The elementary word wall is a classic approach to increasing vocabulary in the primary grades. There are literally thousands of ideas and ways to put one together, and a quick Google image search will show you most of them.
They are so successful because children are very visually driven, meaning that they learn words by seeing pictures or objects that represent those words.
This is one of the reasons these displays often include pictures of the students themselves; more than one kindergartner has shown up in public school without actually knowing her own name.
Therefore, for the younger grades, including a picture of each student under the appropriate letter is a great starting point that really draws attention to this bulletin board activity. But don’t stop there – involving your students in the development of word wall art is the best way to engage their minds.
Encourage students to bring pictures from home that can be added to the bulletin board. You can even assign each student a particular letter of the alphabet and give them a bag to take home to collect items or pictures that begin with their assigned letter.
When these items arrive back in the classroom, make a big deal about putting them up on the bulletin board. In fact, having the student put it up on the board is a great way to continue their high interest level in these word wall activities.
Math as word wall art
The primary focus of word walls is to develop vocabulary. However, they can also help develop number sense; instead of the letters of the alphabet, we simply put up numbers from one to 10 or more.
Under each number, we place pictures that represent that number, such as a single carrot under the number one or a picture of twins under the number two. Perhaps a snack that comes in packages of three represents that number… you get the idea.
(More on math word walls below.)
Word walls as classroom decoration
I occasionally get questions from my readers about classroom decorations with a curriculum theme, and one of my consistent replies is:
“If in doubt, use word walls.”
As you can see from the images on this page, as well as the ones that you will find by searching, they are extremely adaptable to a variety of situations. Not only are they helpful for building language and math vocabulary, but because they are a bulletin board decoration they can be made very visually pleasing… even “cute” if that's what you want in your classroom (and what teacher doesn't want a little of that?!).
Combined with the fact that they are hands-on engaging to the children, word wall activities are a creative and welcome addition to any elementary classroom.
Decorating with math, science, social studies
Classic elementary word walls should never simply be limited to the primary grades. They are very effective for developing general reading and writing vocabulary, but it's a mistake to limit their use to just those activities.
Math or science word walls are fantastic ways to engage your students in deeper thinking about these subjects.
While you can take the standard approach of listing various math terms underneath letters of the alphabet, don’t feel that you have to be constrained to this approach.
Think of different ways to organize math terms, such as by the operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division). When you organize math words in this manner, you’re really creating a great reference chart for students to solve story problems; when they see the word “more,” they know they're dealing with an addition situation, for example.
You can also go with the free-form approach such as I’ve illustrated here. In this case, the word wall is more of a collection and gets the kids thinking about the huge variety of math terms that we use to precisely describe operations and outcomes.
It’s possibly more decoration than information, but only if you limit the words to those you select yourself. Include the children in coming up with these math terms throughout the year and have them add the words to the wall; this makes it interactive and engaging.
Word wall words are always more powerful if the group has a say in choosing the terms that go on them.
Science is another subject where word walls make sense. Instead of grouping words by operation as you may decide to do in math, you set up categories for parts of the scientific process, such as:
- fair test
Your children will come across words in story problems that are clues to which part of the scientific process should be used. These words are then added to your bulletin board.
Don’t hesitate to add some word wall art as well. If the best description for a scientific term is a picture of a pendulum or a small packet of dirt from the stream table, then staple it up on the bulletin board.
Social studies word walls are meant to be fairly narrow in topic. They should be related directly to what your class is studying right now – as opposed to a math word wall, which may end up being a bit more general since math terms can apply to many different units.
Almost any study of history is going to turn up terms that are old-fashioned or unfamiliar to children. These make them ideal candidates for your display after the students look up the definition.
Another great example from fourth grade curriculum is the study of civics. The words that describe the processes of the different parts of government are also quite unfamiliar to ten year olds. Putting them up in a display grouped underneath the proper branch of government helps bring them to life for young scholars.
Word walls have a definite place in nearly every elementary classroom. They have great flexibility, and they only require a bit of creativity to make them an ideal and attractive classroom decoration that supports instruction.