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Using Word Walls for Enhancing Literacy in the Secondary ELA Classroom

    tips for creating word walls with your secondary students

    Wondering what word walls are all about? Maybe you’ve seen them in elementary classrooms, but did you know they are a great addition to the secondary classroom too? Read this post to learn what a word wall is and how to use them to enhance literacy in secondary ELA.

    Teaching and reinforcing vocabulary is vital for enhancing student literacy. However, it’s also a pain point for many teachers. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggled to find creative and engaging ways to bring vocabulary into my classroom. However, I’ve also come to learn (and love) the power of word walls for enhancing literacy in the secondary ELA classroom. And, by the end of this post, I’m hoping you will too.

    Building a strong vocabulary foundation for your students is a vital aspect in any classroom teaching any subject across any grade level. After all, content-specific language is vital for unlocking countless opportunities for learning and overall academic growth. The challenge for many teachers is finding effective ways to achieve vocabulary goals. If you’re one of them, a word wall might be just the thing you need to transform your classroom into a place of language exploration.

    Let’s dive into what a word wall is, why it matters, and how you can implement one in your class to maximize its impact.

    What is a Word Wall?

    At its core, a word wall is a visually dynamic display of carefully selected words that are relevant to your curriculum. These displays are often placed on classroom walls, whiteboards, and bulletin boards, but any location visible to all students will work. The words are typically printed in large fonts and organized alphabetically or thematically.

    But why make the effort when you could just hand out traditional vocab lists and quizzes?

    What are the Benefits of a Word Wall?

    When it comes to word walls, visibility and organization are essential to providing students with an accessible resource that

    • Expands their vocabulary.
    • Provides visual cues for struggling students.
    • Reiterates spelling skills.
    • Improves reading comprehension and writing skills.
    • Reinforces relevant terms and language concepts.
    • Establish connect.
    • Encourages student independence when reading and writing.

    See? There are a lot of great reasons to use a word wall in your secondary ELA classroom. And they’re especially useful for struggling readers or English language learners. That said, they truly benefit all students, serving as a valuable reference point during lessons and reinforcing new vocabulary throughout the year.

    7 Tips for Creating Word Walls with Your Secondary Students

    Now that you understand what a word wall is and why you should incorporate the concept in your classroom, it’s important to know not all word walls are created equally. Simply tossing words up on a bulletin board won’t necessarily do the trick. If you’re looking to create engaging and effective word walls with your secondary students, here are seven tips to consider.

    1. Choose Relevant and Diverse Words.

    Select words that align with your curriculum and learning goals. Include a mix of academic terms, literary devices, and commonly encountered words. This diversity helps make the word wall relatable and meaningful. However, limit the new words to 5-10 a week to give students adequate time to learn each set of relevant terms.

    2. Get Students Involved.

    Student engagement is vital for effective word walls. You can certainly have a list of “must-have” words. However, engage students in additional word selection by encouraging them to suggest words they find interesting, challenging, or relevant. This fosters ownership and active participation in their vocabulary development. If you’re worried about penmanship or overall aesthetic appeal (both totally valid), there are ways you can work alongside students while still giving them ownership over the contents of the wall.

    3. Display Clear Definitions and Examples.

    When learning new vocabulary, context is key. Therefore, provide clear, concise definitions and relevant examples for each word on the wall. Additional context helps students with understanding and using the words correctly. Take it one step further by having students contribute examples to promote ownership and foster a collaborative learning environment.

    4. Keep It Organized.

    Decide whether you want to organize your word wall alphabetically or thematically. Typically, an alphabetical organization works best for younger learners, while a thematic organization is better suited for secondary students. Consider grouping words based on specific topics, such as adjectives, literary terms, or vocabulary related to a particular novel or unit. Ultimately, the best move is to display words in a way that makes the most sense for your group of students. Experiment with a few different approaches to find what works best in your classroom.

    5. Incorporate Visuals and Graphics.

    In addition to ensuring each word is written in a large, easy-to-read font, incorporate visual elements as well. Including elements like relevant images, symbols, diagrams, or mnemonic devices help reinforce the word’s meaning. (Vocabulary one-pager projects are a great way to bring the words to life!) Visual cues also enhance comprehension and memory retention. This additional element helps students make connections, building bridges between new words and a broader context.

    6. Make It Colorful.

    Using color on your word wall will make it more than a pretty sight. This pop of color can actually help students learn since it draws students’ attention to the information. This increased attentiveness helps move the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Additionally, you can use coloring to help with organization and additional visual elements.

    7. Update the Words As Needed.

    To maintain an effective word all throughout the year, you have to do more than set it and forget it. Regularly rotate and update the vocabulary, swapping out words that are no longer relevant. Reserve space on the wall for terms that align with current units or topics to help students establish logical connections.

    Engaging Students with Word Wall Activities

    Word walls are more than just a pretty display of words in your secondary ELA classroom. And you can use them for more than just looking at them. A word wall can serve as a dynamic learning tool, providing plenty of engaging learning opportunities for students. To the most out of your vocabulary display, consider engaging students with the following word wall activities.

    • Word of the Week: Kick each week off by digging deeper into a word from your word wall. Students can explore its meaning, synonyms, and usage. Rather than just having those vocabulary words stay on the wall, encourage students to incorporate the word of the week into their daily conversations and written assignments where possible. This will encourage students to utilize vocabulary in various contexts, enhancing their overall understanding of the words.
    • Word Wall Bell Ringer: Are you looking for a vocabulary-focused bell ringer? Have students practice their vocabulary by writing out five or 10 sentences, each using a word from the wall. Rather than just writing simple sentences, students should aim to demonstrate their understanding of the words’ meanings. This can be used as a quick way to check for student comprehension.
    • Word Wall Storytelling: Get students’ creativity flowing by having them respond to a creative writing prompt, requiring them to incorporate a specific number of words from the word wall. While you should encourage students to have fun with this activity, remind them to be purposeful with their word choice. After all, the goal is for students to write an engaging story that makes sense and reflects their understanding of each word. If you have time, give students an opportunity to share their creative (and often silly) stories.
    • Word Wall Jeopardy: While students can reference the word wall at any time on their own, it’s always great to initiate a review of the terms. With word wall Jeopardy, you can get the whole class involved in a competitive learning game. This will give students a chance to ​​review and reinforce their understanding of key terms in a fun and engaging way. This game is a great way to review vocabulary before a quiz or at the end of a unit or year.
    • White Board Words: I’ve never met a student who doesn’t love using mini whiteboards. That said, they’re sure to love this activity involving writing on whiteboards while reviewing word wall terms! The game is simple: You read a definition of one of the terms and students jot down which one they think it is. Give them 30 to 60 seconds before holding their boards up and revealing their answers. I love this review activity because it gets students practicing their spelling of each term, too.

    Final Thoughts on Word Walls

    If you stumbled upon this post thinking word walls only had a home in elementary school classrooms, I’m so glad you read all the way to the bottom. Because now you know that word walls can be effective, engaging, and dynamic learning tools in your secondary classroom too. In fact, they can help take some of the dread out of more traditional (and boring) approaches to vocabulary. So, if incorporating vocabulary into your lessons has been a struggle for you, word walls can change the game. (And they look nice too!)

    I hope that after reading this post you feel inspired to harness the potential word walls can have in secondary ELA (or any secondary classroom, to be honest). With that, here’s to creating an environment where students can learn and interact with language in a more enjoyable and meaningful way.

    Got any other ideas for using word walls in the secondary ELA classroom? Share any additional tips or activities in the comments below!

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