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Strategy Guide

Using Word Walls to Develop and Maintain Academic Vocabulary

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Using Word Walls to Develop and Maintain Academic Vocabulary

Grades K – 12

Scott Filkins

Scott Filkins

Champaign, Illinois


National Council of Teachers of English

Strategy Guide Series Developing Academic Vocabulary

See All Strategy Guides in this series 


Research Basis

Strategy in Practice

Related Resources

In this guide, you will learn how to use Word Walls to support vocabulary development and retention.

Research Basis


Graves (2007) notes that “vocabulary instruction is most effective when learners are given both definitional and contextual information, when they actively process the new word meanings, and when they experience multiple encounters with words. Said somewhat differently, vocabulary instruction is most effective when it is rich, deep, and extended” (p, 14).  Word walls have long been a useful strategy for helping younger students process words multiple times, over the duration of the school year.

Teachers in upper grades, in a variety of disciplines (e.g. Silva, Weinburgh, & Smith, 2013) have found ways to make word walls work in their contexts, for specific purposes such as differentiating academic and everyday language and developing metacognitive awareness of the features of a second language.


Graves, M.F. (2007). Vocabulary instruction in the middle grades. Voices from the Middle, 15(1): 13-19.


Silva, C., Weinbugh, M, & Smith, K. H. (2013). Not just good science teaching: Supporting academic language development. Voices from the Middle, 20(4): 34-42.


Strategy in Practice

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Planning the Word Wall

  • Locate an appropriate space in the classroom for the word wall.  The space needs to be large enough to allow for a collection of words to grow over the course of a unit and/or school year, and be prominent enough that all students can see it as part of everyday instruction and independent work time.

  • Decide how you will display words: for example, on Velcro-mounted index cards, laminated cardstock, magnetboard, or in a pocket chart.  Important considerations include the visibility of the words and the ease with which students can manipulate word placement to find or demonstrate patterns and connections among the words as the list grows.

  • Review your content area(s) for high frequency, multi-meaning, high leverage words to begin considering which words will be appropriate for the word wall.  Going into the unit or year with a plan is important, but just as important will be flexibility, as student interest and contributions begin to shape the word wall.

Using the Word Wall

  • At its most basic, the function of a word wall is to give students constant access to the important content vocabulary for the class.  Pointing out to students that key words are always available to them helps promote independence and reinforces the importance of these words in the classroom.

  • Encourage students to use content area/academic vocabulary appropriately in writing and classroom discussions.  When students use a closely related word or an informal definition instead of the target term, ask them to find the word on the wall that they could use instead.

  • Challenge students to think through the multiple definitions words on the word wall can have, depending on the subject or context in which they are used.

  • As the collection of words grows, invite students to find new ways to arrange them—by linguistic features (same initial letter, rhymes, root families), by synonyms or antonyms, by topical relationships, and so forth.

  • Make time for students to share instances in which they encounter words from the wall in their own reading and everyday life.

  • Consider temporary or permanent divisions on the wall into important categories for your class, such as the division into “academic” and “everyday” language (see citation in Research Basis, above).

Related Resources

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