Do Word Walls Help the Flow of Class Conversation?

I know what I want to believe… I want to believe that they do. I really would like that. Part of me is a teacher-artist who loves the notion of students picking words off the walls to express whatever is in their hearts. The other part of me, the scientist-teacher, is doubtful. As it turns out, it was something I tried out while learning a new language (Japanese, my fifth language) that helped me re-examine how I use word walls. If you are looking to cut straight to concrete advice, skip down to the last section.

Where Words Walls Go Wrong

Most of my study of Japanese has been focused on online iTalki tutoring sessions with bilingual Japanese tutors and frequent reading of simple texts. I modify the CI activities presented in the CI Master Class so that my lessons are a lot like a CI class, except I have the notable disadvantage of not being guided by a CI teacher with detailed understanding of my own weak Japanese. Student interviews and creative activities like One Word Images are useful, but I struggle to reign in the conversation so that there is a heavy amount of repetition.

A struggle particular to learning an Asian language is learning to read the characters at the same speed that I can read letters of the Roman alphabet. とても should sound in my head like “totemo” the moment I look at it. In my case I am only concentrating on kana, which are far easier to master than kanji. I need to be able to sound out the words quickly enough that I can process a sentence for meaning rather than just sound. If you have ever worked with a young child learning to read, then you know exactly what I am going through.

To provide a scaffold to use during my online tutoring lessons I decided to make myself a word wall full of some of the high frequency words that appear over and over again in our lessons. I affixed the poster to the wall facing me so that I would be staring straight at it during our session. These were not new words that I had targeted to learn but rather words that had appeared organically in previous sessions and were already quite familiar. Keep in mind that the words written in the Roman alphabet, know as romaji, are transparent in meaning for me, so for me at my stage this really does work as a high-frequency word wall.

My primary goal was to be able to develop a visual recall so rapid that the reading part of our lesson would move forward smoothly. It did occur to me, however, that creating such a word wall might also help me be creative during the speaking parts of the class.

That is how I think most teachers expect students to use word walls; teachers create a list of target words hoping that students will gaze at the list while the teacher talks and then, when asked a question, the students will use the word wall to express something novel, compelling or adhering to the textbook unit.

Teacher: “What do you need when you play football?”

Student: “I need… (searches word wall)… a helmet.”

I hope it is clear from the above example that word walls do not always help students create compelling conversation or even express “what is in their hearts”. A conversation like the above in which nobody really cares about the information being exchanged is less conversation and more like a textbook drill. I think it is best to avoid that kind of approach!

What surprised me, however, is that my Japanese class still moved way too quickly for me to actually use the high-frequency word wall. I control the pace; I am the only student in the class. Yet I found it too confusing to switch between my tutor and my word walls. The only time the word wall was used was when I had significant time to gaze at the words and search for inspiration… which might happen in a classroom with 30 students but was nearly impossible in a one on one conversation.

You might react saying that, unlike our classroom word walls from first language to second language (L1 to L2), my word wall in romaji clearly prevented me from processing the meaning of the words quick enough to be able to incorporate them into conversation. Maybe. But I want to point out that kids– even adolescents– don’t process L1 at the same speed as adults. You should expect a delay in language processing speed if you expect students to read word walls during class.

Word Walls that Work

Word walls that work are used frequently by the teacher first, not the student. If you are not actively using the wall, you can be fairly certain that students are not using the wall either. Worse yet, most word walls reinforce the misunderstanding that we acquire language by studying discrete words rather than by understanding entire messages. A thematic list of words on the wall does not aid acquisition in the way that frequently using those words does. A list becomes visual noise for the student.

A word wall is half a tool, like a mechanical pencil without lead. The teacher must commit to supplying the other half of the tool: frequently using each word in a comprehensible, compelling context.

I post the Sweet Sixteen verbs in the 3rd person present tense and refer to them constantly. Even in upper level classes, if I say “Si pudiera comer” and that phrase was out of bounds, then I pause, point at puede, repeat the phrase si pudiera comer and then write “si pudiera comer if he could eat” on the board. The Sweet 16 verbs are my constant crutch as we are creating language. I gaze at them trying to figure out how to express our ideas using these highest frequency verbs.

Elementary school teachers often have many ways to skillfully extend the input, which is a wonky way of saying “using the same words over and over again in new ways (rather than introducing new words) so that students deeply acquire what they are hearing/reading”. Erica Peplinski is a master CI teacher who has posted a lot of activities that make use of word walls on her blog, Profe Peplinski.

I am usually hesitant about word walls that feature low-frequency words such as techo.***  Nonetheless if you have to teach a thematic unit and cannot spread out the words over the course of the entire school year, then a word wall can help you (a) keep those words alive and present throughout the unit and (b) satisfy the demands of an intrusive department chair who insists that every teacher in the department pay closer attention to the textbook sequence than student interest.

I also use this word wall (below) of characters created by Craig Klein Dexemple from These are definitely low-frequency words, but I use the wall 2-3 times a week when we are generating new characters for our class stories. This wall, along with the Sweet 16 verb wall, is an essential crutch for my students when they first start writing their own fluency writes.

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If you cannot force yourself to routinely use the word wall, I recommend that you skip it altogether and create a story wall instead (photo below). Walls with OWIs and their entire stories are the eye candy that students need when they are having a hard time focusing on class. Let them read the stories created by other classes and reminisce about their own classes greatest hits. Rereading is great for language acquisition.

My final conclusion is that, if you are going to take the time to construct word walls, be sure that you are using them. Students are busy processing language in class and, unless directed, most will not idly read the word walls. For those that do, it is better to have whole class stories posted rather than isolated lists of words.

A story wall that I built after creating four OWIs with my classes.

*** the word “techo” is common in level 1 textbooks but hardly a high-frequency word. It is #2925 in this corpus of highly frequent words compiled by the REAL ACADEMIA ESPAÑOLA. Many words appear much more frequently in natural conversation than techo; it would be more useful for students to be exposed to the highest-frequency words. Glance at that list and ask yourself, do my students get significant exposure to the top 500 words? Words like parece (#208), mayor (#116), and cuerpo (#250) are much more frequently used than amarillo (#3990), pantalones (#5392), or camina (#7250). Nonetheless the RAE list must come from sources that are higher register than everyday speech; in the RAE list the words país, gobierno and estado are all within the 104 most frequently used words in the corpus! Every word frequency list is particular to the corpus it comes from… imagine a corpus compiled from the works of Shakespeare and you’ll understand that a frequency word list is limited by its source material. To guide my own approach I consult a corpus of words made from movie subtitles, presuming that movie dialogue is closer to everyday speech than newspapers. If you want to check out a word frequency list for the language that you teach, look at this Wiktionary page of online word frequency lists.