Replacing the Word Wall with a Sound Wall

sound wall

Teaching phonemes is essential in order to help students develop orthographic mapping skills. This post includes a teaching tool that you can use to explicitly teach the phonemes. Introducing… the sound wall!

UPDATE! I developed a digital sound wall for virtual classrooms. More info on that towards the end of this post 🙂

I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Mary Dahlgren, the president of Tools 4 Reading, present at the Plain Talk for Literacy and Learning Conference in New Orleans. She argues that word walls should be replaced by sound walls.

Why Should I Use a Sound Wall?

We learn to read through our ears—through what we hear. Proficient readers make the connection between print patterns and phonological information that is already stored in the brain in order to then make meaning of the word they’re reading (Moats, 2010). This is why explicitly teaching the phonemes is an imperative precursor to teaching the sound-letter correspondence. 

Additionally, if looking at it from the perspective of someone who is learning to spell, some words don’t make sense when categorized by their first letter on a word wall. For example, putting the word “the” under T or “write” under R is confusing! Categorizing them by their first sound is more natural.

But I Teach Upper Elementary…

In upper elementary grade levels, you may not need the consonant portion of the sound wall for all of your students. However, your students would benefit from the vowel sound wall. Multisyllabic words are analyzed during word study, and students must be able to anchor the spelling patterns to the vowel phonemes stored in their memory. This is why I broke up the sound wall into these two components (see below).

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    What is a Sound Wall?

    A sound wall is a space in the classroom to display the different sounds heard in speech. There are two parts of a sound wall that can be displayed: consonant sounds and vowel sounds. If you teach the primary grades, you should display both. If you teach the upper grades, the vowel sounds are more applicable.

    Remember, the focus is on the SOUND and not the letters. There are significantly more phonemes (44-ish) than there are graphemes (26), and it is important for children to learn the phonemes first in order to then develop an understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence. 

    Organization + Setup

    If you look up sound walls, you’ll find lots of ways to organize them. Dr. Mary Dahlgren suggests organizing them by manner of articulation and categorizing them by voiced and unvoiced sounds.

    • Voiced sounds use your vocal cords — if you place your fingers on your throat, you can feel your throat vibrate when you produce these sounds. Unvoiced phonemes do not use the vocal cords. For example, the sound /s/ is unvoiced, while /z/ is voiced.
    Along with each speech sound placed on the wall, teachers can add a few different things to support students.
    1. A photo of the mouth making the given speech sound. Consider taking a photo of one of the students’ mouths making the sound, this way they can see their peers on the wall.
    2. Pictures of items that correspond with the sound.
    3. Display words that contain the sound. Use the initial sound for consonants, and the initial or medial for vowels, and then highlight that sound in the word.

    Consonant Sound Wall

    To organize the consonants on the sound wall, arrange the sounds by complexity and manner of articulation. Start with the sounds that are produced at the front of the mouth and continue until you reach the sounds made in the back of the mouth. This is the progression.

    1. Stops – These sounds have an audible puff of air that is released, which is called an aspiration. For example: b, p, t, d, c/k, g. If you take the time to pronounce each of those sounds, you’ll notice that /b/ and /p/ start at the very front of the mouth with just the lips. Then, /t/ and /d/ move a teeny bit further back with the tongue just behind the teeth. Finally, the /k/ and /g/ sounds originate from the back of the mouth. 
    2. Nasals – Air can only escape through the nose when saying these sounds. For example: m, n, and ng. Hold your nose and try to say those sounds. That’s why these sound funny when you are congested. Teachers can post a picture of a nose as a visual. 
    3. Fricatives – These sounds are created when our mouths get narrow and we force air through the narrow passage. A “skinny stream” comes out. For example: f, v, th, s, z, sh, zh, and h. 
    4. Affricates – Get your mouth ready to say the word “trick” and put your fingers on the corners of your lips. Do you feel your lips getting pushed out? Affricate sounds are ch and j.
    5. Glides – These sounds glide right into a vowel sound. For example: w, wh, and y.
    6. Liquids – These are more slippery sounds that involve the tongue touching the top of the mouth. For example, the sound /l/ requires us to raise the tongue to the alveolar ridge just behind the teeth, and the sound /r/ requires us to curl the tongue.
    consonant sound wall

    My Sound Wall

    For my sound wall, I organized my sounds by manner of articulation, but I did not categorize them as voiced or unvoiced. As you teach the different sounds, talk about what makes a sound voiced or unvoiced.

    I also kept my cards small because the larger they are, the more space you need on your bulletin. The more space you need, the HIGHER it gets. I think it’s more beneficial and useable if it’s at the students’ eye level.

    Another note on teaching the sounds:

    Introduce and teach them in small chunks. Use sticky notes to cover the sounds that are not introduced yet.

    Vowel Sound Wall

    Many vowel sections are organized in a V shape and referred to as a “vowel valley.” I arranged mine as a row to make it easier to display (space-wise) and easier to add words underneath.

    Organize the vowels in order of mouth placement. When we articulate vowel sounds, our mouths are always open, but the position of the tongue and lips vary. Arrange the vowels in this progression:

    1. Vowel sounds that make our mouths say eeeeeee (like a smile) like a long e
    2. Vowels that make us open our mouths and say /o/ (like the doctor is looking at our throats) like a short a
    3. Vowel sounds that make us round our mouths and say /oo/ like a long u

    This is what that looks like: long e, short i, long a, short e, short a, long I, short o, short u, /aw/, long o, short oo, long u, /yu/.

    Outside of this string of vowel sounds, you should also include /oi/ and /ou/, and r-controlled vowels (ar, or, ur, ir).

    vowel sound wall

    Helping students develop strong phonemic awareness by explicitly teaching them that spoken words are made up of individual phonemes will help them be able to map printed letter strings to familiar phoneme sequences through a process called orthographic mapping. This is what helps us read by “sight.”

    Learn more about the way our brains learn to read here.

    Using a Digital Sound Wall

    Teaching virtually? No problem! I created a digital sound wall that is perfect for virtual classrooms. There is a main virtual classroom bulletin board display of all sounds. Each phoneme comes with two activities to help you teach the sound to your students. There is the “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” activity and the “Find the Sound” activity.

    Foundational Reading Skills Bundles

    Are you looking for effective teaching tools, student practice, and assessments that are simple to implement and that help develop your students’ foundational reading skills? We have you covered!

    These bundles include:

    • Word Work Student Pamphlets
    • Hands-On Word Work Activities
    • Digital and Interactive Word Work Student Practice
    • Sound Walls (Printable bulletin board + Google Slides)
    • Digital + Printable Spelling Tests (that assess patterns and sounds and not just memorization!)

    Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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