What’s the Deal? Word Walls

What’s the Deal? Word Walls

I remember the word wall was one of the most confusing pieces in my classroom my first year teaching. In fact, it was left empty until the 3rd quarter because I had no idea what to do with it but I knew that we were required to have them. I didn’t know what to do or when to put up words or what words to put up! Let’s try to clear these up.

This new series, What’s the Deal? works to demystify some of the most confusing and sometimes contradictory pieces of information in education. I’m not going to say I’ll always piece it together correctly here but I will try. 

Should I Have a Word Wall?

Yes. Yes, you should.

A word wall is a designated area in the classroom set aside to help young writers with tricky words. Every grade level in elementary can have a word wall catered to their needs. Even older grades can use a word wall! A word wall is designed to help students make connections between words and provide a scaffold when spelling tricky words. Word walls need to be interactive and created with students not created for them. Students should not walk in to find new words suddenly up on the wall but it should be built together. If a word wall is already put up in a classroom then students are using it as a crutch when it should be a scaffold. A word wall should assist students in spelling words and they should begin to make connections to the words on their own. 

How Do They Work?

The teacher adds words with the students to assist in spelling. This is not a place where the teacher puts up all the words kids don’t know so they can just copy them. If you do that kids will either ignore the wall or be overwhelmed by it. Adding words together allows students to have ownership over the wall. It lets them know what words are on the wall and it becomes a tool. 

I put up the word and recently. When adding the word and we said it and clapped it and spelled it out loud and traced it on the floor. Some teachers even sing a song. Then we added it. A few days later (actually I think later that day) we made connections using the word and. If you know and then you know sand. If you know and then you know hand! The kids got so excited and found many more examples. Now if a child were to wonder, “how do you spell hand?” They could look to the word wall and see if they could use a word to help them spell. 

The word wall should help kids spell the words that are there but it should also help them spell words that aren’t there. If kids aren’t taught how to make connections between different words then they will only be able to spell the words that are already up on the wall. 

What Words Do I Add?

High-frequency words should be added to the wall. I put up words that my students are using a lot like Poland, the name of our school, vacation, etc. During word study, we add exemplar words to the wall. We just added the word at and if you know at you know so many other words! I use the 500-word list in the Fountas and Pinnell Word Matters book as a guide but I adapt to meet my students’ needs. It’s all focused on what they need. Last year we added the word a to the word wall, this year we didn’t need to.

To determine which words to add next I generally walk around and read my students writing. I pick some words that are spelled wrong and jot them down. While looking at all the students I create a sort of a tally chart. I determine which ones are within the class’ zone of proximal development and then we add those words. 

How Many Words Do I Add?

We should add between 4-5 words a week to the wall. We shouldn’t add any more because then our students will forget what words are on the wall and it just becomes wall decoration instead of a tool for learning. I generally have a running list of words to add next. Now, the point of adding words is so that students spell those words correctly but it is also so that they spell more words correctly. I choose the words I put up intentionally some words like because and about go on my word wall every year. These words are used a lot by my students and they don’t yet have the strategies to spell them. Other words don’t go up every year. 

Once words are up on the word wall they might not need to stay up all year. Remember the word wall should meet the needs of your students. The wall should be interactive. Words should be going up and coming down as needed. This means the wall shouldn’t become overwhelming where students can’t find the words they need anymore. 

When Do I Add Words?

I add words in a few different times. Sometimes I call my students to the word wall as a mid-workshop interruption during writer’s workshop and we’ll add a word right then and there. Sometimes we will add a word to the wall during share. At times we add a word to the wall during morning meeting. Once we added a word to the word wall during math. I try to plan which word will go up on the word wall and then see where it naturally slides into my day. Adding a word to the word wall shouldn’t take too long, no more than 5 minutes typically. 

How Can I Differentiate It?

Word walls are meant to be for all students and I am sure that you also have a wide range of abilities in your classroom. One way to differentiate is to use those pockets that used to be in the back of library books. In the word wall pictured above, I used those for the letter card and more challenging words were placed in the cards. Words that I didn’t expect everyone to spell correctly but I did expect some kids to spell correctly. We added those words to the wall the same way as the other ones. This way anyone could use that card. In the past, I have lined those up on the bottom of the chalkboard for students who need them. 

I also create a words we know board when we remove words from the wall but some students still need them. I don’t always call it words we know depending on how my class would react to that with some kids still needing them. I’ve called it a retired word wall before as well. Together we move words like I or the from the regular word wall to the other word wall. Then eventually it might be taken down from that space. It might also stay up all year depending on what the kids need. 

What do I need to Start?

The word wall should be in a space where students can see it and reach it. We might not all have this space available in our classrooms. My word wall last year was in such a terrible place because it was the only wall space we had large enough. Do what you can. 

Alphabet cards– Currently I use lowercase only on my word wall. I needed a way to display only the lowercase letters and remind them that we use lowercase more than uppercase. I do have uppercase letters displayed in the classroom in many other areas so I felt the word wall was a place I could use only lowercase. In the past, I have used upper and lowercase on the word wall. Do what’s best for your class. What do they need? 

Magnet Tape– I use this if my board is on a magnetic surface. Last year I couldn’t use magnet tape. This way students can come and get the words and put them back. They aren’t permanently stuck on the wall. 

White cards and a black marker– research has shown that it is best of the words are written in black ink on a white or light surface. We all like colors in the classroom but keep color away from the word wall. You can type your words or write them out. I usually just choose to handwrite them. 

Highlighter Tape– Highlighter tape allows you to call attention to a particular part of a word. In the picture above I highlighted to vowels. Right now CVCe words are highlighted on the wall. Highlighter tape will go up and come down depending on what you are drawing their attention to. 

Click HERE for a word wall freebie! Included are lowercase letter cards and a few high-frequency word cards to help get you started. Enjoy!

Using a word wall can be such a powerful tool for the writers within our classroom. Let me know what questions you have about creating a word wall in the comments below. Please share any tips or advice about the word wall as well! 

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