Saturday, December 10, 2016

Easy Start Word Walls

Having just posted about anchor charts, I felt Word Walls would be the next logical topic.  Word Walls are literally walls of words that are visible in the classroom.  They are displayed in pocket charts, on bulletin boards, or simply taped to an empty wall.  They provide another reference point for students.  They are words introduced to the student that are displayed in hopes that they start to use them in their language and writing.

I have seen them set up in a variety of ways.  I have seen teachers post a word of the day and add it to a list of other difficult words on their Word Wall.  I have seen words displayed in pocket charts that normally reside somewhere near the reading table.  I have also see teachers divide their bulletin board up into 26 sections.  One section for each letter of the alphabet where they categorize new vocabulary that students are encouraged to use.  However you choose to organize its display, keep in mind that choosing which words to include is one of the most important factors.

Before we dive into it, here are a couple of key points to remember when developing Word Walls…
  • They are student centered
  • It is a collaborative effort between the students and the teacher
  • They can be used across multiple subject areas
  • They are a reference point for students
  • They should be developed at student eye-level
  • Students should feel empowered to leave their seat and reference the Word Wall when necessary
  • It is another tool and way to explore vocabulary
  • Words should be challenging, but not so challenging that they are not used because the meaning does not translate or carry over
  • Words may need to be removed simply to make room for news words
Developing Your Word Walls With Your Students
Although they are many ways to organize your Word Walls, a few key points should be followed to ensure the quality of the Word Wall and their effectiveness.

Much like anchor charts, words walls should be student centered.  The teacher may be working with students with a particular group of words.  The teacher may find that she/he wants certain words to appear on the Word Wall.  But, through your vocabulary study and discussion of the word, students should help in deciding whether the word should appear on the wall.  Teachers may need to use guiding questions to arrive at this decision, but this is a wall of words that the students are building so that they have a reference point for future learning.

Teaching Point
When taking a look at a couple new words, I might ultimately make a decision of putting the first word on the Word Wall.  I might say, “We have talked about the word exaggerated in great detail.  This is an excellent word that we might be able to use in our narrative writing.  It helps explain how a person is speaking to another person.  It is a great word to use when trying to use dialogue in your writing.  I think I am going to add this word to the Word Wall.”

In that situation, I modeled a think aloud explaining why a word belongs on the Word Wall.  It is a word that I think is appropriate for the grade level, a word that can be used in writing, and has a purpose in dialogue.

Moving forward, I would encourage students to think about words in the same way and arrive at their own consensus in determining if the word should be posted.  They are not only making decisions for their own success, but they are exploring the word in great detail simply by talking about it.  They are exploring the meaning, its usefulness and relevance, and when it is appropriate to use the word.  They are also determining if this is a word they think they could use in their writing.

On the flip side, I have seen teachers choose words at random way above grade level.  I think that introducing students to complex words and text is imperative in meeting the rigors of the Common Core.  However, if the word it too far ahead of their current level, the word meaning may not resonate, and might get lost among a myriad of other difficult words.  SAT words in a 5th grade classroom may not translate into future conversation and writing.

Across Subject Areas
Word Walls may not be vocabulary from the story, but they may also be literary terms that students are learning as part of their LAL instruction.  Word Walls need not be pigeon-holed to Language Arts/Literacy (LAL).  Word Walls lend themselves as a useful tool in all subject areas.  After all, using domain specific vocabulary is one of the Common Core State Standards. 

When setting up my classroom, each subject would have a section of the room.  There, I would display the anchor charts relevant to that subject as well as the Word Wall.  LAL and writing would be built relatively close together because so many of the skills work in tandem.  The vocabulary in student textbooks might lend itself to be the best resource when determining Word Walls for specific subjects, however there is no reason to just use those words.  If there are words that you or the students think are relevant and worthy of being posted, discuss the word and post it.

Word Walls Specific to Math
I have heard many teachers talk about how students struggle solving word problems and constructed response problems in math.  After much discussion, I have observed time and time again that one of the main reasons for the problem lies in the fact that the students have a limited repertoire of math vocabulary.  What better way to build that vocabulary than to create a math Word Wall.  It will serve as a constant reminder of what the students are expected to remember and know when solving word problems.  Improvement in work was noted in my classroom when math Word Walls were available.  They had a reference point and list of math words they could use if they found it relevant to the practice problem they were working on.  After much practice, these math words naturally found themselves as part of daily math conversation and daily work.

Changing Word Walls
I have found that Word Walls tend to change less frequently than anchor charts in my classroom.  Of course, if you are running out of room, you may need to make a decision to remove some words in order to make room for others.  However, the words should be used regularly throughout the year.  If you find you need room and need to remove words from the Word Wall, take 5 – 10 minutes during a morning meeting, and include the students in deciding what words should come down.  They decided which words to include, and they should decide which words to remove.  Talk about it, collaborate, and ensure students are able to give examples of their use of the word without referencing the Word Wall so you know that it has become part of their lexicon. 

Final Thoughts
Like anchor charts, students should feel a sense of ownership in the development of the Word Wall, as well as empowered to leave their seat and reference the Word Wall when they are stuck, need a point of reference, or need additional assistance. This is another way of encouraging independence and problem-solving if students are experiencing a small writing block.  Don’t forget to keep the Word Wall at eye level.

Word Walls are a must in creating a word-rich environment.  Just about everything we do involves literacy and words in some capacity.  The classroom must be designed as a literacy classroom because all subjects will use reading strategies during instruction at some point.  Word Walls contribute to this.  Every subject contains new vocabulary that students need to use in conversation and writing.  What better way to address it than using Word Walls.

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