Sound Walls in the Classroom

This post is the first in a two-part series on using sound walls in the classroom. Here I share general information about phoneme sound walls, discuss how a sound wall is different from a word wall and how sound walls help students learn to read, write and spell. Looking for more information on sound walls and how to implement them in the classroom? Take a look at my NEW Sound Wall Course!

Sound walls…. It’s likely your literacy coach has mentioned them, you’ve seen talk of them on social media, or you may even have a colleague who has started using one!  Maybe you’re curious about sound walls but unsure where to start, or you know a bit about them but are nervous to ditch the comfort of your word wall to try something totally new!

I understand!  Change can be hard!  But I think once you get to know more about sound walls and the value they bring, you’ll see it’s a change worth making!

To help you out I’ve decided to create a two-part blog series all about sound walls. In this first post, I’ll share general information about sound walls, discuss their benefits, and how they are different from word walls. The second post will focus on how to set up and use a sound wall in your classroom. I hope you’ll find it all to be useful info that will help you get more comfortable with the idea of using a sound wall in your classroom!

So without further ado….

What is a Sound Wall? 

A sound wall is a way to organize and display the different sounds (or phonemes) we hear in speech.  Similar to a word wall, a sound wall is a place for students to reference when they are spelling and reading words.  But UNLIKE a traditional A-Z word wall (where words are grouped by their beginning letter), words on a sound wall are grouped by their sounds. Curious to learn more about the different sounds? Take a look at this post where I explain the 44 phonemes in English.

Because sounds cannot be written, we use letters to represent the sounds.  A grapheme is the written representation of one phoneme, or sound.  A sound wall matches our speech sounds (phonemes) to the letters (graphemes) that represent those sounds. 

When you see a sound wall you will often find pictures of mouths next to each sound. This helps students better understand what their tongue and mouth are doing when they produce a sound and encourages them to pay attention to the way their mouth feels, looks and acts when they produce different sounds. Mouth pictures are a great support to help students connect the sounds they hear with the print that represents them.

There are usually two parts of a sound wall – a consonant sound wall and a vowel sound wall.  They’re organized separately and in different ways. Let’s talk about the consonants first… 

Consonant Sound Walls

A consonant sound wall is organized by the manner of articulation (how the sound is being formed) and the place of articulation (wherein the mouth a sound is occurring).

There are five major categories of consonants based on the manner of articulation.  In his book Phonics from A to Z, Wiley Blevins describes the categories as: 

  1. Stops:  formed by closing or blocking off the airflow and then exploding a puff of air.  Place your hand in front of your mouth and produce the sounds /b/, /p/, /d/, /t/, /g/, /k/.  Do you feel the burst of air?  These are stops.  
  2. Fricatives: formed by narrowing the air channel and then forcing air through it which creates friction in the mouth.  /f/, /h/, /v/, /th/, /z/, /s/, /zh/, and /sh/ are fricatives.  Affricative is a subgroup of fricatives.  It is a sound produced by the sequence of a stop followed by a fricative.  Examples of affricatives include /ch/ and /j/. 
  3. Nasals:  formed when the mouth is closed, forcing the air through the nose.  /m/, /n/, /ng/ are nasals. 
  4. Liquids:  formed by interrupting the airflow slightly, but no friction results.  /r/ and /l/ and liquids. 
  5. Glides:  sometimes called semivowels because they are formed in similar ways as vowels.  /w/, /y/, /hw/ glides.  

Finally, consonants can also be grouped as voiced or unvoiced.  When you produce a voiced sound, your vocal cords vibrate.  An unvoiced sound produces no vibration. 

I realize it can be really hard to fully understand and envision all this info about sound categories just by reading about them.

This video does a great job providing more clear examples and explanations of each one.  It’s worth taking a look for a deeper, more clear understanding!

Vowel Valley Sound Wall

A vowel sound wall looks different than a consonant one. It is organized by the place of articulation. It is visually represented in the shape of a V or a valley to mimic the change in position of our mouths and shift in our jaw when we produce the different vowel sounds. When we make the first vowel sound, /e/ our chin starts very high, and as we move down the v, our chin lowers.  

Then there are some vowel sounds that are outliers and aren’t placed along the “vowel valley”.  Outside the valley you should also include /oi/ and /ou/, as well as the r-controlled vowels (ar, or, ur, and ir).  

Check out this video for more information about the vowel sound walls.  It really helped me envision what it looks like and how I would use it in my classroom.  

Additionally, this video does a great job showing the differences in the position of the teeth, tongue and lips for each sound category.  I think it is helpful for both teachers and students! 

The Benefits of a Sound Wall

The more I read and learn about sound walls, the more they make sense to me.  Here are a few of the main benefits I see to using a sound wall in the classroom: 

Sound walls are based on the science of reading! Research tells us that readers make the connection between print patterns and phonological information that is already stored in the brain in order to then make meaning of the word they’re reading (Moats, 2010). This is why explicitly teaching phonemes is necessary before you teach sound-letter correspondence. 

Sound walls approach things from the learners point of view.  On a traditional A-Z word wall, words are categorized by the first letter. But that doesn’t make sense to someone who is just learning to spell! A student looking for the word phone will not naturally look to P. Putting the word knee under K is confusing to them! A sound wall categorizes words by their sounds which makes much more sense to the learner!

They allow for explicit instruction of phonemes.  Kids learn to talk well before they learn to read or write. This is because the human brain is hardwired for oral language, but not for reading and writing. Students need direct and explicit instruction on how to read, write, and spell.  A sound wall is a tool that allows for this valuable, explicit phonics instruction.  

Do you use a sound wall in your classroom? What benefits do you see to using one?

I hope the information I’ve shared today helps you to better understand sound walls and why they are such a great resource for helping students read and write. Ready to get started? Head to my next post where I’ll share all about getting a sound wall set-up in your classroom!

Are you looking for more help with your classroom sound wall?

I’ve got just the thing for you!

My new course, The Science of Sound Walls, will take all the guesswork out of using your sound wall. This virtual course is your complete training and implementation plan for using a sound wall in your kindergarten, 1st and 2nd-grade classroom.

Discover what is inside The Science of Sound Walls here.



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