Why Teachers Are Adopting Sound Walls Over Word Walls

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Holly (Teach Starter)

Written by Holly (Teach Starter)

Teachers have a plethora of sources to help guide research-based best practices in teaching such as journals, professional development, educational magazines and podcasts… just to name a few. But, the most powerful learnings occur in the staffroom with your teaching buddies! These professional discussions not only cover the impact of educational research on classroom practices but also allow teachers to narrow the gap between research and reality. It is often this gap that makes it difficult for a teacher to really implement newer research-based practices into their classrooms.

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Join this staffroom discussion around the topic of the real effectiveness of word walls in the classroom, as well as information surrounding why some teachers are adopting sound walls over word walls.

Teacher looking confused

Shutterstock.com / Krakenimages.com


 What is a Sound Wall?

A sound wall is a classroom display that is based on the phonology of our language. That is, the different speech sounds (phonemes) are displayed rather than just the 26 letters of the alphabet like a word wall. A sound wall is typically set up in two sections, vowels and consonants. Each phoneme represented includes an articulatory photo as well as a list of words that clearly displays the different graphemes for each phoneme.

By using articulatory photos, children are encouraged to think about the place of articulation – that is, what’s happening with their teeth, lips and tongue when they are making a sound.

“I was a speech pathologist before I became a teacher so I’m very aware of the link between speech, language & literacy.” – Stephanie Le Lievre from Reading Science in Schools Facebook Group

Sound wall set up in a classroom

Example of a Sound Wall set up in Stephanie’s classroom. She purchased her articulation cards from Tools 4 Reading Australia.

Teacher idea: when introducing a sound – why not take a photo of one of your students’ lips and use that for your display.

Word Walls vs Sound Walls

Of course, bringing up the topic of using sound walls has many teachers asking… but what about word walls? Are they not useful anymore? Here are some interesting points that may help you understand this a little better.

The word wall was always my first staple display for my classroom. Students would often refer to it during independent writing and it was always sorted into alphabetical order. However, this concept of sorting high-frequency words in alphabetical order presents some confusion for our little learners. For example, the word ‘the’ on a typical word wall would be placed under the letter ‘t’, however, ‘the’ does not begin with the phoneme of /t/ rather /th/ unvoiced. Similarly, the word ‘she’ does not begin with the phoneme /s/ rather /sh/. It is this lack of scope that makes it confusing for our learners when we are trying to teach them to decode words based on phonemes.

“The idea is that by highlighting how each sound is produced (manner and place of articulation) and then linking the sound to its graphemes, this strengthens the phoneme-grapheme representations in our students.” – Stephanie Le Lievre

Child making /oo/ sound with mouth

Shutterstock.com / Julija Sulkovska

This shift in using sound walls has come about from the Science of Reading research. If you’re interested in reading more about this research, head on over to our blog –  What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading Research.

Don’t Panic! Word Walls Still Have a Place

Whilst all of this information certainly provides a good argument for the use of sound walls, there is still a place for word walls in the classroom. It’s just the use of them that may look slightly different. For example, rather than using them for spelling purposes for your students, a better focus is on building new vocabulary, as well as building on their comprehension of a variety of words. An example of this is through word of the week activities – you may like to create a word wall for these new words you are introducing to your students.

Including the definition of these new words is helpful for your students as well.

Word of the week posters for the classroom

Or, perhaps you are introducing new vocabulary as part of a unit of work. This is where a word wall is still useful in the classroom environment.

Fairy Tale Word Wall for the Classroom


How to Use a Sound Wall in the Classroom

If you’ve decided that a sound wall is something that you feel would support your students in becoming phonologically aware, it’s important to understand the best way to create and use the sound wall in your classroom. You should not put the full sound wall up at the beginning of the year, you don’t want to overwhelm your students and it’s much more beneficial if it has been created together as a class.

Here are some suggested steps for how to introduce each of the phonemes on your sound wall.

  1. Explicitly introduce each of the sounds as you would normally do in your classroom.
  2. Model the way you make the sound with your mouth.
  3. Each student could use a mini mirror so they can see what their lips, teeth and tongue are doing when they make that sound.
  4. Discuss as a class what they notice when they are making that particular sound.
  5. Display a word for each spelling pattern that is seen for this particular sound (if students are ready for this).

“As I target a particular sound/s I ensure I model how it’s produced and show the photo. Students practice making the sound, and then they learn the spelling/s that represent the phoneme – and apply it in decoding and encoding tasks.” – Stephanie Le Lievre

Vowel Sound Wall in the Classroom

Stephanies Vowel Valley display from her classroom.

Teacher Tips

When Stephanie created her sound walls, she just used handwritten words ensuring the letter combination that makes each phoneme is in a visibly different colour. Alternatively, you may like to use these grapheme posters. Of course, it all comes down to display space in your classroom as well.

If you use a particular phonics program in your school you can certainly create a sound wall in conjunction with the order in which the phonics program gets you to expose your students to different phonemes.

“I would gradually introduce the photos of the articulatory gestures as you introduce the phonemes as part of your phonics program. As we learn more spellings for a sound (e.g. /ay/ sound) we add these – .” – Stephanie Le Lievre

Consonant sound wall for the classroom

Stephanie’s Consonant Chart example from her classroom.

It’s important that daily reviews happen at the sound wall. It may be all the students standing around and practicing each of the sounds with their mini mirrors. Or perhaps it’s using the word of the week and decoding the sounds in the word using the sound wall. Encouraging your students to use the sound wall to decode and spell words is just as important as building the sound wall.

We’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you considering a sound wall in your classroom?

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Comments & feedback

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Liz Hillam

would love to use this in my class. Can Teach Starter produce the examples? Ideally it would be great to have our student’s mouths, but my technological skills are not as savvy as Stephanies.

Liz Hillam · Mar 7th, 2021

Paul (Teach Starter)

Hi Liz,

Thanks for your feedback! Please feel free to request a resource at our ‘Request a Resource’ page.

https://www.teachstarter.com/request-a-resource/

Requests are voted on by the Teach Starter community and we create the top requests. Please let me know if you have any further questions, I’m more than happy to help.

Paul (Teach Starter) · Mar 8th, 2021

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