I always thought that word walls were, well … just walls of words. And I never found a wall of words particularly helpful for my students. Just because I posted the words on the wall didn’t mean that my students understood them any better or, for that matter, even looked at them.
Yet, as someone who has taught second-language learners and struggling readers, and has herself been a second-language learner, I know that having new words right in front you can be really helpful. Therefore, this year I challenged myself to create a word wall that would become authentically useful for my class. To do this, my students and I built it together over the course of the unit.
During this quarter, our class explored industrialization, capitalism, and worker’s rights through two case studies: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse. We opened the unit by reading the Dr. Seuss poem The Lorax, at my colleague’s suggestion, because it was a simple story that demonstrated the basic idea of what can happen when a society industrializes.
After reading the poem, I posted the words pre-industrial and industrialized on the word wall and gave students basic definitions for both words. With partners, they chose a quotation from the poem that they felt got at the essence of what the word really meant. Then, they wrote the quotations on post-it notes and placed them next to the words on the word wall.
From that moment on, we worked to expand our basic knowledge of those words while incorporating new ones. We added “industrial revolution” to our wall and followed this addition by discussing how to organize the words in a way that would make the most sense. These discussions forced students to support their ideas with their knowledge of the word. As I listened to conversation, I heard comments including, “pre-industrial should go first since it happened first” or “industrial revolution should be in the center because it is the most important since it is a big change that happened.”
As we added new words, both content and tier 2 words, we sorted and posted them around the three big words already on the wall. So, for example, we placed capitalism near to industrialized, since capitalism is the economy that arose during this era.
As we continued researching, reading, and exploring media, we ran activities that let us play with the words. In one instance, students were placed in groups in which they made a tableaux that had to demonstrate the essence of their word. This tableaux was photographed, “cartoonfied” and added to the wall to help us remember the meaning of the word, not simply the word-for-word definition. Eventually, we modified the tableaux protocol by using the app ComicBook! and turning the word into a three-image comic strip starring ourselves.
To help us memorize the words, we created flashcards with which we played vocabulary games including Quiz Quiz Trade and Vocabulary Connections. We added these cards to the wall as a resource for students who needed extra practice. As we used the words in our writing and speech, we documented models of correct usage and added those models to our wall. When we found a photo or read a poem that got at the meaning of the word, we posted it.
I knew that I wanted to capture my students’ opinions on the words they were learning, so we added an evaluation section to our wall. This section provided a space to share and discuss our different perspectives about the positive and negative effects of industrialization.
As our wall expanded, students would more frequently consult it to it while drafting their writing pieces or preparing for discussions. Our word wall became an interactive part of the class instead of a static list of words. It also transformed into an assessment tool that I used to understand my students’ thinking. Finally, it allowed my students to explore and play with words in a way that not only helped them understand and use new words, but also learn about the multiple perspectives surrounding them.