How to use a Sound Wall

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You’ve probably heard about sound walls in the classroom through colleagues or social media – maybe you’ve been asked to implement a sound wall in your classroom. 

Implementing new tools can seem overwhelming at first, but the investment in student learning is always worth it.

If you’re not sure how to use a sound wall, or how to get started with your sound wall, then we’re here to help!

What are sound walls?

A sound wall is organized by sound, helping students to move from speech-print using phonemes (letter sounds), mouth formation(articulation), and recognition of common and uncommon graphemes (letter patterns).

A sound wall will transform your reading instruction. They are easily differentiated for younger and older students, and aid in explicit and systematic phonic instruction, orthographic mapping, spelling, and decoding, while also providing students with a working reference wall for reading and writing.

Why should I use a sound wall?

Explicit instruction of phonemes is known to improve student reading outcomes. Even older students can benefit from a review of phonemes and common and extended grapheme knowledge.

Secondly, on a sound wall, words are grouped with sounds. This means that instead of learning words from a word wall, students learn letter sounds and letter patterns, and transfer that knowledge to decoding and spelling other new words. Sound walls are also more easily used. For instance, when a student looks for the spelling of a word such as ‘one’, on a word wall, where do they look? Normally they start with the letter ‘W’. On a sound wall, they are not misled by the letter ‘o’ but are instead led to finding the phoneme /w/, which can be represented by (in this case less-common) graphemes This is far more effective at teaching different spelling patterns.

Finally, they fit into your phonics/spelling program and are an ongoing visual aide. They are not meant to have every word a child needs to spell – rather, the goal is the transfer of letter-sound knowledge and retrieval of taught phonemes/graphemes. Learning how to use a sound wall, and teaching your students how to use them as a learning tool can have huge benefits for reading and writing in your classroom.

What grades should use a sound wall?

Sound walls should be used from K to upper primary. Depending on your class/student needs, you can include all or some of the sounds, include less common graphemes, and begin to move into morphology to provide enrichment for students who have mastered the 44 phonemes and graphemes.

How to use a sound wall – basic principles

Sound wall pedagogy is not something you will perfect overnight. Even the experts can’t agree on the categorization of sounds, so being confused about how sounds are represented, how words are segmented and blended, and the ‘best way’ to use a sound wall is normal. That said, when beginning to use a sound wall some basic principles apply:

  • Introduce one phoneme at a time.
  • Explicitly teach each sound.
  • Don’t introduce similar sounds at the same time.
  • Introduce the most common letter or grapheme that represents that sound first, but aim to display as many as is age-appropriate.
  • Display mouth formation images for each sound. 
  • It’s best to display as you go. Preparing the entire wall and then carefully storing by sound type all at once, is useful for being able to add sounds throughout the year.
  • If you need to put up your entire wall (some of us NEED to do this LOL), cover up the sounds that haven’t been explicitly taught. Some sound wall kits come with lock images that are handy for this purpose. 
  • MODEL HOW TO USE A SOUND WALL by planning sound wall activities. Review the sounds every day and then model how to use the wall. It’s not useful if it’s not used!

How do I display a sound wall?

A sound wall uses sound groupings to organize the phonemes. When using a sound wall, it is actually better to have two distinct walls for vowels and consonants. The classic sound wall includes all of the phonemes:

Wall #1 (see image below)

This wall includes :

  1. Vowel valley Long and Short Vowels /ē/, /I/, /ā/, /e/, /a/, /ī/, /o/, /u/, /aw/, /ō/, /oo/, ōō/, yū/ & Vowel Dipthongs /oi/, /ou/,  Vowel Sounds Influenced by ‘R’ /ûr/, /a(r)/, /ā(r)/, /o(r)/, Schwa

The mouth formations in vowel valley move left to right,  from /ee/ to /ou/. They should be grouped together.

how to use a sound wall

Wall #2

This wall includes the consonants and consonant digraphs:

  1. Stops Unvoiced /p/ /t/ /k/  Stops Voiced /b/ /d/ /g/ /j/  Continuants Unvoiced /f/ /s/ Continuants Voiced /v/ /z/ Glides /h/ /y/ /w/ Liquid /l/ /r/ /m/ /n/ Others /k//w/ /k//x/
  2. Consonant Digraphs /th/ voiced and unvoiced, /ng/ /sh/ /ch/ /wh/ with breath /zh/
how to use a sound wall

Do you put words on a sound wall?

Yes! But the focus is always on the phonemes and graphemes. After all, you can teach students ten words and they will know ten words. If you teach students ten sounds, they will be able to spell many, many words!

Words displayed on a sound wall should have graphemes highlighted, and sit under their phoneme. For younger students, pictures should also be used.

How to use a sound wall: Alternative ways to display sound wall cards

Consonants and consonant digraphs can be grouped in different ways. It is up to your own pedagogical approach whether you feel speech pathology terminology is useful in your classroom. 

You can simply display consonants in the order they are learned, distinguishing between stops and continuants (acknowledging Schwa isn’t added onto the end of sounds – eg /p/-uh).

You can also use groupings such as Fricatives /f/, /th/, /s/, /sh/, /h/ and Affricates /ch/, /j/. 

Being playful with your wall, for example placing voiced and unvoiced sounds (/b/, /p/) next to each other for comparisons, can deepen your students’ understanding of phonemes. 

Differentiating the wall for your classroom is also important.  A complete sound wall may be overwhelming for your class. Displaying just Vowel Valley, or the week’s focus sound, and one or two previous sounds can work for one class. 

If your class is requesting how to spell sounds that aren’t on display, consider if you need to add more to your wall, while highlighting the sounds you have explicitly taught. How to use a sound wall is really up to you and the needs of your class!

If you are confused about sound walls, you should know that even the experts can’t agree on how many phonemes there are. Are there 42 or 44? Do we include vowel digraphs in the final number or not? Academics have even written entire papers trying to prove there are only 35 phonemes. 

It’s not because anyone is incorrect – it’s because the English language is incredibly complex and sounds are changed by dialects, pronunciation, and accents.

Now, imagine trying to convince your colleagues there are only 35 phonemes. The thought would probably fill you with dread – and this is how we can feel when trying to implement new things. We get imposter syndrome and worry that we will expose ourselves as not knowing enough.

The key is to do your best, listen to advice from people you respect, continue to learn, and implement the things you learn in your classroom.

Check out our range of Sound Walls and phonics resources here or in our TPT store. Our handy sound wall resources will help you to know how to use a sound wall that suits your classroom!