Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tips on Creating Content Area Word Walls

Do you have a word wall in your classroom?  Is it dedicated to high frequency words?  What about content area words and phrases?  What challenges have you had with supporting your students’ language growth visually in your room? 

When I was teaching, I struggled with the best way to use the wall space in my classroom. I had a “traditional” word wall on the back wall which held many of the high frequency words in English in alphabetical order. Other walls were dedicated to various content areas or particular projects we were working on in class.  My bulletin boards held student work samples and information about upcoming events.  While the various content area posters and visual aids were helpful for students, I always felt like I was missing something.  It wasn’t until I started providing professional development full time that I stumbled across the idea of a content area word wall.  Today I’ll share with you some of my favorite tips, tricks and links for word walls dedicated to learning the language of the content areas.

TIP #1 – Include phrases and even symbols on your content area word walls.  Yes, I realize that the name word wall is actually a bit misleading. But here is my point - while it may be true that your students know the words multiple, common and least as individual words, the phrase least common multiple has a very specific meaning.  Symbols can also be confusing for students, so include relevant symbols like ’ which is used in contractions or to show possession when writing in English (e.g. We’re going to Mrs. King’s room. ) but means foot in math (e.g. He is 4’ 10” tall).  The goal is to create a resource for your students to learn the specific and technical language of the content area.  So stick to the words, phrases and symbols that your students need to know in order to understand the curriculum.  Here is a website for making your own free word, phrase, and symbol cards.

TIP#2 – Illustrate each word or phrase, whenever possible.  If it can’t be illustrated, try providing an example or a synonym for the word.  You’ve heard the old saying a picture is worth a thousand words – that is the idea here.  Consider having students provide the illustrations or examples.

TIP #3 – Provide the word or phrase in your student’s native language, if possible.  This can be a wonderful instructional tool for students in dual language and bilingual programs.  It can also be a valuable way to support your students’ native languages in ESL programs, especially for those students who went to school in their home country before moving to the United States.  Many dual language and bilingual teachers have agreed to color code the languages throughout their schools.  For example, if the school colors are orange and purple then English is always displayed in orange on bulletin boards, word walls, etc. The non-English language is always displayed in purple.  Here is an example from a dual language school in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. 

TIP #4 – Decide on how to organize your word wall.  Take a look at how others have compiled and organized theirs. You don’t have to list the words in alphabetical order. Within each word wall, you can organize it by language (English words grouped separately from non-English words) or by topic (algebraic equations, geometry, probability).  There are advantages and disadvantages to each option.  Check out what some other teachers have done across the country. 

Whether you are packing up your room for the year or setting up for summer school, think about some different ways you can organize the information on your classroom walls.  Consider trying out a content area word wall in one or two subjects.  Let me know how it goes. 

Written by: Tammy King

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