Using the Word Wall
The literate classroom environment is one where print information is accessible to students. Accessible means more than just posting print that students can see, it means posting print that students can use to support their reading and writing activities. The extent to which students participate in the production of the print in the environment increases the likelihood that they will use it. The literate classroom environment provides a transition from problem solving that is teacher centered to developing skills that will support student independence.
The word wall is an important part of the literate environment and a source of information that students can access initially with teacher prompting, with the end goal of students using it independently. The word wall is at its most effective as a display of high frequency words. High frequency words are just that, words that show up in print and are needed for writing, consistently and frequently. For example, the words and, I, and the represent almost ten percent of written text. High frequency words are usually abstract in that specific meaning is difficult to establish. Phonics as a source of information is also problematic because of the number of high frequency words that are irregular. Because of this students are asked to recognize these words by sight. Posting these words on a word wall serves as a reminder to students that these are words they need to know how to read and write automatically.
Words should be added to a word wall when they are used in text or as they are needed for writing. This makes the process of adding words to the wall authentic and based on student need rather than teacher selected or arbitrary. Many teachers have found that words that students write themselves are more effective than those that are printed or written by the teacher. The conversations and discussions that are part of an interactive writing of high frequency words are a powerful reinforcement that increases student ownership of the words written and the likelihood of their use.
There are many other words that can be posted as sources of information in the literate classroom. Vocabulary words that come from textbooks or units of study are good examples. An effective way to display these words is on content word lists, separate from the word wall, that focus thematically. These lists might be posted on the classroom walls during the unit of study and then archived for independent use at a later time.
The word wall and content word lists serve different purposes. The word wall is meant to reinforce the automaticity of high frequency words. Content word lists are meant to support thematic study and vocabulary development. The combination of these two goals on one list results in an undifferentiated display of words that is overwhelming by virtue of its sheer size and because of that is rendered virtually useless. Consider an adult perspective where a list is developed that includes your shopping list, to do list, Christmas card list, list of phone numbers and email addresses all in one. The access problem for this kind of a list is the same access difficulty that students experience when a massive number of words are listed on a word wall. The key to the effective display of words in a classroom is to remember the purpose for the display and the learning that words posted in the room can support.
The word wall and its use changes over time and over grade levels. Preschool and Kindergarten might begin the year with an empty word wall and add words used in shared reading or words students need for interactive writing. Subsequent grades might begin the year with words that were learned in prior years. Should the number of words on the word wall become too large, words that all students have under control might be removed and archived on charts. There are various word lists available that rank order the frequency of their use in text. The first 25 words on these lists make up about a third and the first 100 make up more than a half of all written material. It is anticipated that the words that students need for reading and writing will occur in text similar to the order of these lists. The word wall evolves from primary grades where words like for, on, and with are posted to the intermediate grades that might include words like difficult, general and material. At any point that a word listed earlier becomes a source of confusion it can be added back to the word wall for further review.
The word wall can be accessed during whole group instruction such as shared reading, interactive writing and interactive editing. A student might be asked to locate a word on the word wall that needs support during a shared reading or is a word selected for use during interactive writing. In interactive editing, once the key content words are identified, the word wall serves as a source for the high frequency words needed to complete the writing. Students are also encouraged to use the word wall during small group instruction and when working independently in reading and writing. The key to an effective word wall is how the teacher uses it. Helping students access the literate environment as a source of information is important for the transition from the teacher as the primary source of information to increased student independence where students learn to solve their own problems.