As students head back to school this week, the focus is on math vocabulary. Word walls can be a powerful tool for vocabulary acquisition, and research shows they can work at all grade levels and in all subject areas (see article below). A well-designed math word wall, for example, may make the difference between students truly understanding a difficult concept and just muddling through.
If you're looking for tips on fun ways to introduce complex math vocabulary to your students, this issue is for you. Just scroll down for an informative article, downloadable activity pages, and a back-to-school special on our popular Math Graffiti posters.
We hope this issue of Class Ideas will get your school year off to a great start!
Whether you are teaching spelling words to first graders or advanced math vocabulary to high school students, word walls are what's happening in the classroom these days.
While word walls are a common feature of elementary school classrooms, high school teachers may be unfamiliar with word walls or doubt their place in the upper grades. Nonetheless, word walls aren't just for elementary reading and language arts programs. They can be powerful learning tools in content areas like math and science. Each discipline has its own specialized vocabulary that anchors important concepts.
Math Word Walls
"Many classrooms have a word wall for language but how about a word wall for math?" asks Debbie DeSpirt, an Ontario, Canada, teacher. "Often students have to problem solve but they are unsure of the operation to perform because of the variety of vocabulary used in the question. It is important for students to learn the words and understand their meaning."
In fact, a math word wall can be especially powerful because it focuses on specialized vocabulary that isn't typically encountered outside the classroom. Cosine, anyone? Each time students add new words they encounter to the word wall, learning is reinforced.
At Creative Instruction, teachers Karen Delaney and Laurel Cherry list the guiding concepts behind their popular Math Graffiti math vocabulary posters.
Word walls provide a visual to go along with the definition of a word. Word walls are not just a poster for the wall, but a tool that students can use to recall information daily.
Word walls should be built for each unit and then replaced with the new words for the next unit. If there are key words that you use all year long, those can be placed in a different part of the classroom.
To make word walls the most powerful, students should create their own images of the words posted.
The Frayer Model, a type of graphic organizer, can be used in conjunction with a word wall to have students record the meaning, characteristics, example, and non-example of the word. (See Resources below.)
Keeping Learning Visual
What makes word walls especially powerful is their visual appeal. "The brain can absorb visual information at a much faster rate than verbal information," writes Sharon L. Bowman in The Ten-Minute Trainer. According to teacher and author Regie Routman (2003), "When students work with word walls, the words become anchored in their long-term memory, allowing quick and easy access."
In addition, word walls encourage classroom discussion, thus facilitating connections between words and the larger ideas they represent. "They are powerful tools, if and when words are discussed and analyzed with students before they are posted on the wall," writes Routman (2003).
"Students need structured opportunities to develop the understanding to know and to use academic language," writes Robert Marzano in Classroom Instruction that Works.
Tips for Teachers
Educator and author Janiel Wagstaff (1999) offers these tips for getting the most out of word walls:
Make them memorable.
Use content area text as the context for identifying key words to place on your word wall. Remember, if the key words are any old words, they are likely to be treated as such. Words selected must be useful to students, usable by students and frequently used in the subject area.
Make them useful.
The more you use the word wall, the more your students will do the same. It is important that you show students how to use the word wall. Putting the words up at the beginning of the year and telling kids to use it without showing them how is setting your word wall up for failure. Refer to the word wall often so that students get in the habit of doing the same.
Make them hands-on.
Make your wall interactive by using Velcro or sticky tack. This allows students to go to the wall, remove a word, use it at their desk, and return it.
Make them space-efficient.
If you lack space, use three-panel display boards. These freestanding materials don't require any wall space, and can be moved around the room and placed on a table for easy visibility.
Make them your way.
There is no right or wrong way to build a word wall. What to build, what words to add, and when to add them, all depend on what your students need. Organize your walls in a way that is meaningful to students. Be creative!
The Markville Secondary School (Markham, Ontario) website offers these additional tips:
Display and organize words creatively.
It seems that in high school the creative displays are left to the art department. High school students like visual stimuli as much as their elementary counterparts. Creative displays that incorporate the message behind the words can be time consuming but fun.
Add words in manageable amounts.
Usually between 5 to 7 new words at a time per week is the right amount.
Make word wall activities a regular and predictable part of the classroom routine.
Word wall activities make for natural class openers or closers. The word wall activity should be only about 5 minutes in length unless incorporated into a larger activity.
Bowman, S. L. (2005). The Ten-Minute Trainer: 150 Ways to Teach It Quick and Make It Stick! San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
DeSpirt, D. (September 18, 2006). Mathematical thinking strategies: Student help for solving math problems. Suite 101.com: Visit Website
Florida Online Reading Professional Development: Word Walls (2005)
Markville Secondary School: Using Word Walls in the Secondary Classroom: Best Practice Ideas Visit Website
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: Specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wagstaff, J. (1999). Word walls that work. Instructor, 110 (5), p. 32-33.
West Virginia Department of Education: Frayer Model Visit Website
The reproducible riddles, puzzles, and word searches in Building Math Vocabulary are designed for maximum fun as students learn the key vocabulary used in math lessons and tests. Check out a sample activity now.
Next month Class Ideas takes a look at a perennial hands-on favorite in math classrooms: Geofix. These plastic geometric shapes snap together easily whether your students are creating a spaceship, a robot, or a platonic solid. Educator and author Don Balka weighs in with classroom ideas and activities for using Geofix. And, we?ll be offering a 20% discount on all Geofix materials; take advantage and stock up on classroom sets!