In my classroom, it is easy to find evidence that I value and teach the basics — it's all over the walls. I am not referring to commercially prepared charts or bulletin boards; rather, my students and I collaboratively build Word Walls as we learn and practice phonics, spelling, and language conventions in the context of authentic reading and writing activities. A Word Wall is an interactive, ongoing display (on a chart, bulletin board, or other exhibition medium) of words and/or parts of words, used to teach spelling, reading and writing strategies, letter-sound correspondence, and more. Word Walls are not simply décor — they are useful works in progress, built over time as words are harvested from meaningful contexts. They provide support and references for children, and serve as a clear record of their language learning.

Here are some hot tips for making Word Walls really work in your classroom!

1. Make Them Memorable

Use favorite rhymes, poems, chants, songs, or stories as contexts for pulling key words for your Walls. For example, last year we enjoyed a version of our school song performed as rap. We lifted words from the song to add to our Chunking Wall. (A Chunking Wall helps students decode unknown words by analogy and promotes phonemic awareness.) While rereading the song chart, we used highlighters and word frames to call attention to these words.

Potential pitfall: Using arbitrary lists of words for key references. If the key words are "any old words," they are likely to be treated as such!

2. Make Them Useful

The more you use the Word Walls to spell high-frequency words during modeled writing, to generate correct spelling while writing aloud, or to decode a masked word in text, the more your students will use the Walls to do the same. Demonstrations and think-alouds take only seconds, and if done frequently, give you a lot of bang for your buck. ("Yes, I can read this word. I see /br/ like the beginning of Brendan's name, and /ast/ like our key word last; this word must be breakfast. It fits here and makes sense!")

Potential pitfall: Putting up the Word Wall at the beginning of the year, telling kids to use it, but failing to demonstrate how.

3. Make Them Practical

Incorporate Word Walls into your daily wordplay activities. Use Word Wall words you've already targeted, for making word ladders, word sorts, and word hunts. Such practice helps kids gain automaticity with these key references. Use key words as spelling words, too.

Potential pitfall: Doubling your workload by basing wordplay on arbitrary words. Don't treat your wordplay and Word Walls as separate parts of the literacy puzzle. They fit together naturally, helping you avoid overloading students with too many words at once.

4. Make Them Hands-On

Make your Walls interactive by attaching key words with Velcro strips or sticky tack. If this isn't possible, put pockets under your Wall at the children's eye level. Place copies of key words in the pockets. These techniques allow students to go to the Wall, remove a word, use it at their desks, and return it.

5. Make Them Space Efficient

If you lack adequate wall space or you want your Walls to be more "up close and personal," use three-panel display boards (like those employed in science experiments during fairs) or foam display boards (available at office supply stores). These freestanding materials don't require any wall space, and can be moved around the room and placed on tables for easy visibility. As a reading specialist, I simply fold one Word Wall down and put up another when a new student group arrives.

Potential pitfall: Failing to build a Wall with students because of presumed lack of space.

6. Make Them Your Way

There is no one right way to build a Word Wall. What to build, what key words to add, and when to add them all depend on what your students need. If you are teaching kindergarten and want to reinforce the alphabet, create a Name Wall that highlights first letters in students' names. Or build an ABC Wall, using key words from nursery rhymes. If your students commonly misspell words like they, said, and because, create a Words-We-Know Wall, featuring high frequency, irregularly spelled words. A Chunking Wall helps developing readers and writers learn to use spelling patterns to read and write new words. You can also combine these varied types of key words into one Word Wall; add new words each week and build them up over time. Organize your Walls in a way that is practical to students. Be creative and trust your observations.

Potential pitfall: Bogging yourself down by thinking, "I'm not doing it right." If your students are using the Word Wall to better their reading and writing skills, you're doing it right!