Teachers Are Adopting Sound Walls Over Word Walls: Should You?

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Updated | 4 min read

You’ve seen word walls in classrooms for years, but is it time to add a sound wall to your classroom? Wait … what is a sound wall? An easy way to organize all those different sounds (also known as phonemes) for students, sound walls are taking elementary schools by storm.

But what is the purpose of a sound wall, and are they really better than word walls? We dug into the facts, plus have some tips on how to set up a sound wall in your classroom!

What Is a Sound Wall?

Based on the Science of Reading, a sound wall is similar to a word wall, but instead of hanging up vocabulary words, a sound wall is made up of the sounds/phonemes and letters/letter combinations that young learners will encounter as they develop their language skills.

A good sound wall will match those sounds or phonemes with the letters (graphemes) that make them when spoken out loud. A sound wall is typically set up in two sections, vowels and consonants. Each phoneme represented includes an articulatory photo or image reference as well as a list of words that clearly displays the different graphemes for each phoneme. By using articulatory images, children are encouraged to think about the place of articulation — in other words, what’s happening with their teeth, lips, and tongue when they are making a sound.

The goal is to help students make connections between the sounds their mouth makes and the letters that they read every day. You can think of sound walls as speech-to-print tools, while word walls are print-to-speech tools.

Download a free Science of Reading Decoding Strategy Bookmark and Poster set

Are Sound Walls Research-Based?

You might be feeling a little hesitant to jump on a sound wall train when word walls have been around for decades and have plenty of teacher fans. Is there really any research out there to back all of this up?

Well, yes! The Science of Reading research plays heavily into the sound wall concept. When a National Reading Panel convened by Congress reviewed how reading is taught around the United States, they determined that explicitly teaching students phonemes was a critical component of effective literacy instruction and the development of reading fluency. Sound walls were born out of this finding. They provide an understanding of the speech sounds that the letters represent, so children can match the letters to the sounds and read unfamiliar words.

Take our printable sound wall, for example. It’s made up of graphemes (and their corresponding phonemes) that your students are most likely to come across in the primary classroom, and it offers teachers the ability to add on as more graphemes are introduced.

Sound wall set up in a classroom

Teacher idea: When introducing a sound, why not take a photo of one of your students’ lips and use that for your display like teacher Stephanie Le Lievre did above?

Word Walls vs. Sound Walls

Of course, bringing up the topic of using sound walls has many teachers asking… but what about word walls? Should we drop them altogether?

Because word walls are typically arranged in alphabetical order, it can create confusion for primary learners — after all a word like “the” would be listed under the letter T in the alphabet, but young students may be confused as they’re looking for /th/. And what about she, which falls under S, not /sh/?

The sound wall does a better job for younger students, but the word wall does still have its place, especially when it’s used to introduce academic vocabulary for a particular unit, such as weather words for a science class, or introducing vocabulary around a particular holiday such as Presidents’ Day.

How to Build a Sound Wall

Thinking it’s time to build a sound wall in your classroom? You’re going to want to start slow — just as words are typically added to a word wall one at a time, you’ll want to add these little by little as you introduce them to your class.

sound wall in classroom

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 usually would in your classroom.
  2. Model the way you make the sound with your mouth.
  3. Have each student use a mini mirror to see what their lips, teeth, and tongue are doing when they make the sound.
  4. Discuss as a class what they notice when they are making that particular sound.
  5. Display a word for each spelling pattern seen for this specific sound (if students are ready for this).

We have set up these easy printable sound wall cards so that you can create four different sections, one each for a:

  • consonants sound wall
  • short vowels sound wall
  • long vowels sound wall
  • other vowels sound wall

 

Get more activities and resources created by teachers for your ELA (or ELAR) classes!

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