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Teachers Say Word Walls Work!

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A word wall is not just a great primary-grade learning tool. Teachers across the grades use word walls throughout the curriculum. Many elementary and middle schools require teachers to include word walls in their classrooms; those teachers know firsthand the effectiveness of word walls. Included: Teachers from grades pre-K to 8 share their word wall successes.

Teacher Marion Dunkerley is wild about word walls. Walk into her classroom and you're bound to see a student using a pointer or fly swatter to "read the room," or students playing BINGO or tic-tac-toe or beanbag toss with their word wall words.

Walls covered with words are one "part of creating a print-rich environment for students," Dunkerley told Education World. "Being exposed to that kind of an environment is a critical component of emerging literacy."

WORD WALLS A "PRIMARY" FOCUS

Dunkerley has used word walls with first graders for several years. Spelling words -- taken from lists of sight words students should know -- were added to the word wall each week. This year, she is teaching a family literacy program for preschoolers, so she included on her word wall all her students' names, as well as picture words they see in their world, such as McDonald's and Albertsons (a food store in the area).

Word Wall Lessons

If you're looking for ideas for using word walls across the grades, you've come to the right place. Don't miss these special resources from Education World:

Word Wall "Active-ities" Build Vocabulary, Spelling, Writing Skills Five lesson plans from some of the teachers who contributed to this article.

Find more word wall activity ideas -- plus how-to resources -- on Ed World's special Word Wall Resource Page.

Do you have a favorite word wall activity? Please take a moment to "show-and-tell" that activity on Education World's Word Walls message board. If everyone shares an idea, imagine the library of word wall activities you'll have at your disposal!

For additional lesson ideas, see teacher Marion Dunkerley's Word Wall Activities Web page.

In Raymond, Maine, teacher Patricia Allen would never give up her word wall, especially since her kindergarten program at Raymond Elementary went full-day four years ago. "Having a full-day kindergarten offers time to do so much more with literacy throughout the day," Allen told Education World. "The word wall is a great tool I would have little time to use in a half-day program. Now I can teach it and use it, and the children can really make use of it."

Young children are very visual learners, noted Allen. "Some might be stronger visual or auditory learners, but they all are affected by what they see. Daily, they show me their excitement and curiosity about new items, pictures, or words in their learning environment.

"Seeing words on the wall helps them become excited about words and understand that words are important and can be used over and over again. The word wall helps them learn the names of letters, ABC order, and letter-sound relationships. It provides extra exposure and challenge for students who are at many different skill and interest levels."

Throughout the day, Allen finds many uses for the word wall -- starting at the beginning of the day. "At our morning meeting, we have fun finding words in our 'morning message' on the word wall," she explained.

WORD WALL FOLDERS AND HOLDERS

Allen's kindergartners also keep a word wall page in their writing folders, adding to the page as the year progresses. "When we were doing our Castles and Fairytales unit, we added words such as king, queen, castle, key, and gold to our word wall. Then they copied them onto their own word wall pages," she said.

Allen loves to watch as her students reference their personal word wall pages during writing projects or journal writing. "Last year, the children each made a collection of books by illustrating and writing about each fairytale I read aloud during story time," she explained. "They used our classroom word wall and their word wall pages to write their sentences. They were so proud!"

Maureen Foster sees that same sense of pride in her kindergartners at Sanford Street School in Glens Falls, New York. Her students' word wall is prominently displayed on a bulletin board that all children can see from the classroom Writing Center. Among the word wall activities her students most enjoy are Make a Word, in which they arrange letter cards in a special holder to spell word-wall words, and Rainbow Spelling, in which Foster dictates words and students write each word in a different color.

WORD WALLS ARE FOR ALL GRADES!

"We use word walls throughout our school," said Larry Davis, principal of the K-6 Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida. "At the lower-grade levels, word walls display words students meet in their reading and other frequently used words. As students move up the grades, word walls begin to take on other forms and purposes.

"Fourth grade teachers use word walls for displaying words that can be substituted for more frequently used words," said Davis. "They call them 'million dollar words' because they are higher-level words that mean the same thing as the simpler synonyms. Our sixth grade teachers use word walls for science, social studies, and math words.

"Space is an issue in some classrooms," Davis added. "Some classrooms have their words on the ceiling -- they have 'word ceilings' instead of word walls."

Teacher Shari Medley has used word walls in fifth grade and in her current assignment as a third grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Neenah, Wisconsin. Her word wall is on permanent display. "My words come from our spelling curriculum, frequently misspelled words, and content area words," explained Medley, author of How to Use Word Walls in Your Writing Classrooms.

"The word wall grows each week," Medley noted. "By the end of the year, we should have 450 words on the wall. My students always are amazed at the end of the year to see how many words they have learned."

The greatest benefit of the word wall that Medley observes is its convenience for students. "My students use the word wall as a huge dictionary," she told Education World. "They always look first at the word wall when they are unsure of how to spell a word."

WORD WALLS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL

At Paul R. Haas Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas, a literacy-focused middle school, all grade 6-8 teachers in use word walls. You even can find a word wall in the gym!

"The word walls are constant learning cues for the students," Melba Smithwick told Education World. Smithwick is Haas's campus-based staff developer and a former math teacher at the school. "Because students build the word walls themselves, they take ownership of them and value their use."

Word Wall 101

* Word Walls That Work
* Building the Word Wall
* Interactive Word Walls
* Word Walls in a Nut Shell

Teachers at Haas use word walls in a wide variety of ways. "Some teachers list words on the wall in alphabetical order; others list by categories. In history class, you can list them by event. In math or science, you can list them by systems," said Smithwick. "You can attach words to a hard wall using Velcro, to a bulletin board using push pins, or to a whiteboard using magnets."

When Smithwick taught algebra, she constructed her word wall on a magnetic surface. She would create word cards and cards that provided a definition for each word or cards containing a fill-in-the-blank sentence that required the word. She had students move the words and sentence strips around to turn her word wall into an "interactive word wall." Smithwick's word wall also included math symbols that students frequently encountered in their work.

The key to success with word walls, Smithwick added, is that you need to refer to them often so students get in the habit of using the wall in their assignments.

Trisha Fogarty's 6th grade English classroom at Southside School in Houlton, Maine, has a word wall too. "In my classroom, the word wall belongs to the students," said Fogarty. "If I find a misspelled word in their writing, I have them add it to the wall. If I see a really powerful word, I ask them to add it. If a particular word always seems to boggle them, they are free to add it to the wall." The kids write all the word cards themselves, which adds to their ownership of the wall, noted Fogarty.

Marcia Norris uses a word wall in her intervention classes at Suwannee Middle School in Live Oak, Florida. Norris reports that her school has been a participating Florida Reading Initiative school for 3 years and that teachers there have seen definite growth in test scores by using such strategies as word walls. Norris's word wall includes many words her students must use and spell correctly in their written work -- words such as there/their/they're, hole/whole, and piece/peace. "My students keep a mini word wall in their folders that matches exactly the word wall in the classroom," said Norris. "As we add a word to the wall, they add it to their mini word wall. So when they ask, 'Does spelling count?' I always say 'It definitely does if it's on your word wall.'"

WORKING WORD WALLS

"It's no longer enough for classroom walls to be attractive," says Dr. Darla Shaw, coordinator of the graduate reading program at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut, and a frequent workshop presenter on such topics as word walls. "A working word wall may be only an inanimate object, but if properly developed, it can bring real life to a [classroom]."

For teachers who have not used a word wall before, Shaw has some "words" of advice:

  • Word walls should be student generated, not commercially prepared.
  • New information should be added on a regular -- even daily -- basis.
  • Content-area material from the curriculum rather than randomly selected words should be utilized.
  • Word walls should be referred to often so students come to understand and see their relevance.
  • Word walls are a group effort; allow students to make suggestions for content.

"Children who learn in a classroom with a working word wall have a distinct advantage over students who don't have such a resource in their room," said Shaw.

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