Student-Led Literacy Support: Making Word Walls Work for All Students
Thanks to inclement weather, elementary school teacher and college lecturer Justine Bruyere stumbled onto an innovative way to build her young students’ literacy skills. As Bruyere recalled in a recent piece for the online education site Edutopia, one of her second-grade students came to her for help with spelling during a period of classroom-based free time brought about by a rained-out recess. When Bruyere suggested utilizing the classroom word wall, where she had carefully spelled out commonly used terms in neat block-printing, she had a revelation: The word wall was too high up for most students to see. This meant the carefully arranged, brightly colored cascade of frequently used words such as does, don’t, baby, and family was largely useless.
Prior to this realization, Bruyere had spent more than a decade experimenting with different word wall models, “hoping to uncover one that worked for the learners in [her] class.” After all, a word wall is a longstanding literacy support tool that tends to rate highly among researchers and educators and is often seen as a way to add a concrete, visual element to reading and writing instruction. (It is also important to note that although word walls are most typically associated with early elementary-school classrooms in which literacy skills are just taking root, they can also be found in middle and high school settings.)
When Bruyere called the class together to ask if the current iteration of the wall was effective, one student quickly weighed in with a valuable perspective: The displayed words were already familiar to him, and, as he phrased it, “the words I need aren’t there.” Combined with the realization that the wall was too high to see, this insight sparked a new beginning in Bruyere’s classroom: a student-crafted word wall.
Crowdsourcing in the classroom
Rather than trying to optimize the wall by herself, Bruyere broke with tradition and turned the project over to her young charges by asking them to help her create a revised wall of words. First, the students identified a new space that would allow the wall to function as an easily accessible resource. Second, the class worked together to establish ground rules governing how the wall would be built and what Bruyere’s role as the teacher would look like. This process presented an opportunity for Bruyere to guide her students as they grappled with the task of pinpointing correctly spelled, purposefully chosen words for everyone’s benefit.
Bruyere elaborated on this process in her Edutopia post:
How do students want to manage the wall? And who will write words on the wall—the teacher or the students? My students decided that they would be the ones to add words to the wall. First, a student writes a “striving to spell” word on a recipe card, and a friend checks it. I complete an additional check to guide and nurture in-the-moment phonics and feature learning. This nurturing takes on different forms with each child. In one case, it might be stretching the child to notice digraphs or diphthongs, and in another instance, it may look like asking students to explain what they know about the sounds in the words son, done, and tone.
After Bruyere performs this carefully individualized check, a student writes out the selected word and affixes it to the wall using a class-designed color-coding system of grouping similar words by color as a helpful visual cue. More specifically, Bruyere's class came up with the following approach: “grade-level words would be written in blue, nouns in pink, action verbs in green, and adjectives in orange.” The end result looks far less polished than the previous, entirely teacher-created display; in lieu of Bruyere's neatly printed terms, there are lopsided words scrawled across a white background in colorful, messy bunches.
In her Edutopia piece, Bruyere offered some advice to educators interested in creating student-shaped lists in their own classrooms: Use the list as a jumping-off point for concrete phonics and other literacy lessons, as well as to recast mistakes as opportunities for working individually with students and to nurture a deeper understanding of correctly spelling words. Bruyere also took a moment to acknowledge some of the benefits she has seen among her second-graders as a result of the wall project, including a greater sense of ownership and community among students who view their chosen words as a little piece of themselves. For example, she recalled proudly that a student who contributed the word Tennessee was able to share “his method for remembering to add two S’s” with his peers during a sharing and reflection session.
Eager to learn more about word walls and their various uses? Consider the following sources:
The Effectiveness of Word Walls: Written by University of Akron student Taylor Kish, this 2018 research paper delves into how and why word walls can be used effectively with various groups of students, from advanced learners to those with special education needs.
Words Walls and Academic Vocabulary: This resource comes from a post on ReadWriteThink.org, a site aimed at English Language Arts teachers. It offers an overview of the purpose of word walls, as well as suggestions for how to help students develop a greater awareness of academic language.
Using Word Walls with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A 2017 article in READ: An Online Journal for Literacy Educators describes how to use word walls as a way to “address the inter-connection between literacy skill deficits and social-behavioral skill deficits that many students with EBD experience.”
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