Article #1
Building the Word Wall
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Through this weekly column, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share with you issues, concerns, and ideas about the 4-Blocks Literacy Model. I plan to gear this column towards what appears to be of interest in the dialogues of those enthusiasts who frequent the 4-Blocks mailring sponsored by Teachers.Net. Through this column, I hope to "hold hands" with many of you who are attempting for the first time to implement this new and exciting model. For those of you who may be in a later stage of implementation, I hope to clarify some of the intricacies and, perhaps, to share some new ideas with you.

For the "new kids on the blocks": Before we get started with the ins and outs of the model, let me take just a minute to brief the novice to 4-Blocks about what all the excitement is about. The 4-Blocks Model is an instructional model based on the premise that there are four basic ways that all children learn to read. The model ensures that all children will be exposed to all four methods every single day, addressing the individual learning styles and personalities of children. In brief, the four blocks of the model are Guided Reading Block, Writing Block, Working with Words Block, and Self-Selected Reading Block. The creator of the model, Dr. Patricia Cunningham, felt that it was possible to construct a balanced approach to literacy instruction that could address the individual needs of all children in a heterogeneous classroom setting, creating a real community of learners. Although the model was created for first graders, adaptations have been made to provide the continued balance for the diverse learners at other grade levels through middle school and beyond. Data has proven the model to be phenomenally successful even in its first year of gradual implementation. Teachers have reported being renewed by the model and have witnessed classrooms of re-energized students who are very actively engaged in the activities of the model.

Let's get started this week with a topic that has really had the mailring buzzing here at the beginning of the school year--the hows, whats, and whys of the Word Wall--

First, let's put the Word Wall in the context of the model. One of the blocks of the model is called Working with Words Block. That block of time, approximately 30 minutes, is comprised of two segments. The first of the segments, lasting approximately 10-15 minutes, is spent working with what's called the Word Wall. The Word Wall is an ever-present resource in the classroom to make high-frequency words accessible to students. These are FAQs from the mailring and my responses:

What words are selected for the Word Wall and why?

At the primary grades, the words on the WW are strictly high-frequency words. That means those words that students encounter most frequently in their reading and need most often in their writing. Some lists that Pat Cunningham has shared with us have strategically included high-frequency words that provide patterns that will enable students to spell other rhyming words (word families). Also, we want to have words under every letter of the alphabet, which is why you might see the word "zoo" on a WW. Some basal series are helpful in identifying high-frequency words that correlate with a guided reading selection. There are also reliable lists available for this purpose.

As the grades go up, the teacher should depend more and more on selecting words for the WW from the frequently misspelled words from students' writing. The words should still be words that most students encounter in their reading and need for their writing, although they may appear with less regularity than the ones on the WW at grades 1 and 2. Don't, however, clutter the walls with words that all of the students in the classroom know.

What does the WW look like and how do I make it?>

The words for the WW are displayed under letters of the alphabet, on a wall, in clear sight of all students. (The teacher should actually move around at kids' eye-level to be sure that nothing obscures the view of any word for any child.) Some teachers use one wall or section of a wall; some run the alphabet around the upper border of the wall just below the ceiling. The letters of the alphabet are displayed with capital and lower case side-by-side. Some teachers back the letters with notepad sheets in a cute shape, perhaps relaying a theme or mascot. The alphabet needs to be as linear/horizontal as possible. At first grade this is particularly important because these kids are just learning alphabetic principles and need to see the correct sequence. At other grades, the students are using the wall as a quick reference source and having the alphabet in a logical order will help them. (In other words, don't let your thermostat on the wall dictate the alphabet and don't rearrange it--it's carved in stone!)

Every week, the teacher will introduce 5 new Word Wall words. They will continue to be added to the wall until about mid-April when you'll stop adding new ones and concentrate on reviewing the 110-125 total words. (Pat Cunningham says to remember to stop on the day taxes are due!) The teacher's goal is to have all students know these words with some automaticity before going to the next grade level.

How do I construct the words for the WW? How should they look?

Each word for the WW must be written in large, legible letters, preferrably in the style of writing used by the children. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to get about three words to a sheet of paper 8 1/2 X 11. Some teachers use computer print in a very large font (200) when they find a font that is similar to a good model of writing. There is no need to have to use technology or to buy commercially prepared WW words; they're very easy to make with a wide black marker as well.

All of the WW words should be cut in the configuration of the word. This is an important clue for some visual learners in the classroom. It takes some extra time for the teacher, but it's time well spent (and remember that you only have to construct 5 words per week!).

It is very important to construct all of the words on a wide variety of colored paper. If you're printing your WW words on the computer, you'll likely print them on white paper. This will necessitate backing them with a color. My personal preference is to have the word on white paper and cut into the configuration, and then backed by a color of construction paper, providing a crisp contrast. It's not necessary to configure the backing.

If you're constructing your words directly on the colored paper, that's fine, too. Just cut that one piece into the configuration of the word.

One more thing that you'll want to add to make your Word Wall as useful to students as possible: designate which words will be the greatest help to them in their transfer to spelling many other words (word patterns/families). We usually place a sticker, an asterisk (on computer), or a star by these words.

What do I need to know about the different colors on the Word Wall? Are the colors important?

The colors on the WW play a critical role, especially for the emergent readers. The intent of the color is to help children distinguish similar words under the same letter of the alphabet. I can place a blue word under every letter of the alphabet if I want to. However, I want to avoid placing two blue words under the same letter of the alphabet. Some letters of the alphabet tend to have more high-frequency words than other letters, such as a, b, c, s, r, t, and w. If a child has trouble telling the difference between the word "were" and "where", the fact that one is blue and one is red will help the teacher point it out and will also make an impression upon the student who references the word frequently.

***In summarizing what to remember about the words: make them large and legible; cut them in their configurations; use different colors under same letters of the alphabet; and designate the pattern words.***

What do I do with vocabulary words that students might want to use in their writing? Can I place them on the Word Wall, too?

No! The WW is held sacred for high-frequency words at the lower grades and for commonly misspelled words that are used frequently at the upper grades. Use theme or cluster charts in the classroom to display other words that you feel students may want to use. Don't confuse students about the reason for the Word Wall. It is a constant resource for them because you will always expect them to use these high-frequency words correctly in their writing. You won't have that expectation of most content vocabulary words. Vocabulary is more a reading skill where meaning is important. Spelling is a writing skill. There is a difference!

Now we've talked about how to construct the Word Wall. There's a great deal more to learn about the daily routine of working with these WW words. Also, remember that working with the Word Wall words is only one part of the Working With Words Block. During another week, we'll discuss activities for the second portion of this block.

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