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What's Up with Those Word Walls?

Shari Frost

It is the third day of school. Yet many of the classrooms that I’ve visited have word walls with up to 100 words already posted on them. How can that be? Words should be posted on the word wall in the presence of students, with the children reading, spelling, and engaging in activities with the words. Could that possibly have happened with 100 words in only three days? 

I spoke to one of the teachers with an extensive early word wall in her classroom. I said, “Tell me about your word wall.” She responded, “It has all of the students’ names, so that they can get to know each other; the color words and the number words because they really need to know them; the Dolch words, which are important too; and the content words from our first unit on families.” Whew! That’s an awful lot for a first grader to take in.

Using a word wall in literacy instruction requires thought and planning. There are considerations that should go into the placement of the word wall, the words selected to be posted on it, the number of words to have on it at a given time, the number of words to be presented each week, and the instructional goals of the word wall.

Definition

According to Patricia Cunningham (2012), who is credited with inventing the word wall, “the word wall is an area in the classroom where words are displayed -– but not just any words -– truly important ones. They are systematically organized and a tool designed to promote group learning.”  A word wall consists of words that young children frequently see when reading and use when writing. She emphasizes that it is not enough to just have a word wall. You have to do a word wall.

The Specs

Children need to be able to see the word wall and all of the words on it. I have seen word walls posted on those skinny little bulletin boards above the chalkboards, or whiteboards in the fronts of classrooms. Those bulletin boards are usually six feet above the floor! How well can a three-and-a-half-foot child read words that are posted that high? Reserve those bulletin boards for displaying the children’s artwork. Place your word wall at the children’s eye level.

Words with A-Z proceeding left to right.

In kindergarten, first grade, and even second-grade classrooms in some communities, arrange the groups of words on the word wall in a single line, with A to Z proceeding from left to right, as in the photo to the left.

Children who are still learning about directionality need the predictability of seeing the A words first, followed by the B words right next to them, which are in turn followed by the C words, and so on. Those tricky return swings, especially multiple return swings on a word wall, will make it much harder for children to find a specific word. I have seen children stand before word walls with multiple rows for long stretches of time hunting for a word.

Locate the word wall in an area of the classroom where it is frequently needed. The large group meeting area or the writing center is a good choice. Children should be able to access the word wall without disturbing small group instruction.  Cunningham recommends writing the words on different colors of construction paper and cutting out each word to conform to the shape of its letters, i.e., tall where the letters are tall and short where the letters are short rather than just a rectangle.  Both colors and shapes provide additional visual cues that might be useful to beginning readers and writers.

Which Words?

I am a fan of high-frequency, high-utility words for the word wall. It is worth repeating that the word wall was envisioned as a collection of words that young children frequently see when reading and use when writing. So which words, exactly, are those? Some teachers use the Dolch list as a source for words. Keep in mind that the words on the Dolch list are the words commonly found in basal reading textbooks (Dolch, 1948). Children are likely to encounter these words when they are reading a basal reader, which will help them read basals successfully.  But what about words that the children will use in their writing, and what about words that the children will encounter in other reading contexts, such as trade books? If you want words on the word wall that children are most likely to find useful after taking into account all reading and writing contexts, including their own writing, try the Fry instant words. The first 100 words on Fry’s list contain 50% of the words that appear in all printed materials, making them very high frequency and high utility (Fry, 2005).

If you want to display color words, number words, word family words, enriched vocabulary words, or content words, consider making charts with those words. While multiple word walls are an option, this can be confusing to emergent and beginning readers. Some children will wonder which wall they should access to find the word that they are seeking. Think about what you hope to accomplish by having multiple word charts and/or word walls. Is a word wall or even a word chart the best way to accomplish the goal? 

Doing a Word Wall

The purpose of the word wall is to provide maximum exposure to those heavy duty basic sight vocabulary words. These are the words that children need to know automatically, without any decoding or problem solving. The more experiences children have with these words, the more likely the words will be internalized.

Add three to five high frequency words to the word wall each week. Introduce the words with fanfare and pageantry; make a really big fuss. Engage the children in reading, chanting, singing, spelling and writing these words. Have a whole-group word wall activity each day. You might need to follow up with small-group work for some children. Keep word wall activities brief and highly engaging.

With word wall words containing a high frequency phonogram (word family) such as -an, -all, -it, or -ot, capitalize on the opportunity to point out other words with the same phonogram. For example, if “can” appears on the word wall, it is instructionally effective to bring words such as man, pan, ran, tan, and fan into the discussion and emphasize the pattern.  Once children have learned words with phonograms, it opens the door to many other words. Some teachers distinguish these words on the wall by marking them with a star or a key. Children learn that these words can help them read and write other words.

Word Wall Pitfalls

Word walls have their critics. One of the big criticisms is that it is developmentally inappropriate to expect kindergartners and first graders to use the word wall to support them in spelling out words on paper. The act of finding the word on the wall, recording the first letter on the paper, going back to wall, locating the word again, proceeding to the next letter, recording it on the paper . . . you see what I mean. This issue can be addressed by constructing individual sized word walls. Teachers make them with manila folders and store them in the writing center or word study center. If a child wants help with spelling, writing, or editing, they can borrow a "word wall" folder. Remember, the classroom word wall is for whole-group instruction.

Another pitfall of word walls is teachers’ apparent reluctance to ever remove any words from the wall. Once most of the children in the class have learned a word, take it down. There is no reason to have “the” on a first grade word wall in January. Make retiring a word from the word wall a celebration.

Finally, with word walls and all other instructional tools, it is important to be reflective.  Consider your instructional goals and think whether the word wall is the best tool for achieving that goal.

References

Cunningham, P.M. (2012). Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Dolch, E. W. (1948). Problems in Reading. Champaign IL: Garrard Press.

Fry, E. B. (2005). "Phonics: A Large Phoneme-Grapheme Frequency Count." Journal of Literary Research.

 

Shari Frost

Shari Frost has enjoyed a rich and varied professional life as an educator. She has served as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, a staff developer, and an instructor at the university level. Shari has taught kindergarten through fifth grades, and currently assists educators as a professional developer in the Chicago Public Schools. Her latest book is Two Books Are Better Than One.