Making Word Walls Work

I’ve understood the value of word walls for quite some time, but always had trouble implementing them in my own classroom. I would start with good intentions, setting up a poster labeled with the letters of the alphabet and writing the words my students were learning in big letters on the poster. However, after a few weeks I would start forgetting to add words to the poster, or I would have so many words in certain parts of the alphabet that my word wall would begin to look lopsided.

I recently found a solution that is working for me. Rather than create a poster, I’ve settled on pinning words written on 4×6 note cards to my bulletin board instead. I keep colored markers (these are my favorite for the classroom) and push pins in the top drawer of my desk. When I want to add new terms to the word wall I can quickly grab cards, write the words on the card, and pin them to the wall in under a minute, often during class while students are working on writing sentences or interacting in some other way with the new words. The speed with which I can do this has reduced my resistance and forgetfulness in adding words to my wall.

To better organize the word wall, I use different colored markers for different categories of words. For general academic words (see this list), I use a green marker. For vocabulary specific to English Language Arts content (words like simile, metaphor, mood, tone), I use blue. The SAT vocabulary words that my honors students are currently learning are in purple. When we are reading a piece of literature from which I’d like to teach vocabulary, I choose another color for that as well. This has made it much easier to reference the word wall when I have students review words or use them in their writing.

Word Wall

At the end of last year, I took down the cards and had my teacher aide alphabetize them within each category. This year, I have been able to quickly find cards for the words that I teach every year, making the process even faster. Having the word cards from last year has also assisted with curriculum planning, as they serve as a reminder of the words I may want to consider teaching.

I have been referencing the word wall during class more often this year as well, usually during the last minute or so of the period as students are packing up and getting ready to leave for their next class. I often use the phrase, “I’m thinking of a word that means ______,” and I might provide the first letter of the word as a clue. Students enjoy the game-like atmosphere at the end of class, and I’m increasing students’ exposure to the words as we go. I also try to use and emphasize my use of the words when I am delivering instruction.

To build on this, I am planning to encourage/require students to use the words in their written and spoken responses. For example, I might have students complete an exit slip such as: “Tell me what you learned today. In your response, be sure to use the words connotation, denotation, and evaluate.” I might use the same prompt and ask students to respond out loud, allowing them to try out their speech with their partners first. To build vocabulary usage in more formal writing, I am planning to require that students use and highlight words learned in class in their essays, reports, and longer written work.

I am seeing evidence of the word wall’s effectiveness this year. During class discussion, students are using the words in class (they also enjoy how excited I get when I hear them use the words). The words are showing up in their writing as well, even without my encouragement. I am so glad I found a way to quickly create and maintain my word wall.


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