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Vocabulary Development through Word Walls

Big Idea

Children who are D/HH can learn vocabulary through interactions in print-rich environments, including the use of word walls. Word walls present printed words within different categories, such as theme-related words, high frequency words, or words with shared spelling patterns, in a visual display in the classroom.


Fact #1 brief explanation

The teacher must model how to interact with and use the information presented in a word wall (Harmon et al., 2009). For example, the teacher might make associations between words and their visual images (Sadoski & Paivio, 2004) or make connections to students’ previous knowledge and experiences (Brabham & Villaume, 2001; Harmon, Wood, Hedrick, Vintinner, & Willeford, 2009). Teachers might create word walls that contain:

  1. Words with the same initial sound (e.g., swim, summer, same).
  2. Words that relate to a genre, such as narrative elements (e.g., character, setting, event).
  3. Words from the same grammatical category (e.g., nouns, verbs, prepositions).
  4. Words that share a common handshape in sign language (e.g., onion, apple, key).
  5. Words that share spelling patterns (e.g., light, fight, right).

Supporting Fact

More than 10% of 4,000 typically hearing preschoolers who attended daycare were deemed “early precocious readers” because they could read more than five words on preprimer word lists and lines of text from The Runaway Bunny (Neuman, 2004). These students’ early reading abilities were attributed to print-rich environments found in day cares, such as word walls, print materials, props, etc. (Neuman & Celano, 2001).

Supporting Fact

Readers who struggle may benefit from systematic and explicit instruction that is personalized (Brabham & Villaume, 2001), such as personalized word walls displayed in the classroom or in individual transportable binders.


Brabham, E. G., & Villaume, S. K. (2001). Building walls of words. The Reading Teacher, 54(7), 700-702.  Explores how word walls and the activities related to them function as conversational scaffolds and as visual scaffolds that help students take control of literacy skills and strategies. Describes word walls. Discusses purposes they serve, how to use them with beginning, developing, and struggling readers and writers.

Harmon, J. M., Wood, K. D., Hedrick, W. B., Vintinner, J., & Willeford, T. (2009). Interactive word walls: More than just reading the writing on the walls. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(5), 398-408. doi:10.1598/JAAL.52.5.4.  This article reports on a study and subsequent vocabulary instructional framework involving middle school students' knowledge of word walls and the efficacy of this instructional tool for improving vocabulary knowledge at these grade levels. We investigated middle school students' perspectives and understanding of word walls by conducting individual interviews with 44 seventh-grade students in a suburban middle school. Then we developed an interactive instructional framework to accompany the word wall, which combined collaborative learning and student choice with research-based vocabulary practices. Working in groups, students made contextual connections with the words using colors and symbols and then presented their representations to the class. After the six-week intervention, our observations, along with the post-interviews with the students, revealed that the interactive word wall instructional framework is an engaging and valuable means of learning and retaining vocabulary and concepts for middle school students.

Neuman, S. B. (2004). The effect of print-rich classroom environments on early literacy growth. The Reading Teacher, 58(1), 89-91.  Discusses the effects of classroom environments abundant with print materials for reading on early literacy growth. Overview of studies conducted regarding early readers; Factors that affect the early development of reading skills and interests in children; Ways of supporting and encouraging early literacy.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1), 8-26. doi:10.1598/RRQ.36.1.1.  Finds striking differences between neighborhoods of differing income in access to print (books, signs, labels, logos, public places conducive to reading, and access to books in local preschools, school libraries, and public library branches), with middle-income children having a large variety of resources to choose from, while low-income children rely on public institutions which provide unequal resources across communities.

Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (2004). A dual coding theoretical model of reading. In R. B. Ruddell & N. J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th Ed.) (pp. 1329-1362). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.  The fifth edition of this reference continues the tradition of offering the highest quality research and representing the best scholarship in the field. The selected pieces, 70% of which are new to this edition, will help educators develop an understanding of reading and literacy research and the ability to apply that understanding in generating new research and informing instructional decision making.