Putting Science Words on the Wall

word wallI’ve seen “word walls” in elementary classrooms, but I wonder whether older students would find them helpful in dealing with vocabulary. What should I consider in trying this idea?
—Wendy, Chattanooga, Tennessee

When I first learned about word walls, I was intrigued. Many of my middle school students struggled with the specialized vocabulary in science, and I was willing to try something new to help them. It turned out to be a win-win situation: it was a learning opportunity for the students, and one of the bulletin boards in my classroom was used productively (I was not very good at designing them). I also had good results using this strategy with high school students.

A word wall is an organized list of words displayed in a classroom. On most I’ve seen, the words were printed on index cards or pieces of paper that can be moved around with the words large enough for students to see. A small graphic illustrating the word can be included (students can get very creative with this). This is not a static or decorative list, however. During the unit, the teacher and students can refer to the words, rearrange them by concept, and use them for review activities such as card sorts or word splashes.

Word walls should focus on essential vocabulary. As key words are introduced, they are posted. Some teachers also have the students put the words into their science notebooks and personalize the notebook list with additional terms.

If you teach more than one subject, as many teachers do, you’ll need a lot of space! When another teacher and I shared a lab, we divided up the bulletin board. I’ve seen teachers be creative with window shades and wall space. A teacher who floats among classrooms carried a flip chart on her cart with the vocabulary. As a last resort, students could create a “word page” in their notebooks.

The topic of word walls has appeared on the NSTA e–mail lists. Here are some additional suggestions from our colleagues that are appropriate for any grade level:

  • Some teachers in my building only put the vocabulary words on their walls, but I put word, definition, and if appropriate a picture. I leave these walls up during test time, but use black paper to cover the vocabulary word.  The students still have the picture and the definition. —Shauna
  • I have a “words and roots” list (etymology) for students and quiz them throughout the year. I add those to a section of a word wall as we learn them and practice putting together those seemingly long and impossible words. —Kathy (and others
  • I felt silly at first when I did this approach because I thought word walls were only for primary grades but was very surprised by the student response. I cut up strips of paper and had the students each complete one word with the definition and a related visual. For example, I have had students decide to draw a man trying to push a big rock to represent inertia. I then reminded students to use their science vocab when writing about the lesson or answering questions.  The word wall was a good anchor chart. —Sarah
  • The students must own the word wall, whether it is in their notebooks, on the wall, or somewhere else. —Suzanne
  • Since many of my students are bilingual, I like to suggest that they include the word in their own languages on their cards as well. —Bonnie
  • When creating a word wall, the purpose is to provide a place for students to look for words when discussing or writing responses. For example, you would ask the students to refer to the word wall during a discussion. Or you could do a stand-and-say to wrap up class: ask the students to use one of the word wall words in a sentence as they review a main idea. —Aimee
  • I would limit the terms to the essential vocabulary (10-15 words per unit), words they will use across multiple disciplines in science all throughout the year. —Kellylyn
  • The key on use of word walls is to have them available, used many times, and serve as a reference, continuously connecting lessons with words around the room, highlighting them in presentations, giving time for students to discuss meaning and use with peers, defining together terms that are key for understanding in their own words. —Ursula

Additional resources from NSTA:

Word Wall – NSTA News Digest

Word Wall Connections – NSTA News Digest

Interactive Word Walls: Transforming Content Vocabulary Instruction –Science Scope

Word Wall Connections – Science Scope

Word Wall Work—Supporting Science Talk –Science & Children


Photograph: Science Scope

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  1. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I agree Mary, that the article, “Interactive Word Walls: Transforming Content Vocabulary Instruction” is a helpful resource, one that elementary teachers can adapt and use as well.

  2. Shelby
    Posted June 8, 2015 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I tried a word wall for a while with my ninth graders, but I didn’t see much difference in their vocabulary usage. What I found to be much more helpful for physical science was periodically taking the time to go through the quantities we were discussing and making a sort of anchor chart with the quantity and its units. Often I’d include the variable in our discussions because students think that the units and the variables are the same thing.

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