). Or, you could use the kinds of morphological analysis devices (word sums and work matrices) proposed by Peter Bowers since they appear to provide a useful structure for helping kids to think about word pronunciations and meanings (http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/what-should-morphology-instruction-look-like#sthash.3N5pIOzY.dpbs).

Word walls that give kids an opportunity to structure their understanding of a domain (including the domains of spelling, word recognition, and word meaning) – are special and well worth investing in. If you use word walls that way, then build that wall!

References

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2019). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary and spelling instruction (7th ed.). New York: Pearson.

Cunningham, P.M. (1991). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. San Francisco: Addison-Wesley.

Jackson, J., & Narvaez, R. (2013). Interactive word walls. Science and Children, 51(1), 42-49. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43176074

Thomas, A. (2016). Naming the solar system: Implementation of vocabulary strategies to improve scientific literacy. Science Scope, 39(8), 45-52. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43827316

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Karen Jones
Apr 17, 2021 05:37 PM

Simply put, bravo! This confirms my own thoughts and observations in using a word wall. This is useful information to share at EOY team meetings. Thank you.

Diane (McLennan) Snyder
Apr 17, 2021 05:46 PM

I'm so glad you addressed this! Thank you for the suggestion to build in supports for just those words a student has trouble with. I'm having an "A-ha" moment for sure! BTW- Tim; you were my advisor at UIC many moons ago when I was applying and going thru the graduate program. I may not have truly grasped the importance of you work back than, but I sure do now!

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 17, 2021 05:56 PM

Thanks, Diane, I remember you!

tim

Susie Wolfrom
Apr 17, 2021 07:57 PM


Thanks for this question and the response! Reading adoption ( Pre-K through 5th) in our state is coming next year. Because of that, I have been doing lots of SoR study. These sound walls are being touted as being "approved" by SoR as the pathway to deep orthographic instruction.
I do have a question about the traditional word wall in the early grades. I used it as a foundation for many games we played with the words. All the students participated and added those words to their reading and writing vocabulary. We would retire words everyone had learned and celebrate our successes. I understand that this is an anecdotal observation and there were lots of other moving parts involved ( they read readers that used the words repeatedly, read lots of poetry chorally, wrote daily, and the words were included in the morning meeting message), but nearly all of my kindergartners were reading and writing by the end of the year. I feel like the
WW games helped. Is this a case of just seeing what I want to see?

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 17, 2021 10:06 PM

Susie-

If you have objective data showing that your kids are doing well, I have no doubt that is the case. The issue that you are raising is why your kids are doing well? That is something impossible to answer (by either you or me). That's why research is so important. It can help us isolate those causes so that we can improve on our practices (including things you can't see at all -- like the home literacy environments in your community). That there is no research supporting word walls or sound walls doesn't mean they can't help, it just means we can't be sure whether they help or not. I certainly hope you did more than have kids memorize words (you don't mention any phonemic awareness support or any decoding instruction). You'd be amazed that even when kids get a fast start in kindergarten from memorizing a bunch of words and poems -- many then have great difficulty going forward since the numbers of words needed for reading increases and memorization isn't sufficient to keep up.

thanks.

tim

Grace Vyduna-Haskins
Apr 18, 2021 12:20 AM

Thank you so much for this. On Science of Reading chat boards there is much discussion of sound walls and vowel valleys. I'm not sure we need to teach all K-1 students all of the linguistics involved. Perhaps the vowel valley should go in the teachers' lounge/workroom where professionals can discuss it; i.e, when the science teacher comes in and asks, "What's this?" it can be explained that it's science, leading to a discussion of reading instruction across the curriculum. Another thought is that, as color and number words are taught, all the words with those spelling patterns can be listed below wall charts so children expand word families.

Tim Shanahan
Apr 18, 2021 02:40 AM

Grace —
There is no evidence on this and I suspect you are correct... kindergarten kids need to learn to decode. They don’t really need certification as Speech Language Teachers to do that.

Thanks.

Tim

Amy McGovern
Apr 18, 2021 04:41 PM

Sound walls are meant to be an active, regular part of the daily routine around phonemic awareness and phonics. They are not really a memory aide in the way you are describing. Students are not meant to just passively reference a sound wall or not. Mary Dahlgren explicitly teaches teachers how to actively and meaningfully engage students with sound wall work every day, for just a few minutes of time, to facilitate children's learning of the phonemes and ultimately the graphemes. It's truly a teaching and learning tool. Whereas Word Walls can also be this, I agree with your statement that many teachers just have a word wall, they don't actually meaningfully USE a word wall. And many below level readers find word walls confusing and overwhelming. On a word wall, the phonemes and graphemes are not adequately represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet. But on a sound wall, we can begin to link the phonemes to their graphemes, following the order of our phonics scope and sequence, using it mindfully as a tool to support decoding and encoding. If I have to pick one over the other, I will pick Sound Walls every time. From an equity angle we are much more likely to meet the needs of more students, especially the many students who will have a hard time learning to read when we thoughtfully and intentionally incorporate sound walls into our daily routines.

Patrick Manyak
Apr 19, 2021 03:00 PM

Tim,
Appreciate your emphasis on vocabulary or "semantically-focused" word walls. We have been using these in a series of vocabulary instruction studies going back more than a decade now. Observational research indicates that teachers frequently explain word meanings a single time and do not return to review those meanings (Wright, 2013). This is a serious obstacle in terms of learning word meanings. So, we have considered it vital for teachers in our projects to create vocabulary collections – word walls, posters, charts, and digital displays – to facilitate review. Now, in addition to actually "collecting" vocabulary words, we have worked hard at implementing effective review strategies that keep collections “in circulation” in the classrooms (and prevent them from simply becoming "wall paper"). Here are a few of the teachers' favorites:

Connect 2: Students find two words that are connected. Teacher calls on several and they explain the connection between their words.
Two-in-One: Students write one or more sentences that use two or more target words. Several students read their sentences and the class evaluates the usage of the words.
Missing Word: Teacher or student says a sentence with one of the word wall words missing from it and the class tries to guess the word.

The teachers turn to these activities one or more times a day, often for just a few minutes. Notably, it is the "collection" of target words on the word walls that enables this quick, rich review.

Here is a nice example of some 3rd graders engaging in "Connect 2" with words from a social studies oriented word wall. I have prompted them to select two words that they think are connected (in meaning) from the word wall that is visible behind me in the video. I am then calling on them to explain their connections. (Sometimes they will do this with peers in their table groups.) I think that the video shows that this promotes quite rich processing of the words in just a brief minute or two. Hope this helps move the discussion forward!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5iq9AOPEBw


Valerie Walkner
Apr 26, 2021 12:31 AM

Thanks for always challenging your readers. I would love to know how to integrate Ehri's findings about use of embedded mnemonics and articulatory gestures to support early reading. I see how Sound Walls came out as a response to these findings. Can you address these topics further?

Jen Greco
May 12, 2021 06:25 PM

Studies show that early reading leads to more success in school down the road. What do you think about using phonemics for early reading as young as two? I saw an interesting video about it: https://bit.ly/3obKmCl

S. Jackson
Jun 12, 2021 12:57 AM

I am a Kindergarten teacher and I used a word wall for 4 years. Last year I switched to a Sound Wall due to Science of Reading and it was required by the district. However, we didn't receive training on how to use a sound wall. I did follow the directions of my district and placed a sound wall in my classroom but I never placed one sight word on the wall. It didn't make sense to me on how to properly and effectively use the sound wall. This blog helped me to brainstorm a more effective way to organize words within my classroom. We use Phonics First and I haven't been able to figure out how to follow Phonic First curriculum as well as teach word families. A word family word wall would be fascinating to have.

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 12, 2021 01:46 AM

Ms. Jackson--
There is nothing wrong with showing kids how to articulate the sounds. In my experience that can really help. I don’t have any problem with a teacher using pictures and mirrors and such to help kids to see how to articulate… I just don’t see any reason to use the valuable classroom real estate for that since I don’t think it would be a source kids would turn to given the nature of the task of reading words. I like your idea of organizing a word wall that actually might remind kids how to decode a word.

thanks.

tim

Melissa A Blohm
Sep 03, 2021 05:50 PM

Is there any formal research on sound walls?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Should We Build a (Word) Wall or Not?

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