How Using a Sound Wall Can Transform Your Reading Instruction

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Have you considered making the switch from a word wall to a sound wall in your classroom?  Or maybe your administration is pushing for the change to sound walls?  I’m here to tell you that it is worth it and your students will reap the benefits. 
 
Using a sound wall has transformed my phonics and writing instruction and has made my students better decoders, encoders, and generally better spellers.  It’s certainly a big shift in the thought of how we approach using a traditional word wall but it makes sense.
 
Learn how to improve your phonics instruction in the kindergarten classroom by using a sound wall.  Replace your word wall with these sound cards and organize your sound wall by using vowel and consonant phoneme cards instead!

 

Why You Should Switch to a Sound Wall

When you think about how we learn and child development, kids learn speech (or how to talk) long before they learn to put print with their speech.  We learn from speech to print.  Brain research is telling us that kids need to master phonemic awareness skills before they are ready to match the sounds to print, and then they need phonics instruction to begin to decode text.  We know this, but yet we are still using tools like word walls. 
 
A traditional word wall requires students to find the print and match it to their speech.  This turns into a guessing game of find the word.  If a kid wanted to spell the word phone, he’d look under the letter F, but he would never find the word because phone is hiding under the letter P.
 
 

How To Implement a Sound Wall

Using a sound wall is more about instruction than it is about slapping letter sounds on the wall and organizing words.  Teachers need to explicitly teach each phoneme (there’s more than 40!).  You can find lists of phonemes in a quick google search.  When introducing sounds, we use small compact mirrors like these(affiliate link) on Amazon.  Each student gets a mirror to practice making sounds.  The students noticed how their mouths looked, felt and what their tongues are doing to make each sound. We also talked about recognizing when the voice box is turned on or off based on vibrations.
 
 
In kindergarten, we don’t get to all of the phonemes and spelling patterns but I end up posting most of them because my higher kids are usually ready for them by the end of the year.I posted cards with more graphemes than I teach in kindergarten and I covered the graphemes I didn’t teach with a post-it so the kids would not be overwhelmed but could lift the post it to check if they wanted.
 
As I introduce the sounds, I add them to the sound wall.  Consonants are grouped by the type of phoneme (stops, nasals, glides, affricates, fricatives, and liquids) and the vowels are put in the shape of a V based on how your mouth looks and feels as you make the sound from closed at the top of the V, to open at the bottom, to round at the top right.  Then diphthongs and vowel-r words are put together, too.
 
Learn more about implementing sound walls in the classroom in my video mini-course, Successful Sound Walls. 
 

 

The Challenges of Implementing a Sound Wall

There are different, affordable programs out there that can help with the order to introduce the phonemes, how to arrange the graphemes on a sound wall, and more.  It can be tricky to try to use this approach and to mold it to your phonics or big box reading series.  It becomes especially difficult if your phonics series has poor choices for picture sounds like elephant or egg for short E (really?).  If you’re like me and want things to be more visually appealing or fit with your classroom theme or you need pictures/sounds to match your phonics program, you can check out my sound wall kit in my TPT store here.
 
Finding space can be a big challenge, too.  A lot of phoneme cards are very large and take up a large amount of wall space.  Click here to learn more about creating space-saving personal word walls. 
 
The next challenge is finding the time.I carved out 10-15 minutes per day paired with our phonemic awareness instruction (we use Heggerty).  It fit pretty seamlessly and only took a few minutes of additional instructional time.  The results are more than worth 10 minutes a day! During writing time you’ll find kids walking around with mirrors trying to find the sound that matches their mouth.  Using a sound wall helped me to be a better teacher and helped to give my students a better foundation in phonics that they will need to be successful readers and writers.
 
 
 

Amy

30 Comments

  • Do you post words on the vowel sound wall or only the consonant one? I am wondering if the same words would be posted on both walls.

    Reply
  • You could put them both places or whichever makes more sense for your students. I tend to put words on the consonant wall by beginning sound (probably because that's what I'm used to with the traditional word wall) and I have fewer words on the vowel wall. I am very intentional with which words I put on the vowel wall. For example, I didn't put every "oo" word I could think of up there. But kids often want to write about books, so I made sure that was on the vowel wall. I hope that makes sense 🙂

    Reply
  • This is fantastic! How do you sequence the sounds? I have used a synthetic phonics program for the past three years and have followed that to teach sound order (for example, /s/ /a/ /t/ /p/ /i/ /n/). Could you approach it according to how each sound is classified (i.e., liquid, affricates, etc) or does it not really matter? It's my first time using a sound wall and would like to execute it as best I can. Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Kathryn! We follow the KidLips program and do the order they suggest. The sound order is similar to what I was familiar with from traditional phonics order, except s is introduced a bit later. We start with a combination of the stop sounds and vowels. The biggest difference is that long vowels are introduced early.

      However – I think you can totally make a sound wall work using your the order that your phonics program uses. It’s just all about focusing on producing sounds correctly and teaching kids to hear sounds not look for letters. I hope that helps 🙂

      Good luck!
      Amy

      Reply
  • I think using sound walls sounds like a great idea! I very interested to learn more! Do you happen to have any research articles about sound walls?

    Reply
  • I am in the beginning stages of switching from a traditional word wall to the sound wall. What do I do with the sight words I currently have on display on my word wall? Is a sound wall mostly a resource for the sounds and a few word suggestions? Am I eliminating most of the DOLCH sight words from being on display? I feel like I could add tons more questions!

    Reply
  • Hi there –
    Here is a link to an article about orthographic mapping that supports the move toward sound walls.
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263499062_Orthographic_Mapping_in_the_Acquisition_of_Sight_Word_Reading_Spelling_Memory_and_Vocabulary_Learning

    Most of the research to support using sound walls comes from the latest brain research on how we learn to read. There is a book called Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. If you google him, you'll find some interesting videos as well. Maryanne Wolf is another name leading the way in reading and brain research. She has a book called The Reading Brain.

    Reply
  • Hi Kathryn! We follow the KidLips program and do the order they suggest. The sound order is similar to what I was familiar with from traditional phonics order, except s is introduced a bit later. We start with a combination of the stop sounds and vowels. The biggest difference is that long vowels are introduced early.

    However – I think you can totally make a sound wall work using your the order that your phonics program uses. It's just all about focusing on producing sounds correctly and teaching kids to hear sounds not look for letters. I hope that helps 🙂

    Good luck!
    Amy

    Reply
  • Have you had any difficulties with children finding the letters since they're hung base one what kind of sound it is as opposed to ABC order?

    Reply
  • Hi Amy,
    You wrote that kids should not focus on looking for letters, but sounds on the wall. So does that mean they are looking for pictures that make the sound? This is all new to me. I've never heard of a sound wall. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Lynn,

      Yes, exactly. Kids will look at the pictures for the sounds. You can also take pictures of a mouth properly making the sound to display with the pictures. Then kids can use mirrors to try to find the picture that matches their mouth so that gives them 2 options for ways to find the spelling patterns they need.

      Amy

      Reply
  • So my district uses Fountas and Pinnell which put students in reading levels which will require me to put students in specific groups depending where they are. Would you recommend introducing the same sound to them whole group and then go back over the sounds they are having trouble with in small groups?

    I'm a first year teacher in Kindergarten and want to use sound walls instead of a word wall since its more developmentally appropriate.

    Reply
  • In the beginning of the year In kindergarten do you start Instruction with merging sounds and letters together? Introduce all of the articulating features of a sound and then attach the letter? Or intro the sound and post it without letters? I’m just not sure when to bring the 2 together.

    Reply
    • Hi Lisa,
      In the first 30 days of school, we started with teaching letter names just for exposure. We talked about sounds when we taught letter names but not for mastery. Then when we began our phonics curriculum, we introduced sounds in the order they recommended. When we introduced the sounds, we talked about the manner and placement of articulation and used mirrors, etc. Then when we taught the sounds explicitly we matched them with the spelling patterns or letters and put them on the sound wall.
      If you have more questions, feel free to find me on Instagram (@teachingexceptionalkinders) or you may want to check out my Successful Sound Walls course.
      Amy

      Reply
  • You said elephant is a poor choice, so I zoomed into your Vowel valley, and there is an elephant…. What do you recommend instead?

    Reply
    • We always call the elephant Edwin or Ed. It can be tricky to find a word that begins with a true short e sound, but by calling the elephant Ed is a simple solution.

      Reply
        • Hi Beth –

          Yep, I have seen that, too. I do include an “edge” card option for the short e phoneme in my sound wall packs.

          Reply
  • How did you go about teaching yourself this before using? I’ll be a first year teacher in the fall and love the idea of a sound wall, but don’t know where to get started. I’d love any tips you can give.

    Reply
  • Hello!

    I teach kindergarten and want to begin using a sound wall when school begins in August. After you have introduced a sound and begin to work with kindergarten words, do you put the words under the sound cards?

    Reply
    • Hi Yvonne,

      We put some of our high-frequency words upon the sound wall and other words that students frequently referenced to spell in their writing. THe main thing is you don’t want your sound wall to be cluttered. Just give the number of phonemes, a sound wall can be visually overwhelming and adding too many words to it may make it difficult for students to find the sounds they need. I wrote a little bit about adding words to a sound wall here.

      Reply
  • I have signed up twice to get the free sound wall labels but still haven’t received them. Can you please email them to me?

    Reply
    • Hi Kristy,

      I’m sorry to hear you are having trouble getting the email. I just checked and the email with free labels was delivered to your email inbox. Sometimes filters will block emails with attachments. I would suggest double-checking your spam folder or trying with a personal email.

      -Amy

      Reply
  • Hi
    I would love to use your Freebies for a district PD on sounds walls. I will give you full credit and link the freebies back to your blog. Please let me know your thoughts.

    Warmly, KM

    Reply

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