Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Hello folks.  Below is a recent exchange I've had with Melissa Sherman in Nashville.  She asked a bunch of smart questions about Word Walls, and as usual I have gone on at length but have no definitive answers, only my own experimentation.  I'd love to hear what others have to say about the process and application of Word Walls in the Real Spelling/Structured Word Inquiry context...




I really enjoyed reading your article on wordworkingston website. It reminded me of a passage from Debbie Miller's book Teaching with Intention. One exercise she suggests for teachers is to walk out then back into their classrooms and determine whether the space represents what they value as teachers. The pictures of your classroom certainly show yours. This is a great idea, and I found myself doing so after you suggested it. I am pulled in so many directions--my wife is a Waldorf teacher, and so I am constantly trying to imagine how I might bring that level of beauty and warmth to my space. Meanwhile the public system is constantly pushing me to fill the place with anchor charts and learning goals, which I support but can often make the place feel really cluttered. (And clutter is a way of life for me anyway). But trying to keep the stuff that goes up somehow reflective of our collective work is the goal anyway.  

I have been thinking about what additions/changes need to be made in my classroom to reflect my newfound knowledge, specifically the word wall i inherited. So I had been squinting at the photos of your word wall for awhile when I found your post on realspellers. (I can send you photos if you think this would be helpful).  This is my first year back in lower grades after teaching middle school for awhile so my ideas aren't completed vetted by children yet!

I am not sure of a single best way to organize a word wall. Arranging words alphabetically may be the best way in Grade Two, but it hung me up in Grade One because the kids don't have a grasp of the different graphemes. I think of <apple> and <all> and <day> and <read>.   Here is the <a>, but it is--quite normally--representing or helping to represent four different phonemes. I thought, well, every syllable has a vowel phoneme, and most of the words at this level are one syllable. So if I arrange them all by phoneme, then we can begin to gather the words and make discoveries about how different sounds are represented. Thus we have 10 sections--one for each of the "short" and each of the "long" vowel phonemes. Under each, we begin to gather and organize common words (this year, I am trying to focus on the "sight" words as our central collection, but there are others). As we encounter a word with a new grapheme, we might begin an investigation to see if there are others, or to figure out what the grapheme really is--such as we did with <igh>. Then, we add this to the wall. I have the stickies colour-coded, so that the words are on yellow, but the graphemes that head each column are blue. This way, I can say to a writer who is trying to form a word--what are our choices for that sound? (Yes, I should be saying "phoneme"--I'm getting there). Eventually, like this week, we add other sections for dipthongs such as <ow/ou> or others. In addition, during specific investigations we might have chart paper going upon which we can gather words. I began this year again with a <th> collection, simply to introduce the two core principles that a) letters can work in teams, and b) that these teams (hey--let's call them "digraphs"!) can often represent more than one sound. Thus, we had <the> and <with> as our sorting headings, and kids had to choose where to put the words according to the "sound" they heard.

 Last year while working with some older kids i realized that most of them knew the grapheme for long vowels, but didn't when to use which ones. I think a word wall as you suggest would be a great start for these students. I would love your thoughts if you have the time and inclination to respond:

As we gather the words, they become a rich resource for analysis, and the "which grapheme?" question begins to emerge on its own a bit: first, we begin to notice patterns about certain graphemes, such as the fact that <ay> seems to occur almost exclusively at the end of words, or that <e> on its own seems to occur only rarely outside small function words such as <he> or <we>. Also, a kind of graph emerges, demonstrating which graphemes are common and which are less common. This at least allows kids to make the best guess when they are writing. We also notice that some graphemes turn up in more than one column, or we add them as we discover--<ea> is a good example.   Finally, begin as soon as possible to gather homophones. These alone become the celebrated rationale for multiple graphemes, and often help us make the right choice.

 The reality is, of course, the choice between graphemes is a toss-up in some places. But if they choose <ee> or <ea> over a single <e> for instance, this is at least logical and readable, probably an improvement.

 I noticed you used red markers for some trigraphs. Would you see any value in writing the consonants in black and vowels in red to signify the importance of vowels? I do all kinds of things at different points, depending upon what I am emphasizing, but I have a hard time maintaining systems, or having the right coloured markers at hand. I would certainly spend some time on ensuring they know the vowels, but frankly it would make me crazy trying to shift marker every time. Depends on your focus. You may, for instance, be more interested in emphasizing base and suffix.


I was thinking that having students write the words would give them some ownership and make the wall more interactive (Perhaps an old Patricia Cunningham idea?).    Absolutely. I tend to write the ones that go on our actual word wall, just because we use it as a resource and so it is easier to read. (Also, because I found that the thing was unhelpfully filling up with zillions of stickies, as you predict below). But the kids use our Wonder Wall as their own domain for writing up questions and observations. This takes some training also--they need to make sure that what they write on the stickies makes some sense to others. In the beginning, the chart was just covered in random "letter teams"--without even the context of the word they were from. Gradually, they're getting the hang of it. Often a question or discovery will come up in our Guided Reading and they or I will suggest putting it on the Wonder Wall. Many times, the first step will be to share with the class and then add it. I will sometimes announce this as a new investigation ("keep your eyes open"), and if it is a concept I want to get to soon (dropping silent <e> for instance), I might designate a chart to the job.

 I was thinking about creating a smallish word wall as we go based on vowels, as you stated and making mostly anchor charts as different concepts are explored. So there'd be a c or k chart, a their/them/they chart, consonant suffixes and vowel suffixes... It would end up being more of a reference wall than a word wall. Yes! I really think, as you say above, that we need to create and own and use it together. And then of course it does work as a reference. I begin my year with a blank space, a framework. This in itself becomes a record of our learning, as the walls fill with our shared discovery.

 How do you choose words to go up there? I have a finite space and could see it getting out of hand quickly with students asking me if they could add a word.  Precisely! See above!

 I hope this doesn't read as a criticism because it comes from ignorance, not arrogance, but why do you have <a> under short a? As opposed to under long a you mean? Probably because of where I live (ie. my accent). Here in Ontario, <a> tends to be a short vowel sound, but in fact I guess it could go under both. I wonder where the word <play> would go in an Australian or Kiwi classroom?!   Under long <i>??

Do you keep "wonders" on your wonder wall after they've been explored? I try not to--I'm a bit scatterbrained though--better at launching than landing.

Thanks so much if you are still reading. Ha! Same to you!

Happy sailing! Stay in touch.



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