Sound Walls and the Science of Reading
If you’ve ever used a word wall in your classroom, or have seen one in use, you may be aware that these displays of high-frequency words, arranged alphabetically, have long been used to help students identify patterns, expand vocabulary, reinforce spelling, and more. However, as an alternative to word walls, many literacy experts find the use of sound walls to be an effective tool for phonics instruction, which helps students visually see how letters and their associated sounds correspond.
Based in the science of reading, sound walls in the classroom help educators reinforce the importance of explicitly teaching the skills of letter-sound correspondence. The research behind the science of reading suggests that while learning to speak is, for most children, a very natural and intuitive process, the same is not true of reading. It simply doesn’t come naturally and so must be taught in a systematic and explicit way.
Sound walls support key aspects of learning to read that are backed by the science of reading. These include phonemic awareness (the ability to isolate and manipulate the smallest units of sounds within spoken language) and phonics (the ability to make the connection between the sounds of spoken language and the printed letters and words on a page).
Sound walls are a logical, effective way to teach these skills in a way that works for students. Let’s dive deeper to learn what sound walls are and how we can implement them in classrooms!
What Is a Sound Wall?
Sound walls help children isolate and identify the individual sounds that make up words and link how a word is spoken to how it is written and spelled.
In Sound Walls: Why Do We Need Them and How Do We Use Them?, the Mississippi Department of Education explains that “a sound wall supports students by focusing on the articulation of sounds/phonemes and the various letter or letter patterns that represent the sounds/phonemes in words.” Sound walls and phonics fit naturally together, as a sound wall “supports explicit instruction of phonics” and “grouping words by their sounds is an effective strategy for teaching reading and spelling.”
Sound walls group words by the 44 speech sounds, or phonemes, that make up the English language. A phoneme is the “smallest unit of speech distinguishing one word (or word element) from another, as the element p in “tap,” which separates that word from “tab,” “tag,” and “tan.” Similarly, sh is a phoneme in the word “shape” and ch is a phoneme in the word “chip.” These subtle changes—affecting just one sound in these words—can dramatically change the word’s meaning.
Phonemes can have different spelling variations, called graphemes. One example is the phoneme for the soft /c/ sound in “cell” and the /s/ sound in “sell”—they sound the same, but use different letters of the alphabet. “Blue” and “blew” also sound the same but have different meanings and spellings.
A young learner might hear the word “knee," and think it's spelled “nee.” On a traditional word wall, that child might look in vain under “N” for the word “knee.” When starting to read, the child might see the word “knee” in a story and experience confusion. Thinking the printed word ought to start with a /k/ sound, the student might miss the link between the word on the page and the spoken word.
Because a sound wall arranges words by sounds, not by the alphabet, they help students to properly associate spoken sounds with printed words—and to match phonemes with graphemes.
For example, a sound wall might include a section for the /k/ sound. That section would feature a “phoneme card” with a “/k/” printed on it. Under that card, the teacher could include a number of examples of how that sound is represented in printed words, each accompanied by a picture. For example:
This shows students that the “/k/” sound can have different spellings.
Sound walls also have a unique component, according to this resource from the Louisiana Department of Education, in that they also include images of students’ mouths articulating the different phonemes. “Students can make the connection between what a phoneme sounds like and what their mouths should be doing when they are saying that phoneme. These images should be placed directly over the phoneme card on the sound wall.”
Courtney Schoen, an educator in Las Vegas, Nevada, created a sound wall that she could share with more than 40 teachers in the district and got a student volunteer to model the mouth shapes in photographs. “I started utilizing it last year and saw so many lightbulbs go on for both the students and the teachers with whom I work,” she says.
In addition to including illustrations or photos of students’ mouths, you can also use mirrors in direct instruction with the students, as did April Atkins, a third-grade teacher from Alabaster, Alabama. During her second year of implementing a sound wall, she learned a great deal about students’ needs for explicit instruction on air flow, teeth/tongue placement, lip position, and voiced versus unvoiced sounds:
As I assessed my students’ spelling errors, I now knew why they mixed up “f” and “th” in their writing…at the speech level, they were not placing their teeth and tongue correctly! And now it made sense why “ch” and “sh” confused the students…they just didn’t understand the air flow differences between those two sounds. It started to make much more sense to me. The sound wall gave me a deeper understanding. Now I was equipped with the strategies to help my students. I pulled out mirrors, and I worked with the students who needed guidance, holding up the mirrors as they spoke the sounds so they could see the shapes their mouths made. The progress was exciting. I had never been able to help kids in this way. They started to connect the phonemes and graphemes more easily and consistently.
Try it yourself! Say the word “cheese” out loud. Your mouth makes the shape of a slight smile, your teeth part, and your chin drops slightly. Now say the word “shut.” Your mouth purses, and your chin pushes forward slightly. While /ch/ and /sh/ may seem to be very similar at first glance, illustrations or photographs that show what the mouth looks like as it is making these sounds can help solidify students’ understanding of phonemes—leading to improvement in reading and writing skills.
Sound Wall vs. Word Wall
In what other ways do sound walls differ from word walls?
Word walls are arranged by the beginning letter of the words, displayed alphabetically from A–Z. Under the letter “A,” a teacher might attach cards for words such as “are,” “and,” and “any.” The idea is that students can easily see the word wall when refreshing their memory on how to spell a word, for example. Teachers have historically used word walls to cement knowledge of common sight words and to introduce new vocabulary.
Sound walls, on the other hand, are arranged by sounds rather than by printed letters. How does that make them more effective than word walls?
Sound walls are built on the premise that students need to be explicitly taught phonological and phonemic awareness. The ability to decode and identify sounds is a vital part of learning to become a fluent reader. So rather than starting from a focus on print, sound walls start by focusing on speech.
The ways in which the 26 letters of our alphabet can be grouped to make the 44 phonemes in the English language can be confusing for a beginning reader. Imagine a sentence such as, “Hey, the fish ate eight pieces of fake bait in one day.” In just this one sample sentence, we can see that the long vowel sound of /ā/ is spelled in six different ways (hey, ate, eight, fake, bait, day)! Sound walls can help students make sense of how sounds and speech translate to letter patterns.
April Atkins, the third-grade teacher from Alabama, says, “I initially put a sound wall up in my room three years ago after learning about the importance of learning to read from speech to print. Connecting the speech sounds, or phonemes, to the letters, or graphemes, is crucial for young children learning to read.”
Sound Wall Examples
To build a sound wall, you may need a lot of dedicated space! One teacher to whom we spoke, Angela Premo, a first-grade teacher in Malone, New York, printed and laminated all the components of a comprehensive sound wall and quickly discovered it took up an entire wall of her classroom! However, she’s committed to bringing more science of reading practices into her teaching, so the sound wall is there to stay.
But some teachers have found clever ways to display sound walls in smaller spaces. Courtney Schoen, the educator from Nevada, used a trifold poster board. There are even virtual versions of sound walls available online so that students can access them on their devices.
(Take a look at these sound wall examples from Courtney Schoen.)
Most teachers organize their sound walls into two different sections: vowels and consonants. The vowel section is often referred to as the “Vowel Valley.” It’s typically laid out in the shape of a “valley” because as you begin at the top, your mouth is mostly closed. (Think about the long ē sound.) As you start to go down into the valley, your mouth begins to open as you pronounce the vowel sounds (for example, at the base of the valley, you’d have the short ō sound). Heading up the other side of the valley, you’d eventually reach the short /u/ sound, where your mouth is mostly open.
Vowel wall sections of sound walls include common sound-spelling pairings for various long and short vowel sounds, such as:
(tide, hind, sight, sky, spied)
Consonant walls include common sound-spelling pairings for consonants and consonant digraphs, such as:
(day, add, trusted)
(fun, fluff, laugh, golf, phone)
(shop, issue, motion, mission, rush, shore, gracious, charade)
Some teachers organize their consonant walls by types of phonemes (including stops, fricatives, affricates, glides, liquids, and nasals), as in this example from the Colorado Department of Education.
Visuals will guide you in setting up your sound wall, as verbal descriptions of fricatives, phonemes, airflow, and the schwa can certainly become a bit overwhelming!
For one starting point in constructing your own sound wall, see this useful chart for a list of the 44 phonemes, along with the groups of letters that represent those sounds.
Like teacher Courtney Schoen, you can photograph a student volunteer’s mouth as they make each sound on the list. Then you can build your own sound wall with cards that represent each phoneme (e.g., /k/ or /u/), along with clip art or illustrations to accompany various words that use that phoneme when spoken aloud. Our resource below from System 44 provides a sample of what you can include when creating your own sound wall.
While it may be useful to construct a basic sound wall before introducing it to your students, you might instead turn it into an educational and collaborative process by building it with your students, adding words over the course of the school year with their help.
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