Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bilingual Word Walls...Worth the Space?

Word walls...you either love them or you hate them! They are kind of like a pet. They require lots of care and maintenance and long-term commitment. The question is: Do word walls provide enough return on your investment? This is an especially key question for the bilingual and dual-language teacher because, in order to maintain a balanced language environment, it will be necessary to have TWO word walls.

Here are some pictures that I have taken over the years as I have visited various dual-language classrooms (the last two were taken at the very beginning of the year so no words had been added yet!):

I have had word walls up in my classroom every year that I have taught. However, during my first few years of teaching, I put all of the words up at once and hoped that my students would internalize the reading and spelling of these highly-frequent words by simply having them present in the room. Occasionally, when a student asked how to spell a word, I would point him to the word wall and say, "Well, it's on the wall!" and send him off to search. It was rarely a fruitful search and I began to question the point of a word wall.

I began my sixth year of teaching in a new district that placed a high priority on word walls. Before the school year began, I sat in a two-day training on Balanced Literacy and heard continuously about how the word wall was to be one of the anchors for my reading and writing throughout the day. I learned that I should choose just a few words each week to add to the wall. Every day, I should review those words, connect how those words might help us write other words, and discuss my encounters with those words during my shared reading and shared writing.

As school started, I began putting into practice my new learning about word walls and I was amazed. The more I interacted with the word wall, the more my second-grade students began to use it in their reading and writing. We would spend about five minutes every day (two days in Spanish and two days in English) studying the newly added words as well as the previous words. We chanted the words, wrote them on dry-erase boards, and played various brief games to continue to familiarize the students with the words and their locations. Throughout the rest of the day, word wall words continued to magically appear as we read during guided reading or in the content areas. As we wrote, we found that those same word wall words were incredibly necessary to practically anything we wanted to write.

So, yes, I believe word walls are worth the space. I especially believe they are worth the space in dual-language classrooms. As my supervisor often used to say, "Dual-language education is an enrichment program, not a remedial program." Our students are learning twice the amount of words in the same amount of time as the general education classroom learns one. Word walls provide an organizational structure of support for our students as they take on this challenging task.

All of the pictures above were taken from a district that required red to be associated with the Spanish word wall and blue to be associated with the English word wall. In one of my favorite articles about bilingual education, Samina Hadi-Tabassum writes "Learners more easily become bilingual when they connect each language to a separate context." In her article "The Balancing Act of Bilingual Immersion" in Educational Leadership (Dec. 2004/Jan 2005), she discusses different ways to separate languages for instructional purposes while at the same time encouraging students to consider mediation and transference between the two (or more) langauges. Having separate word walls that are organized similiarly helps to do that. Young students can begin to see that they must turn to the English word wall when writing a piece in English. Yet, they can also notice that, while both word walls are organized in the same fashion, the Spanish wall has letters which the English wall does not.

If you feel your word walls are more wallpaper than instructional aids, consider whether you are making a big enough deal about them. Yes, they do require daily care and maintenance, but they can become a second-teacher in your classroom for your students. Can you really put a price on that?


  1. I really appreciate you posting this.
    I am preparing to teach my son basic Spanish and French and I think this wall will really help in his room at home.

  2. Thanks for the input! But what do you think about combining both languages in one word wall? I am in the habit of writing both words, especially close cognates, stacked vertically above one another to point out the similarities. I also just might not have room to make it happen with two separate word walls in my classroom. One wall is nearly impenetrable except with a powerful staple gun, which is a hassle to maintain and remove items from. Tape doesn't stick so well either.

    -Nick, fourth grade dual immersion teacher.


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