Using Word Walls to Teach Tier 2 Vocabulary – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, direct vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical.

Getting Started

Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.

  1. The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart.
  2. Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
  3. Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
  4. Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.

What do you include on a Word Wall?

If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. I explain the three tiers in that post – something that you really need to understand to help your Word Wall be most effective. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.

If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.

As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.

Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.

Adding Words to the Word Wall

There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.

For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!

This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.

Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”

Student: Mountain?

Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.

Student: Hill?

Teacher: Right!

And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.

The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.

Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.

That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.

In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!

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