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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should We Build a (Word) Wall or Not?

April 21, 2021

Teacher question: What are your thoughts about sound walls and word walls? I don't necessarily think these would replace a word you? The video and training can be found here for sound walls. My response was this: I think for oral language, phonemic awareness and phonics the sound walls are awesome, and very helpful visually for beginning readers to unlock how sounds, symbols and words are put together. I think these types of walls would be seen more in PreK, K and maybe 1st grade in the first semester. A word wall can be a broad term that can include multiple ways of highlighting words in the classroom. They can be used to highlight word families, word meaning, word patterns for spelling and for affixes, or even vocabulary terms students have learned. Usually when I think of word walls, one of the main focuses is either patterns, or meaning.

Shanahan's response:

Word walls?… man, I saw a lot of word walls during the 1990s. Patricia Cunningham’s “four block” was very popular and many teachers (and administrators) thought the epitome of high quality teaching was best demonstrated by lists of alphabetized high frequency words hanging from the classroom walls (Cunningham, 1991).

To tell the truth, while I like many of Pat’s instructional approaches (like “breaking words”), I was not a big fan of word walls. The two major ways I saw them being used made no sense to me. Teachers, for instance, had students “reading” the words in unison to reinforce sight vocabulary. I put reading in quotes there because I’d watch the kids while they put on these performances. Often, they were mouthing without even looking at the words. Those word walls were an opportunity for the good readers to show off and for the poor readers to languish, a time waster at best.

The other popular use of the word walls was as spelling aides. During writing the kids could look up words they weren’t sure how to spell. In K-2 (the grades in which word walls were so popular), that’s not the best kind of spelling support. I’d much rather have kids try to spell words as they think they are spelled. That gives them a lot of practice with phonemic sensitivity and decoding/encoding and provides the teacher with diagnostic information. Copying spellings does little for building word knowledge.

Then I started to see some other uses for the word wall idea, often with older students. Those newer word walls focused on word meanings and I liked those a whole lot.

Your question, and those sound walls that you asked about got me thinking. As usual, my first concern was, “What does the research have to say?” That’s easy. Research is mute on this issue.

Although word walls have come in and out of fashion for 30 years, there isn’t a single published study on their effectiveness and the handful of relevant doctoral dissertations aren’t particularly helpful. I can’t tell you — based on any direct study — whether word walls, used in any way, are beneficial or not.

That’s important. What I will offer here will be opinions which may or may not be better than anyone else’s.

Let’s think about what a word wall may provide to learners.

A word wall can be just another display of information. Typically, such presentations list important points or reveal relationships (think of a list of classroom rules, a map of the United States with the states labeled, or a diagram revealing the parts of a cell or atom). That kind of thing can be a useful teaching tool, better than a whiteboard since it doesn’t have to be erased.

That, of course, was not what Pat Cunningham was going for. One of the ideas of the word wall was that it was developmental. It accumulated as kids learned — providing a motivational bump (“look at all the words you’ve learned”).

Teachers can provide a list of high-frequency words (e.g., the, of, is, are, to) or lists of words that demonstrate particular spelling/ pronunciation patterns (e.g., can, man, pan, fan), morphological elements (e.g., s, es, ed, ing), or semantic relationships (e.g., transportation, air, land, water, boat).

Such displays have value but no more than a typical bulletin board or chalkboard display.

I suspect those sound boards that you asked about are mainly useful as an accompaniment to teacher-delivered instruction (more on that in minute).

Another possible value is that word walls may serve as memory supports; lists of information students might need to turn to in a pinch. The use of word walls as spelling resources are an example of that, as are the manuscript and cursive alphabets that have decorated classrooms over the past couple of hundred years.

Word walls tend to be pretty lousy memory aids when it comes to word reading because they don’t pronounce the words for the kids. If I come to “the” and can’t remember what t-h-e says, looking to the T part of the list and seeing “the” on the wall probably won’t ring any useful bells.

The “sound walls” you asked about are proposed as memory supports, reminders to kids about how to articulate the proper phonemes (language sounds) for the proper graphemes (letters and letter combinations).

They are certainly more supportive of turning letters into sounds than a traditional word wall.

But as a practical memory aid, they’re weak (more useful for the teacher as a guide to presentation than to the kids as a guide to reading words).

I guess the idea would be that when a student comes to a challenging word, he/she could go to the word wall, find the right combination of graphemes and examine the pictures of the articulatory apparatus in the hopes that replicating that shape would lead to proper sounding out of that word.

My take?

That’s far too cumbersome as a memory aid — about as practically useful as the lists of 3-cueing clues that some teachers provide: “if you come to a word you don’t know, look at the picture. If that doesn’t work, read to the end of the sentence …”

The problem is that these steps are neither much like real reading nor practical as efficient scaffolds.

Memory aids need to be easy to access or people just don’t use them.

I love reading French novels on my Kindle because I can look up definitions just by touching the words. I don’t like reading the paper versions of those books because I can get no flow — having to look things up online or in a paper dictionary is likely more efficient than a “sound wall” but even then, too distracting and downright unmotivating.

I’d rather that kids keep track of words that gave them a hard time. Then I can guide them to decode those words successfully.

Beyond being displays that can accompany teacher presentations or memory aids that kids can turn to when in need, word walls have one more possible benefit; a possibility noted in your letter.

Word walls can provide valuable opportunities for learning or self-teaching, if you will. Usually this use of word walls has been reserved for vocabulary (word meaning) learning.

The distinguishing characteristic of this third type of word wall is not between word meanings and word reading, however. No, the feature that makes this third type of word wall so interesting and potentially valuable is the children’s role in constructing them.

These word walls not only develop or grow as new information is presented to the children, but the children do much of the construction work themselves.

A couple of examples should suffice.

The first I observed in a classroom in Joliet, Illinois. Many vocabulary programs introduce words as semantic sets (e.g., words that describe walking or talking or transportation). That approach requires a program with lessons structured in that way. This teacher wanted to emphasize those semantic relationships but didn’t have such a program. She found a way to use word walls to get the kids to structure that knowledge themselves.

Each week as the kids learned vocabulary from their reading anthology, the teacher had her students determine the categories the words belonged to. They posted the words in those categories and as new words were added, they either grouped them into the existing categories or came up with new ones.

This system was terrific because it required students to constantly review the vocabulary they were learning and to make decisions about word relationships (a lot of thesaurus work took place!).

Although the teacher could use this display as part of a teaching presentation or kids could employ it as a memory aid to improve the diction of their writing, its real use was as an opportunity to socially-construct and reconstruct knowledge across a school year.

(In case you wanted to do something like this, the teacher did not have the kids list the words, but they used manila folders as the categories and affixed those to a bulletin board.)

The second example I drew from a journal on science teaching (Jackson & Narvaez, 2013; Thomas, 2016). These word walls are essentially graphic organizers; visual scaffolds that demonstrate the relationships among concepts. Originally, the idea of a graphic organizer was as a previewing technique in which the teacher (or author) would introduce the big ideas and their interconnections prior to having the students read about those ideas. Research back in the 1960s and 1970s found that those kinds of organizers didn’t support comprehension much, but having students construct their own organizers after the reading was more effective.

These science word walls are just that, graphic post organizers constructed by the students as they learn the science content. Thus, the teacher provides categories that organize the information (such as REFRACT – REFLECT, or a MATTER wall that has columns for mass, magnetism, density, physical state). The kids then add visual information to those categories to provide definitions, examples, and explanations of those categories or concepts. They do this by writing their own definitions, drawing pictures, making three-dimensional physical models and the like — using the wall to construct a science vocabulary that structures their understanding of the underlying relationships.

What sense do I make of all of that?

The original idea of word walls and sound walls is to help kids to read words. However, neither research nor logic is very supportive of the ways those tend to be used.

When teachers transform the word wall into a construction site that allows students to explore and demonstrate their understandings of word meanings and their relations, the result is more in line with research.

I suspect that teachers could easily develop those more productive kinds of word walls with a focus on decoding and word reading. By guiding students to build sets of words organized by spelling patterns (e.g., cone, bone, phone, tone), complete with exceptions (e.g., one, done). You might turn to Words Their Way for ideas on how that might work (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2019). Or, you could use the kinds of morphological analysis devices (word sums and work matrices) proposed by Peter Bowers since they appear to provide a useful structure for helping kids to think about word pronunciations and meanings.

Word walls that give kids an opportunity to structure their understanding of a domain (including the domains of spelling, word recognition, and word meaning) — are special and well worth investing in. If you use word walls that way, then build that wall!


Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2019). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary and spelling instruction (7th ed.). New York: Pearson.

Cunningham, P.M. (1991). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. San Francisco: Addison-Wesley.

Jackson, J., & Narvaez, R. (2013). Interactive word walls. Science and Children, 51(1), 42-49. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from

Thomas, A. (2016). Naming the solar system: Implementation of vocabulary strategies to improve scientific literacy. Science Scope, 39(8), 45-52. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from

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