10 Ways to Use a Word Wall for Vocabulary Aquisition

Find out how middle and high school teachers can create a literacy-rich environment and accelerate vocabulary acquisition.Why do we teach vocabulary? 

Because studies prove that a student's vocabulary is the best predictor of academic success.


I have grown to LOVE using word walls in my middle school classroom, and they are quite effective in enhancing vocabulary acquisition. 


(I must admit that my words almost got me in trouble last year when the new fire marshal issued me a "ticket" because I had words displayed within three feet of the ceiling and two feet of the door. Hmph...Isn't that a bit much? The old fire marshal never had a problem with them; I guess he was pro-word. This one must be pro-pantomime.) 

Word walls are no longer just for elementary school. More and more middle and high school teachers are using word walls as awesome content area tools to engage our friends and create a literacy-rich environment.Read about 10 easy ways to use word walls to create a literacy-rich environment and accelerate vocabulary growth.


Word Walls: Make Them Interactive & Give Them Purpose

We want kids to engage with the word wall. It shouldn’t just be decorative. Giving kids a reason to engage with word walls gives them purpose for being in the room. Word walls aren’t just posters. They are learning tools and we have to USE them.

Here are 10 great ideas for using word walls in a middle school classroom.

1. Personal Word Wall

Here are 10 great ideas for using word walls in a middle school classroom.

Begin by giving students an organizational handout that they can use to make their own personal word wall. I like to tell kids that once they use a new word it’s theirs to keep. A mini word wall is a wonderful source of reference for students to use when reading and writing. It is also perfect if wall space is an issue, because you can change the words without the risk that students will forget them.

It’s great to watch students reference their personal word wall. I like to use foldable notes, like the one at the right. Folding notes make the word visible, but not the definition. Kids can then use the notes to quiz themselves. If you don’t use foldables, a worksheet with boxes is fine. Make the boxes large enough so students can add visuals if they learn better this way.

I call our word notes the “mini wo-wa.” The kids like when I make words up, and they are much more likely to use it if it has a silly name. It’s pretty common for me to hear a student suggest a classmate add a word to his “mini wo-wa.”

2. Include Definitions

Word walls work best when definitions are included. They become a huge dictionary that students can refer to when reading and writing. Many teachers think that the definitions don't have to be included, but experts say they do.

Imagine this. You are eager to learn Greek, so you enroll in a beginner Geek class. In the classroom, Greek words are hanging on a bulletin board. Just the words. There aren't any illustrations or familiar text to accompany them. The teacher is speaking Greek and expects you to participate, using those Greek words on the board.

The teacher asks for someone to share the name of their skýlos. You think you remember what a skylos is, but you're not totally sure. Is it your dog? You think so, but you're not positive. Is it your town? Street? Now you start to sweat, wondering if the teacher will call on you. Luckily, someone else remembers that a  skýlos is a dog.

You would have been much more confident participating if you had been able to look over at your life-sized dictionary. And eventually, those definitions will sink in.

3. Refer to the Words

During instruction, use your best Vanna White arm-sweep and refer to the words frequently, so students begin to understand their relevance. Our friends will learn that the words aren’t chosen arbitrarily. Referring to the words also allows kids to make a visual connection between the word and its use.

4. Add Visuals

Assign kids to find or draw pictures that illustrate the word for homework and then add them to the word wall. This ensures that the kids are thinking about the words outside of class. The pictures also add an important visual quality.

5. Use a Concept Wheel

A vocabulary concept wheel is a great graphic organizer you can use to promote vocabulary acquisition.It allows students to build meaning for themselves.
Click to Download this Vocabulary Concept Wheel

A "concept wheel" is another popular graphic organizer you can use to allow students to build meaning for themselves. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Divide the circle into four parts. In the first part, "Biff" writes a word he would like to understand better. In the second part, Biff brainstorms a list of words he thinks of when he hears the word in the first box. In the third is the denotation, or formal definition of the word. In the fourth section, Biff paraphrases the definition. On the bottom, Biff writes a sentence in which the word is used correctly. Students learn best when they "construct" meaning of words on their own.

6. Become an Expert

Place students in groups of three or four and assign each student one or two words to become an expert on. You can Jigsaw the activity by allowing the experts to work with experts from other groups, if you’d like. Experts have to determine the best way to teach the rest of the group about the word. They can employ visuals, act it out, provide examples, or play a game. When the experts go back to their original group, they will teach their group all about the word.

7. Create Word Art

Create Word Art for Vocabulary Acquisition:  Encourage each student to choose a word and then create a visual representation of the meaning of the word. They might even create it using the letters of the word. 
For our visual artists, encourage each student to choose a word and then create a visual representation of the meaning of the word. They might even create it using the letters of word. For example, in the image above, the word "conflict" looks like it's fighting, the word "impact" is crashing into a wall.

I have found this to be an excellent hands-on way to teach new words to older students. It gives them the spelling and the meaning of the word all at once and helps quicken the transition of the new words into long-term memory. The kids love doing the hands-on art work and seeing what others have created. Each word is created on a half sheet of regular copy paper and by the end of the school year we have some cool art to add to our word wall.

8. Matchmaking (or as I call it, Wo-Wa Speed Dating)

Each student is given a word and an index card. They write everything they know about their word on the card, definitions, examples, everything. They then rotate, sharing the word card with a partner. Together, the two decided on a commonality or relationship between their words.

Impose a predetermined time limit, so students can move on, but before they do, randomly ask one group to share their findings with the class. If your friends are like mine, they are much more likely to stay on task if there is a chance they will have to be accountable for sharing their findings.

9. Write a Poem

Ask students to write a poem using as many word wall words as possible. Alternatively, task students with creating an extended metaphor poem about one of the words.

10. Word Ad

In this variation of Become an Expert, a group is assigned a word or two to teach the rest of the class. They should begin by brainstorming all possible uses of the word. Then they create a skit in which they “sell” the word to the class.

One of the best word ad skits I’ve seen took place during our study of nonfiction terminology. One group was tasked with creating a sales pitch for the word graphics. To start their presentation, the group read some instructions for assembling a swing set, and when they got to the part about requiring nails, brought out manicure supplies. The class quickly caught on the importance of including visual representations, especially when writing informational text, such as Feature Articles.

How to Get Started Using Word Walls

First, let's go over the three tiers of vocabulary words.

Find out how word walls can help you teach Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary words!

As an ELA teacher, I begin the year by hanging Tier 2 testing "power" words. These command verbs are the KEY to successful test-taking, as students will come across them on virtually every test they will ever take every subject.

Middle school teachers can use word walls to enhance vocabulary acquisition.
Middle school teachers can use word walls to enhance vocabulary acquisition. I also hang Tier 3 literary terms, because we begin the year by studying fiction and narrative writing. I recommend beginning the year by displaying high-frequency words used across content areas, and words that are commonly used in your first unit of study.

By the time we are ready to move on to nonfiction, the kids are familiar enough with the literary terms, so I take them down and add our nonfiction words.


Middle school teachers can use word walls to enhance vocabulary acquisition.

Recommendations for Displaying Word Walls


Do laminate the words, if you intend to have students manipulate them.

Don't make the same mistake that I did last year when I decided to become Mrs. Glossy vonBlindyou. Our laminated words were so shiny that there was a bad glare at certain times of the day. I'm pretty sure I temporarily blinded at least one kid. Lesson learned: I should have made them matte.

As for display, the words don't have to be displayed on a bulletin board. If space is an issue, hang them in various places around the room. If space is not an issue, good for you! I won't let my...sniff... jealousy get in the way of our blossoming friendship. ;)

If you have other ideas for using word walls, please share! I'm always looking for new ways for my students to interact with vocabulary words.

2 comments

  1. I LOVE your word wall ideas. I have put up a "border" at top of EACH wall - one is transitional words, one is quality adjectives, one is ly adverbs, last one is strong verbs - the "wall borders" work as a thesaurus for our writing.

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  2. LaDaryl, I LOVE that idea! Now you have me thinking. Maybe I can try making them borders also. Then I won't even have to change the words, I might be able to span the entire perimeter of the room. Thank you for sharing this awesome idea for word walls!

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