Sound walls are popping up all over the internet and on Teachers Pay Teachers. There are multiple “sound walls” posted each week. Sadly, many of them are not accurate. As the Science of Reading is becoming more popular on social media, certain things are becoming buzz words. One of those is SOUND WALLS.
Disclaimer: These comments are not directed toward any specific online sellers. These are general observations that have been noticed and discussed among colleagues in the last few months. It is my hope that these suggestions will help teachers learn and understand more so that they can be conscious consumers if they choose to purchase a sound wall online.
Before you purchase a sound wall, you need to be aware of some common misconceptions.
- Sound wall cards should NOT move from PRINT to SPEECH.
Sound-spelling cards on a sound wall move from speech to print. Think about the name “sound-spelling” cards…sound first, then spelling. To check for this, look at the cards you are about to buy. What is at the top of the card? If the card starts with speech, there will be a mouth picture or a keyword picture (apple for short a) first. You may also have both a mouth and keyword picture first. There will not be any print (letters, graphemes, letters within virgules /sh/) first. If the card moves from print to speech, it will look like a typical phonics poster rather than a sound-spelling card. (ex: A print to speech card may have A listed at the top, and then a picture of an apple below).
Why is this important? Most sounds have more than one spelling. If students are looking at a sound wall card that’s labeled with a letter or letters at the top, they will assume that that is the way to spell that sound. Rather, that was the teacher trying to label the sound. We want students attending to the sounds they know from their oral language first. During phonics instruction, teachers will gradually introduce each spelling for that sound and when to use it.
- Sound walls should NOT just be a vowel valley.
Some sound walls online only include the vowels. However, English words include vowels AND consonants (Other than words like a or I). The purpose of the sound wall is to help students recognize individual sounds, segment sounds in words, and represent those sounds in order to spell words. They will need vowels AND consonants to do this.
Sound walls should include all 44 speech sounds of our language. This includes the consonants and vowels. Students are already using these 44 speech sounds when speaking, so they should have access to them on the sound wall. In all grades, even in kindergarten, teachers should start the year introducing and reviewing all of the speech sounds (not the spellings, just the sounds). This introduction should include producing the sound and focusing on what is happening in the mouths (lips, tongue, teeth, vocal cords, airflow) when they make each sound.
3. Sound Walls should NOT be hung or presented in alphabetical order.
Sound walls are organized by manner of articulation (how the sound is produced) and place of articulation (where the sound is produced). Sound walls are NOT organized or placed on the wall in alphabetical order. When cards are placed in alphabetical order, they become like a word wall. There are 44 speech sounds included on a sound wall. When cards are placed in alphabetical order, there are typically 26 letters included (sometimes with the extra sound cards off to the side).
As teachers using a sound wall as a tool, we want students focusing on where in the mouth the sounds are produced (front, middle, back of mouth) and how they are produced (voiced or unvoiced, continuous or stop). We explain the organization of the wall that way so that students can find the sounds quickly. We pair cognate (voiced and unvoiced pair) sounds like /f/ and /v/ together because these sounds have the same mouth placement and are often confused in student writing. We place vowels in a V formation because it mimics the position of the mouth/chin drop and tongue for those specific sounds. We focus on the airflow of sounds (continuous vs. stop) because this helps students to produce sounds accurately and represent each individual sound accurately when spelling.
A sound wall may seem overwhelming to teachers, but there is a reason for the organization. The organization is purposeful and allows students access to the sounds that they already have in their oral language. The more we understand it, the simpler it is, and the more connections we make as educators. Students pick up on it quickly when you introduce each part individually. If we change the organization of a sound wall, students will not be able to make the same connections in their decoding and encoding.
4. Sound walls should NOT include keyword pictures that represent altered sounds.
Choosing appropriate keyword pictures is so important. On the creator’s end, deep knowledge of phonology is essential. Keywords should include the most clear version of that individual sound. Sound walls sold on TeachersPayTeachers often (not always, this is not a blanket statement) have inaccurate or unclear example pictures for each sound card.
Many sounds, especially vowels, are altered by the sounds that are around them in a word. This makes it difficult for students to hear, segment, and represent the individual sound. When nasal sounds (/m/, /n/, /mg/) or liquid sounds (/l/, /r/) are after a vowel, the vowel sound is altered – ex: elephant and umbrella. Some initial vowel sounds are also altered based on dialect or accent – ex: igloo and egg. These are poor choices for keyword pictures.
For example: Elephant is a poor choice as a keyword for short e. When you say elephant aloud, you will hear the letter name L at the beginning of the word. You do not naturally say or hear /e/. A better keyword choice for this sound is echo or edge. With these, you can clearly pull the short e sound off of the rest of the word.
5. Sound walls should NOT have spellings listed in random orders.
True sound wall sound-spelling cards will include the keyword picture and the most common spellings of that sound (not just one spelling). These spellings should be listed in order of frequency. Many sound walls on the market list the spellings randomly OR list the spellings based on the order in which they are typically taught. This is not as helpful for students.
Why is the order of frequency important? The purpose of a sound wall is to increase student independence when spelling and/or writing. When using an accurately made sound-spelling card, the spellings of the sound are in order of frequency. This means that the most common spelling for that specific sound is listed at the top…then the next most common…and the next…etc.
Students who have learned many graphemes will look at the card and know to try the spelling at the top first. They will add their phonics knowledge of where certain patterns are allowed in a word. If the sound wall cards do NOT have spellings listed in order, students will not have guidance as to which spellings to use most often.
6. Sound wall cards should NOT always include every single possible spelling for every single sound in English.
Sound-spellings cards will include the most frequent spellings. They are not required to show every. single. possible spelling. Many well-made sound walls will include all spellings that are used around 4-5% of the time and greater. It is more effective to have a few common spellings rather than a TON of spellings (including rare spellings).
For example: Many times eigh (as in neighbor) is not included on sound wall cards for the sound of long A. This is because eigh is used for the sound /A/ less than 3% of the time that you hear long /A/. It is not a common spelling. Students will not interact with it as often as others.
As teachers, we need to be aware of phonics posters that are labeled as “sound walls” either unintentionally from lack of a creator’s knowledge OR intentionally to increase sales with popular keywords.
There is a difference between phonics posters and a sound wall.
Phonics posters are not bad. Sound walls are not better.
They are both TOOLS to help students approach spelling.
Choose the tool that best fits your needs and the needs of the students in your classroom.
Read more about sound walls: