Monday, August 24, 2015

Three Ways to Get Your Students to Really USE Your Word Wall

Hi, Teaching Friends!

Has this ever happened in your classroom?

A month (or three, or five...)  after learning a sight word that you all read and write every day, a sweet little struggler comes up to you and asks, "How do you spell the?".  After a massive internal effort to stifle a sigh, you ask your student, "What could you do to help yourself?", because building independence is what we're all about and because, well ... it's the, after all, and if this little one can't remember this one, he'd better be developing some good coping skills to find another way to spell it (besides asking you or his buddy in the next seat over!).

Of course this has happened to you, because it's happened to all of us. No matter how much singing,-stomping-skywriting-magnetic letters-shaving cream-chalk-necklace-crown-alphabead time and practice they have, some students will struggle with long term retention of words, especially with new words being added to the word wall each week. The word wall is a great tool for all of our students, but it's a potential lifesaver for these kids.

So, how can we make the word wall something that they'll automatically turn to and use effectively?

Here are three steps that I've found to be helpful for all students, but extra-important for those who are struggling with getting started  with reading and writing.

The word wall will be an immense meaningless piece of wallpaper to your students without this step.
Start your year with an empty word wall and add words gradually. {Yes, I've actually seen first grade classrooms where a complete word wall emerges complete overnight, or even worse, before the first day of school. Can you imagine how that shuts down a non-reader's brain?}

Add your words slowly and as you review them each day, stand near and point to each word you review, or bring out the bling-y pointers and let your students do the pointing. Enforce this teaching with think-alouds: "Hmmm, the word is we. When I stretch the sounds, I hear the sound of /w/ at the beginning, so I know I need to look for w on the word wall. I need to think about where w is in the alphabet." Giving  students a chance to model their thinking aloud will help you assess their understanding.

Here's a way to add another layer of student involvement to building your word wall together. Use student pictures to create your word wall headers, like the ones below.

(My apologies for the quality of this graphic. I've learned at least a few things since I posted this three years ago! So much more to learn...)

As you add each word card to the wall, take time to hand spell, whole body spell, air write, sing it, etc. Involve every part of the brain in learning each new word. Also, be sure that your students'
eyes are focused on your word card  (better yet, do it up big on your board or screen!), and point to each letter as you all say it aloud.

Dramatic fun is another way to increase your students' control over the word wall as a classroom reference.  With every one of the first ten or twenty words and occasionally after that, try saying something like, "Okay, so here's "am".  I think I'll put it right here!", pointing to another place besides the A section.  Moans, groans, "nooo! nooo!" ... well, then tell me where it does belong. Why?  Some strugglers may not connect the fact that the words are organized by their first letters unless you are explicit in your teaching.

There's also value in practicing word position in a larger sense, the extra step of asking whether the word belongs at the beginning, middle or end of the word wall. An easy way to provide a visual support for this concept is to place a small colored dot on or near each header (e.g. red for a-h, yellow fori-p, and green for q-z)  When your word wall is eventually full, this will help your little learners narrow the search! :) Bonus: this will also pay off when you begin to teach alphabetical order!

Remember that little guy back in the beginning of this post who was struggling with the word the?
The more you incorporate using the word wall into your instruction, the more likely it will be for him to even consider using it as a tool for his writing.

Plan activities that will force your students to use the wall, because good habits take lots of practice!

* Play Simon Says: "Point to can", "Use your left hand to point to no", "Jump three times and point to my." Follow up each command with "Let's spell it together!" This is another opportunity to use those word wall chants kids love, like these freebies from Kindergarten Squared.

* Play "1,2,3, Point with Me!"  A student leader chooses a word on the word wall, calls out "1,2,3, point to ______ with me!".  Students all point to the correct part of the wall and then the leader uses a pointer to lead them in spelling the word aloud.

* Use riddles! They are my answer to so many things, I know, but kids sure do love them!  This set will get your students thinking about the details of 24 kindergarten sight words (details like initial sound, rhyme, letter size, making sense in a sentence), but also includes clues like "my word is near the end of the word wall" and "my word starts with the same sound as watermelon". The more ways that children can connect new learning to prior knowledge, the quicker mastery will happen.
... or click here to buy both sets bundled and save!

You wouldn't just hand a power tool to someone and expect them to use it without instructions, right? The same is true for a word wall.  Give your students lots of direction and practice, and you'll see them really using it, automatically and effectively!

Happy Teaching!

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