I’m sure you heard the buzz about sound walls.
Most literacy experts are telling us to replace our word walls with sound walls.
And I agree. 🙂
But what exactly IS a sound wall, and how do you use it?
We’ve got the answers in today’s post!
What is a sound wall?
A sound wall is a visual reference to help students when they are reading and spelling.
Unlike a word wall, where words are displayed by their beginning letter, a sound wall displays the 44 speech sounds by manner and place of articulation in the mouth.
(Plain English = A sound wall organizes and displays speech sounds based on what your mouth is doing when you make them.)
Sound walls usually include pictures to represent what the mouth looks like when making each sound. An anchor picture is included with the mouth card.
As students learn different phonics patterns that represent the sounds, these patterns (or words featuring the patterns) are added to the wall.
Why use a sound wall instead of a word wall?
A traditional word wall displays high frequency words by their first letter. Teachers direct students to the word wall to find words they want to spell.
The problem is that we have 44 individual sounds in the English language, but only 26 letters. A student may look for the word “the” on the word wall but not know where to look, because “the” doesn’t begin with the /t/ sound.
A sound wall makes a lot more sense, because it starts with the SOUND instead of with print.
As you teach your students to use and become familiar with the sound wall, they will learn to use it as a reference when spelling.
Three things you need to understand to use a sound wall effectively
1. Understand the difference between phonemes and graphemes.
A phoneme is a sound. We represent sounds by putting a letter or letters between virgules (slash marks). For example: /s/ represents “sssss.”
It’s important that we can break words apart into their individual phonemes. The word “sand” has 4 phonemes: /s/ /ă/ /n/ /d/. The word “fox” also has 4 phonemes: /f/ /ŏ/ /k/ /s/. The word “eight” has only 2 phonemes: /ā/ /t/.
Graphemes are the letters used to represent a phoneme. In the word “eight” the grapheme “eigh” is used to represent the phoneme /ā/. Even though the word has 5 letters, it has only two phonemes.
2. Understand the vowel phonemes.
On a sound wall, the 19 vowel phonemes are arranged based on the place of articulation. In other words, they are arranged by the openness of the jaw and the tongue height/placement when you make each of the phonemes.
The vowel phonemes are arranged in a V shape (“Vowel Valley”) to mimic the motion of your chin as you make the sounds. Notice that your mouth is most open when you make the short o sound, which is at the bottom center of Vowel Valley.
A few important notes: We count r-controlled vowels as single phonemes. For example, in the word “farmer” we have just 4 phonemes: /f/ /ar/ /m/ /er/. We also count diphthongs as single phonemes, even though a diphthong is formed by combining two vowels in a single syllable. For example, in the word “coin” we have 3 phonemes: /k/ /oi/ /n/.
Finally, did you know that the schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language? It occurs in an unaccented syllable and usually sounds like a weak version of /ŭ/, as in banana. It can also sound like /ĭ/, as in cactus.
3. Understand the consonant phonemes.
There’s more to remember when it comes to consonant phonemes.
Sound walls organize the consonant phonemes into 6 categories: stops, affricates, nasals, fricatives, glides, and liquids. Each category contains both voiced and unvoiced sounds. A voiced sound is made from the voice box. Put your hand on your throat when you say a sound to feel if it is voiced (you will feel a vibration in your throat) or unvoiced.
Take a minute and read through the sounds in each column on the chart below. Put your hand on your throat as you say the sounds aloud; notice the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.
How should I set up my sound wall?
I recommend choosing two areas in your classroom to display the consonant sound wall and vowel valley.
When you set up vowel valley, I recommend starting in the center of the display area and working your way up and out. This way it’s easier to keep things lined up properly.
Get your free printable sound wall and vowel valley!
Do not set up the consonant sound wall and vowel valley in their entirety unless students have already learned all the phonemes and their corresponding graphemes. This is highly unlikely unless you are teaching third grade or above. Instead, put up just the phonemes and graphemes that students learned in their previous grade.
If you are setting up a sound wall in kindergarten, the wall will be empty (or you will post the phonemes/graphemes and have them turned over or “locked” until you teach them). If you are setting up a sound wall in first grade, you will have short vowels and consonants posted to start the year. You will gradually add other phonemes with graphemes. If you are setting up a sound wall in second grade, you will have the consonants, short vowels, and many long vowel graphemes posted to start the year.
What order should I follow when teaching phonemes and graphemes?
This depends on your phonics scope & sequence. There is no perfect scope and sequence, but I have created my own sequence based on my experience and study. You can get it for free in this post.
What could sound wall lessons look like?
SAMPLE LESSON #1
When teaching a new letter sound-spelling, you can follow a routine like this one.
1. Introduce the phoneme and anchor picture.
- (Hold up the /t/ card.)
- This picture is a turtle. What is the picture?” (TURTLE)
- The first sound in turtle is /t//t/ /t/. Say the sound. (/t/)
2. Talk about the formation of the sound.
- Take out your mirror and look at your mouth when you make the /t/ sound.”
- What is your tongue doing? What are your teeth doing? Are your lips doing anything?
- Feel your throat when you say the /t/ sound. Is this a voiced sound?
- Put your hand in front of your mouth when you say /t/. What is the air doing? (It’s making a little puff.) We call the/t/ sound a stop sound.
3. Practice forming the new letter.
- “The way we spell the /t/ sound is with a t. Watch me make the letter t in the air.”
- “Now let’s make a t in the air together.”
4. Teach the key word for the sound-spelling.
- Our key word for the t spelling is ten. What’s the key word? (ten)
- When you are writing a word and it has the /t/ sound, use a t.
- I am going to say some words. Repeat the word after me. Then put your thumb up if the word begins with /t/. Put your thumb down if it does not. (ten, tiger, dog, toaster, pencil, turtle, top)
SAMPLE LESSON #2
When students already know the basic phoneme and are learning a new grapheme, it could look like this:
1. Review the header card with the anchor picture.
- Today we are going to learn a spelling for the /k/ sound.
- (Hold up the /k/ card.)
- This picture is a key. What is the picture? (KEY)
- The first sound in key is /k/. Say the sound. (/k/)
2. Teach the new grapheme and key word.
- When the /k/ sound appears at the end of a word, it is sometimes spelled C-K.”
- Here is our key word for the ck spelling at the end of a word: DUCK. Say the word.
- When a one-syllable word has a short vowel sound and the /k/ sound follows, we spell it with the letters c-k.
- If I am spelling the word sack, for example, I can start by breaking the word into phonemes. /s/ /ă/ /k/. Repeat the phonemes of sack. /s/ /ă/ /k/
3. Practice spelling one or more words with the new grapheme.
- I’m going to draw three lines to help me write the word. I’ll spell one phoneme on each line.
- S….. What letters makes the /s/ sound? Yes. I will write an “s” on the first line. Aaaaaa. What letter represents that sound? Yes, the letter a. I will write that on the second line. Now we are at the final sound, /k/. This is when I need to remember our new pattern. At the end of a single syllable word, when the /k/ sound follows a short vowel, I use ck to spell the /k/ sound. I will write ck on the last line. How do we spell sack? S-A-C-K
4. As time allows, do guided dictation.
- We’re going to spell the word PICK. What’s the word? (PICK)
- Let’s count the sounds in the word pick. /p/ /i/ /k/
- How many sounds? (3) Draw three small lines on your paper, one for each sound.
- What’s the first sound? What letter represents that sound?
- What’s the second sound? What letter represents that sound?
- What’s the final sound? What will you write to represent that sound?
How can I make the sound wall more meaningful to my students?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve put up a word wall and mostly forgotten about it.
We don’t want that to happen with our sounds walls!
In addition to regular, consistent sound wall lessons (even 5 minutes a day is helpful!), give your students their own portable sound walls to keep as a reference.
They might enjoy highlighting the key words as you add them to your large sound wall and vowel valley.
In fact, you can download FREE portable sound walls (pictured above) at the end of this post!
After you sign up for the freebie, you’ll learn how to get my FULL set of sound wall printables.
P.S. If you’re nervous about using a sound wall, or aren’t sure you’ll get it right, set aside your fears and just START. We all have to start somewhere, and I think you’ll be amazed at how soon you get the hang of it!
Get your free portable sound wall and vowel valley!
Check our the rest of our phonics series!
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Hi! I’m wondering how you decided what example key words to include, and if you might consider adding more of them in a future. For example, you included the double-l (bell) as an example spelling for /l/, but not double-b (bubble) for /b/. Other resources I’m looking at have “sitting” and “hoped” as examples listed under /t/, as examples of the common “tt” and “-ed” spellings. /l/ is another one – wouldn’t it also be helpful to have the “-le,” as in table, as an example spelling to look out for?
I’m just not sure what’s a gap, and what’s intentionally left out, and/or why. If you could shed any light on this that’d be great. I’m going a little wild trying to reconcile all the different sound walls out there and feeling like there are holes in each that I’m trying to plug! Thanks so much.
I thought mostly about my Orton-Gillingham training as I decided what graphemes to include – but it was very challenging and at some point I just had to say “enough is enough.” 🙂 I waffled between using the double letters and the “ed” under /t/ and /d/. Those are things I could consider adding. As for “le” I didn’t include that on purpose because I think about the consonant-le endings as a unit that I would teach when we learn about syllable types, which is a different category. If you are considering purchasing my sound wall and you have a few that you’d like me to add (and I feel that they make sense), let me know in advance and I’ll let you know if I’m willing to create a couple of extra grapheme cards based on those new sounds. However, I would likely not be changing the portable chart or the sound spelling dictionary.
Do you have lessons that go with the sound wall?
Not yet, Lisa – a future project!
Thanks for all that you do and all that you share with the literacy world!
I am trying to prepare for sound walls this year. What are the optimal size bulletin boards needed?
I have 2 – 4’x6′ boards…should I try to swap with some coworkers for 4’x8′ boards?
Heather Groth, Customer Support
Hi Susie! Yes, you should definitely try to swap for those bigger boards! They will be especially helpful if you plan on using big pictures with the word cards underneath them. If you’re just using the phoneme cards you wouldn’t need as much space.