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Editors Note: This post was updated 8/8/2023

Discover the transformation of traditional Word Walls into effective Sound Walls in this insightful blog post. We journey from nostalgic memories of the past to the realities of misconceptions around Word Walls. Explore the shift towards Sound Walls, where the focus on articulation, phonemic awareness, and speech-to-print learning empowers students to connect sounds and letters authentically, fostering a stronger foundation for literacy.

Reflecting on the Tradition of Word Walls

Word Walls: They’ve been around for as long as most of us can remember. I can clearly recall those hot August days, standing on a desk or a chair reaching for the bulletin board hoping there was enough space to staple all 26 letters…who needs xyz anyway? I loooooveed my word wall. It played a very important role in my classroom and I truly believed I was helping students learn to read and write words. We would learn 5 new words each Monday. During the week we would chant the letter names, frame the words, play games and on Friday I would assess students and we would place the new words on the word wall. As we placed the new word on the word wall, we would listen for the first sound in the word, find that letter and staple the new word on the word wall.

Now, did that process always work? Not exactly. Many times, a word would begin with a letter that didn’t make the sound we heard. For example, listening to the word ‘she’, we heard /sh/, not /s/ or the word ‘know’, we heard /n/ not /k/. The word ‘our’ or ‘hour’? Forget it. I would explain these words were “rule breakers” – we needed to “know them by heart/sight” and not sound them out.

The Word Wall Experience: Nostalgia and Realities

While my word wall was interactive and added to throughout the year, I saw many classrooms with a word wall that was more like wallpaper than a learning tool. I truly believed my word wall and the practice students were engaging in was helping them become strong readers and writers. Little did I know how wrong I was! Asking students to recall how to read and spell a word based on letter names rather than sounds was like asking them to memorize a suggested password. There is nothing to anchor the learning, and that’s not the way our language works.

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Initial Perceptions of Word Walls as Effective Teaching Tools

A word wall is organized alphabetically using all 26 letters of the alphabet. We place “sight words” or “high frequency words” (and sometimes even content words) under each letter based on the first letter of each word. We sometimes frame the word, talk about “tall letters, letters that fall” and so on. Sometimes we add to the word wall throughout the year, teaching students to chant words by letter names and other times we just place a bunch of words on the wall at the beginning of the year and we don’t do much with the word wall at all.

Word Wall in Alphabetical Order

The Limitations and Flaws of the Traditional Word Wall Approach

When we think about a word wall, it is driven by the teacher’s point of view. As teachers, we know and understand all of the different spellings of sounds, and so we place the words under the letter a word begins with because we can locate the words that way. This isn’t the case for students. If students do memorize a word, they are able to read and spell only that word. The process does not help students learn to read new, unfamiliar words.

Working with word walls is print-to-speech. We find the print/letter first, and then we match the sound. Our language is speech to print. We hear speech sounds before we learn to match the sounds to a particular letter or letter patterns. For example, a child can hear the 2 sounds in the word know (/n/ /o/) before he/she can use 4 letters to spell the word know. This may be why Word Walls are often abandoned in classrooms, taking up space, looking pretty, but not really being used. As Dr. Tracy Weeden said so well, “We have to strategically abandon what’s not working.” – and word walls don’t work.

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Word WallSound Wall
Organized A-Z, alphabetical Organized by speech sounds
Teacher POVStudent POV
Print – SpeechSpeech – Print
Dependent upon teacher supportIndependent   
Focused on lettersFocused on phonemes and articulation
Focused on one wordFocused on transfer of skills to multiple words

Explore Heggerty’s new Bridge to Reading Foundational Skills kit! Bridge to Reading includes 44 Sound Wall cards representing every phoneme in the English language. Click here to view a sample of Bridge to Reading.

The Shift to Sound Walls: A New Perspective

So, how do we support students learning those tricky words or high-frequency words? The answer is Sound Walls. Not only do sound walls support students with learning high-frequency words, they support students in retaining and learning to read unfamiliar words on their own. A sound wall does the work of matching our articulation of speech sounds/phonemes to the letters/graphemes that represent those sounds. The English language has 44 speech sounds/phonemes, 26 letters to represent those sounds/phonemes, and over 200 different ways to spell those sounds! When we think about the way our learners perceive the words they hear in speech, a sound wall makes sense.

What is a Sound Wall?

A sound wall supports students by focusing on the articulation of sounds/phones and the various letter/letter patterns that represent the sounds/phonemes in words. This is important because when we hear language, we hear words as whole units. The sounds/phonemes in words are co-articulated. We don’t /s/ /p/ /e/ /k/ in phonemes. Speaking is natural and something we can learn to do by being immersed in language. However, reading is not natural. We need to explicitly teach students to hear the individual phonemes in the words they hear in language. We also need to assist them in producing the individual phonemes in words. Helping students recognize the way their mouth feels and looks when producing sounds will help them connect speech to print.

Bridge to Reading includes 44 Sound Wall cards representing every phoneme in the English language. Click here to view a sample of Bridge to Reading.

Organizing Sound Walls by Speech Sounds and Articulation

When we listen for the phonemes in a word, we can use a sound wall to identify the different ways to spell the sounds. For example, the word ‘know’ on a word wall would be placed under the K. However, on a sound wall, a student could listen for the sound /n/, find that sound organized by the articulatory gesture and identify the ways to spell that sound: n, kn…even gn or pn. While those spellings of the sound /n/ may not be as frequent, we are supporting our learners and giving them tools to apply these spelling to new words.

When viewing sound walls you will often find pictures of students’ mouths next to each sound. This helps clue students in to what their tongue and mouth are doing when producing a sound. This is how learners perceive the sounds in the words they hear. They pay attention to the way their mouth feels, looks and acts when producing sounds. This helps them concretize and connect the sounds they hear with the print that represents them.

A sound wall is organized by the place and manner of articulation. You will often see two walls in a classroom. One wall for consonants, supporting students in thinking about the individual sounds they hear in words. The second wall for vowels, visually represented in the shape of a valley to mimic the change in position of our mouths and shift in our jaw when producing the vowel sounds. While we only have 5, sometimes 6 vowel letters, those letters represent 18 vowel sounds. Students are explicitly taught how to hear the different types of sounds, as well as to recognize voiced and unvoiced sounds.

Enabling Students to Connect Phonemes to Graphemes

These specifics are keys to helping students connect the phonemic awareness skills to print. This process allows students to navigate a sound wall independently. They can hear the sound, feel it on their mouth and locate the spelling. A sound wall is created from the student point of view rather than the teacher’s. This instructional tool creates opportunities for students to learn many words by transferring the knowledge of sound-grapheme correspondence to many words, rather than just one, as is often the case with word walls.

Manners of Articulation ExplanationExample Sounds
Stop/PlosivePuff of pair, blockage in some part of the mouth. Cannot continue or stretch the sound./b/
NasalSound passes through the nose.
Try pinching your nose and saying the sound /m/.
FricativesFriction is caused through lips, air, tongue or teeth. Can often be described as a hissing sound./f/
AffricatesBegins as a stop but releases as  a fricative. /ch/
GlidesSound glides into another phoneme, making it hard not to add the schwa onto the end: /yu/, /wu//y/
LiquidsTongue causes partial closure of the mouth. Push of air can cause liquid to move throughout the mouth./l/
An illustrated poster titled 'Vowel Valley' for a literacy foundational skills curriculum. The poster features a vibrant and colorful valley scene with rolling green hills and a clear blue sky. The vowels are adorned with playful characters and objects that start with the respective vowel sound. This engaging visual aids in teaching vowel recognition and pronunciation in a fun and interactive way.

Heggerty’s Bridge to Reading Foundational Skills kit includes one Vowel Valley Poster to help students bring awareness to mouth placement and help children produce and differentiate vowel sounds. Click here to download the complete Vowel Valley poster!

Embracing Change and Growth

As educators and parents, we all want what is best for students. We always act in the best interest of our students and teach what we believe to be effective and essential. What we also know is, many of us were not prepared to do the work we are being asked to do. There are many practices I look back on and wish I could go back and change. I am committed to continue learning and growing, and with that comes change. I hold fast to the #knowbetterdobetter motto. If you are reading this blog and thinking of all of the years you have used a word wall, don’t feel bad – instead, now that you know better, do better.

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  1. Janet Cedillo 1:33 pm on August 23, 2021

    Do you have this word wall for Spanish?

    • Erica Suarez 10:42 am on February 18, 2022

      Hi Janet,

      I am one of the Dual Language literacy specialists for Heggerty. The resources that we shared in this blog post come from many different places, such as Tools4Reading. One place I have seen great resources and conversation around sound walls in Spanish is on the Facebook group for SoR Bilingual Education.

  2. Rebecca Womeldorf 5:09 am on November 29, 2021

    Where does the word “are” go on a sound wall?

  3. Teacher Christine 6:16 pm on January 10, 2022

    Hi Marjorie,
    This is amazing. This makes so much sense to me! I teach 4/5 but the kiddos are pre-K to 6/7 in academic ability. This type of wall would have help for all of them.
    I didn’t end up setting up my word wall as I couldn’t imagine how it would be helpful for such a large range of students. I can totally see how this sound wall would work.
    Do you remember all those times in elementary and high school when you’d ask the teacher how to spell something and they’d say “look it up in the dictionary” and then you’d have no idea where to start? These are the starting points! yay!

    Do you have printable resources for these? I am so excited!!!!!

    • Marjorie Bottari 10:17 am on February 18, 2022

      Yes, Christine – I remember being referred to the dictionary quite often! 🙂 I am glad this was helpful! Tools4Reading: has a ton of great printable resources!

  4. Kelli Tetterton 9:28 pm on February 9, 2022

    My Old, Outdated, Word Wall was given the Pink Slip and the New and Improved Sound Wall implemented this year in my kinder classroom! #GAMECHANGER 😉

    Would LOVE it if you could make this article (as well as many others) printable! Is that an option? Thanks for considering my request! ~ Ms. D🌸

  5. wanda boykin 1:56 pm on August 4, 2022


  6. Christine Falvey 9:40 am on June 30, 2023

    found this to be very helpful not only for me, but the children.

    • Brittany Snyder 10:27 am on July 28, 2023

      We are so happy to hear you found this post to be helpful, thank you to your dedication to teaching!

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