Content area reading skills: The power of word walls + 3 ways to make your word walls interactive!

Teaching science or social studies in middle school means you are a content area reading teacher. Can this be a struggle? Yes! Maybe you’ve introduced a simple article on GMOs and suddenly found that your students didn’t know the meaning of the words, “crops” or “pesticides.” When this happens, it’s important to reflect: Am I teaching vocabulary skills in a way that helps students grow as learners?

One of the most under-utilized and most effective tools at your disposal is an interactive word wall. Posting clear images with your vocabulary words and definitions, then integrating vocabulary skill activities is a first step in supporting your kids in learning new content area words. But they won’t use a word wall if you don’t encourage them to!

You need to start with the basics: what should you include on your word wall? Build your word walls in any available spaces in your classroom. Use cabinet doors, that space under the classroom flag, or a bulletin board to create a cohesive space. If you don’t have a real bulletin board, use butcher paper and some border as a background for your word wall. 

If you want an easy word wall hack that helps you more efficiently post your vocabulary words, try plastic paper protectors. You can staple or tape the paper protectors to the wall once, then rotate the vocabulary words as your unit changes. It also saves you from having to turn on the dreaded laminator! 

Making the vocabulary pages that build your word wall can be quick and easy, or you can find already made ones online (thank you, Teachers pay Teachers!). Here’s the anatomy of one page of  vocabulary I made:

The anatomy of a vocabulary word on a word wall

It’s important to see a word wall as a resource, not a colorful display. Here are my top three ways to make your word wall more interactive:

  1. Students won’t use the word wall if you don’t acknowledge its existence. When students are working on vocabulary worksheets or nonfiction readings and encounter one of your content-area vocabulary words, refer them to the word wall. Once students see your word wall as a helpful resource, they’ll access it regularly to independently support their learning. You’ll feel like a genius for keeping kids off of Google for college-level definitions that don’t help build their science vocabulary!
  2. Use active warm ups to kick off your class. Make your bell-ringer more active by encouraging kids to read the room. Give students 5 minutes to find words with different criteria: words that start with the letter p, nouns, or five words they want to understand better. Students can pull the words from your word wall, anchor charts, or classroom posters. How many can they collect in their notebook in 3-5 minutes?
  3. Create writing assignments that include using vocabulary. Need a simple assessment probe that demonstrates how your students are progressing towards the learning targets? Ask students a question that both reflects on previous learning and requires them to use X amount of vocabulary words. For example, “Using the food web you created yesterday, use 3 of our vocabulary words to describe how energy flows in an ecosystem.” A sample student sentence could be: “Energy flows in an ecosystem when energy from the sun helps plants make their own food through photosynthesis. When a deer eats the plant, it gets energy from the plant. When a mountain lion eats the deer, they have a predator-prey relationship and the mountain lions gets energy from the deer.”
Set your students up for success by encouraging them to use the word wall as a resource for independent learning! You will be a vocabulary-development superhero if you stop your kids from Googling definitions and encourage them to read the room.

Posting a word wall shouldn’t be something you do just because you saw one on another teacher’s Instagram. You can teach students to use resources and help them to build their content-area vocabulary by using your skills to make word walls more interactive.

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