Thursday, October 30, 2014

The 10th Friday: Learning Walls

Reading is the most important subject in school. It’s more important than all the other subjects combined. If a child can’t learn to read well and love to read, chances of that kid finding success and happiness on any level are low…Successful kids represent the spectrum of all racial, religious, economic, and cultural diversity possible, but they all have one thing in common: they read well and love it…I want my students to understand that their ability to read and write is a matter of life and death…Show me a good reader and I’ll show you a child with strong self esteem…Lives hang in the balance. If you do nothing else as a teacher, develop able and passionate readers.
-Rafe Esquith (2003)

I wonder if you agree with this bold statement? I first heard Rafe Esquith speak during an NPR interview many years ago. His comments about teaching—and teaching reading, specifically—were so compelling that I listened intently to the entire interview and subsequently read two of his books: There are NoShortcuts (2003) and Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: TheMethods and Madness Inside Room 56 (2007). His passion regarding the lifelong importance of reading and how imperative it is that we all serve as reading teachers, regardless of our primary content area, is worth considering.

Writing about how to teach reading would fill several hundred blog posts of space—at a minimum. However, I would like to share just one resource and one strategy from that resource today. The resource is How to Teach Reading When You’re Not a Reading Teacher (2006) by Dr. Sharon Faber. Sharon’s extremely readable book contains many ideas, but I want to highlight just one:  Learning Walls—not an original idea of Sharon’s by any means, but one she has written about extensively and specifically in her book as a way to connect kids to academic vocabulary.

Learning walls can be an effective way for students to associate meaning with the words they will use in each content area. First, generate a list of essential words, phrases, concepts, formulas, or whatever students must know depending on the particular content area. Have the learning wall in a prominent place in the classroom where students will be exposed to and can interact with words before, during, and after being introduced to the content. Refer to the wall often, adding pictures, phrases, or color coding dots as you learn more about each term. You can start by simply writing each term on a 4 x 6 index card and sticking them on the wall. You may use one color for words sharing a common concept, theme, chapter, or unit of study. Select only those words that students will see and use often in readings related to your class. Remind students on a regular basis that knowing the terms will help them in their reading and writing.

Finally, try to include an activity or comment about words on the learning wall every day. The more students use the words, the more they will retain them. One simple way Faber suggests is to start class by “guessing the word.”  Choose a word, formula, concept, etc. from the learning wall. Have students number from 1 to 5 on a piece of paper. Give five clues; after each clue, students write their guesses next to the corresponding number. By the fifth clue, everyone should have guessed correctly. The first clue is always the same: “It’s one of the words on the learning wall.”  Add clues as appropriate for numbers two to four.

Although this has been around a long while (Cunningham, 1999), I still agree with these six critical elements to using a learning wall successfully:

1. Be selective, including the most essential items needed to mastery of your subject.

2. Add words gradually—perhaps five per week

3. Make words accessible by putting the wall where everyone can see it. Use big black letters and colors (according to some research, black ink on yellow paper stimulates learning).

4. Practice the words daily by writing, using, chanting.

5. Make sure Learning Wall words are spelled correctly in all student work.

6. Plan a variety of review activities to provide practice until mastery is achieved.

Esquith equates reading to a life-and-death situation. Although perhaps not literally true, reading well is certainly necessary for success in every walk of life, including every classroom in every school. Teaching reading in all content areas is a key component of the Common Core and justly so. Using learning walls is one way we can teach reading across all content areas. The power of visualization is part of long-term memory and a reading strategy we can use to help our students master difficult academic vocabulary. Taking the time to help our students make sense of difficult reading material and academic vocabulary is one way that we Teach with Passion at our schools.

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the tenth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when the evidence used to determine the grade is from poor-quality assessment and, therefore, misrepresents student achievement. The fix is to ensure high-quality assessments which have:

1. A clear purpose
2. Clear learning targets
3. Sound design
4. Effective communication
5. Student involvement


  1. Dr. Zoul,

    Excellent! What I like is that you aren't reinventing the wheel, you are referring to tried and true research. On of my favorite reads has always been, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. You made me smile when you mentioned it.

    Finally, I feel compelled to respond to this: "I want my students to understand that their ability to read and write is a matter of life and death"

    I believe this is accurate. A person that cannot read or write is likely to live in poverty or worse, be homeless. I'm a believer that Knowledge is Power. We need ALL of our kids to understand the importance of being a learner. I wish more of our students had a sense of urgency for their own learning.

    Another great post my friend!


    1. Ben,
      Thank you for reading and commenting! The fact that reading is so important makes it equally important that we recognize that all teachers--particularly at the garde 6-12 level--serve as "reading" teachers, not just ELA teachers. Other content area teachers must stress disciplinary literacy, getting their students to read and write like scientists or historians, depending on the content area. Thanks again for taking the time to weigh in, my friend.