By the time students enter 3rd grade, they have most likely had four years of alphabetized word walls designed to help them learn their sight words. While this is useful for primary students, upper elementary students don't benefit as much from these types of word walls.
Ideally, by upper elementary - and especially 4th and 5th grade - word walls should be used to help improve student vocabulary or help them practice other word decoding strategies.
Since wall space was limited in my classroom, I wanted to make sure that everything I hung on the walls was useful and would be referenced repeatedly throughout the school year. I have tried out a variety of different word walls. Each had their pros and cons. The most useful word walls were ones that addressed a specific skill that my students were struggling with.
I never used completed word walls in my classroom, where all the words were already up on the first day of school. (Find ideas for preparing for the first day / first week of school here.) Instead, we added to the word wall regularly as words came up. Keeping the word wall top of mind with students will help ensure that they use it as a tool; otherwise it is just wasted wall space.
Below are some of my favorite word wall ideas for upper elementary. Most of these are just ideas, not an actual printable resource you can use in your classroom. You can find a huge variety of printable word walls on TeachersPayTeachers; however, I usually did my word walls old school – just writing a word on a half sheet of paper as we discussed different words.
Word Wall Ideas to Help Build Vocabulary
- Use your weekly vocabulary words to create a word wall. This is what I usually did, partly because it was easy and partly because my students really needed the extra vocabulary practice.
My district’s reading curriculum came with cards for each of our weekly vocabulary words, which made creating a word wall easy. However, I didn’t sort the cards alphabetically – I used the cards to practice other skills that my students needed practice with. For example, we usually started the year by sorting the cards by syllable. I had headings for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 syllable words. After we reviewed each word, I had the students hang it underneath the correct section so that we could reference the words and constantly go back and review them.
As the year progressed, I would change this into a Parts of Speech Word Wall. We would sort the words by noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. This helped reinforce grammar skills that had been taught previously in the year. You can expand this idea to practice other grammar concepts. For example, instead of having just a “Noun” section, you could have a “Concrete Noun” section and an “Abstract Noun” section. I would also recommend having a section for words that can have more than one part of speech.
- Math Word Wall – As you cover different math vocabulary each unit, hang the word up with a simple definition or drawing to explain the concept. (Or, have a student create the drawing and definition!) Then, make sure you have students use the correct academic vocabulary as they discuss certain concepts. One year I had a group of students that really struggled with the meaning of words like sum, product, difference, quotient, etc. Having something that they could continually reference really helped them, and it also helped remind me that I should be using that vocabulary regularly as well.
- Character Traits Word Wall – I found that my students regularly used boring words like “nice” and “mean” to describe different characters. Having a character traits word wall really helped my students to expand their character trait vocabulary. Read more about how a character trait word wall might help you out in your classroom, and get a free word wall printable here.
- Science/Social Studies Word Walls – As you cover different science and social studies units, hang up different vocabulary words you discuss. I have found that these types of word walls are most useful if you group words by topic. For example, after a weather unit, group all of your weather related vocabulary words together under a heading labeled “Weather.” Then, do the same thing for your next unit. Keeping these words up all year makes it easy to review different units with your students whenever you have a little extra time.
Word Walls to Help Students Become Better Decoders
- Phonics Word Wall – In an ideal world, upper elementary students would already have all of their phonics skills down. However, teachers know better than anybody that we don’t live in an ideal world. Having a word wall that addresses specific phonics skills that students struggle with can be a huge benefit to them.
One year, my district required that all elementary teachers put up a word wall sorting words by every single phonics skill. This was a bit overkill, especially for upper elementary students that didn’t need to be reminded about every letter sound.
However, my 3rd graders consistently struggled with r-controlled vowels and diphthongs, so I had a small section of the wall devoted to these specific phonics skills. The students found this very helpful as a reference.
Root Word/Prefix/Suffix Word Wall – This type of word wall could technically go in both sections because it can help build both vocabulary and decoding skills. As you come across words with certain prefixes, suffixes, and root words that you cover in your classroom, hang them up on the wall for continued reference.
Irregularly Spelled Words – This is the only word wall on the list that could be used like the typical alphabetic word wall. If your students are constantly misspelling certain words or asking you how to spell words, then you could create a word wall with irregularly spelled words for reference. However, this takes up a lot of wall space for something that is not really important in today’s word of spell check and online dictionaries. If you need a word wall like this, a portable word wall might be more useful. Read more about those here.
Whatever type of word wall you decide to have in your classroom, make sure you put some thought into what would actually benefit your students the most!
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