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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach Early Childhood Literacy

How to Do a Word Wall
Stephanie Bartell

Every early elementary teacher has heard about how important it is to have a word wall in the classroom, one of the most important being that one hundred words account for almost half of all the words we read and write (Fry, Fountoukidis, & Polk, 1985).  It is important for students to learn how to read and spell these high frequency words.  Many of these words, once learned, can be used to help students spell a variety of other words.  Having a word wall in the classroom is not the same as “doing” the word wall.  Struggling readers will not be able to use words if they are just placed on the wall.  Students need daily practice with word wall words in order to make the wall an effective classroom tool.  Here are some basic steps for “doing” a word wall in your classroom:

  • Add only 3-5 words per week, be selective with word choice.
  • Choose words from a high frequency word list, common misspellings in students’ writing, or school curriculum.
  • Be sure the words are written in large, black print, possibly on colored background (to help students differentiate between words).
  • Make sure the words are spelled correctly in any writing that your students do.
  • Practice words daily by chanting and writing them.

Practicing the Words

The teacher holds up the word and reads it to the class. Students repeat the word and spell it out loud.  Many teachers use some of the following chants to practice spelling the word. 
  1. Yo-yo: bend your arms at the elbow and alternate your hands up and down as you say each letter.
  2. Voices: change your voice for each repetition; loud, soft, whisper, squeak, growl, etc.
  3. Movie Star Kisses:  put your hand to your mouth and throw each letter a kiss.
  4. Groups: boys cheer, girls cheer, then the whole class or one group of seats at a time, then the whole class.
  5. Nose: hold your nose and spell it.
  6. Movement: stomping, snapping, clapping, patting our head, bobbing heads from side to side, jumping jacks, toe touches.
  7. Cheer It: Give me an "h”, etc., like a cheerleader.
  8. Giraffe, Chicken, Monkey: touch shoulders for tall letters (giraffes), hands on hips for short letters (chickens) and knees for letters that go below the line (monkeys).
  9. Snap and Clap: snap for the vowels and clap for the consonants.
  10. Throw the Stars: throw one hand at a time toward the ceiling for each letter.

After spelling the word, students write the word (white boards work great for this!).  Once all of the new words are practiced activities such as the following can be done to practice previous week’s words.

Be a Mind Reader

In this game, the teacher thinks of a word on the wall and then gives five clues about that word. Have students number their paper 1-5 and tell them that you are going to see who can read your mind and figure out which of the words on the word wall you are thinking of. Tell them you will give them five clues and by the fifth clue, everyone should guess the word that is on your mind.

Clue 1: Always give the same clue, “It’s a word on the Word Wall.”
Students should write next to number 1, the word they think it might be.  Each succeeding clue should narrow down what the word might be until by clue five, there is only one possible word.

Clue 5 is a cloze sentence that allows the students to decide if the word they think makes sense and sounds right. For example, suppose the chosen word when. Clue 5 might be:

The word on my mind makes sense and sounds right in this sentence.
A shark will attack ___________ it smells blood.

As you give clues, students write the word they think is correct next to each number on their paper. If succeeding clues fit the word a student has written next to one number, then that student writes the same word next to the following number.

Ideas for Clues

Clues should include any features of the word you want your students to notice.

  • It has two syllables
  • It has six letters
  • It has three vowels
  • It has a silent letter
  • It rhymes with ____________
  • It has both tall and short letters
  • It has all short letters

Teachers who "DO" Word Walls (rather than just have word walls) report that all of their students can learn these critical words.

If you have questions about using a word wall, or experiences you’d like to share, please contact me.

See also:

Building Your ELL/ESL Student's Vocabulary by Tobey Bassoff

Creating a Math Word Wall to Support Writing About Mathematical Thinking by Sarah Picard


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