Why I Stopped Building a Word Wall And What I Actually Do Instead

If you've been in a primary classroom recently, chances are you've seen a word wall. While I believe they are an essential part of an early primary classroom, they may not be the best choice when students get to second and third grade. Here's why I stopped building a word wall and what I actually do instead.

Photo of differentiated word lists with text, "Why I Stopped Building a Word Wall And What I Actually Do Instead."

What is a word wall?

A word wall is a collection of words placed on the classroom wall using letters large enough for most students to see from their place in the classroom. It is usually organized alphabetically and built throughout the school year with the students. The word wall is often the focus of word work activities and lessons.

Photo of word wall on chalkboard.

Why I Stopped Building a Word Wall

When I first started teaching a split 2/3 class, I had a word wall. That's what's expected, right? Doesn't every primary classroom have one?

I quickly realized that the word wall only served the needs of some of my students. It left behind my struggling students, high-achieving students, and students with vision and attention problems.

My word wall also took up a LOT of space. More than half of my board space on one wall was exclusively used for my word wall, meaning that I couldn't use that space for other instructional purposes! It feels like a massive waste of space when the word wall is mostly empty at the beginning of the school year!

As the year progressed, I also noticed that my students used the wall less and less during their independent work. Students with vision or attention issues had a challenging time locating the words they needed as the word wall filled up, and I had more and more students asking me how to spell a word that was already there.

What I Do Instead

I have two main resources that I use now instead of a word wall. Both have different purposes and are used every day.

Personal Student Dictionaries

At the beginning of the year, I give each of my students a personal dictionary or word book. I created two levels so I can discreetly differentiate the words my students receive. The lower level contains the high-frequency words from pre-primer to third grade, and the upper level has over 1000 of the most commonly used words in the English language, plus extra things such as plural rules and contractions.

Photos of personal student dictionaries with text "My Personal Word Book" on the cover.

When I assemble the booklets, I use the same cover for both versions to give each student the words that will be most useful to them. 

Each of the books contains many words the students may be using in their writing and lots of extra space for them to write new words. My students are engaging with the words that are meaningful to them.

Photos of two levels of student dictionaries showing the inside pages.

These are kept in student desks to be used at any time during the day without fuss. My students not only pull these out during writing but also during subjects like science and social studies or during reading to collect words they read that they would like to try and use in their own writing.

Differentiated Word Lists

Even though I don't have a word wall, I do have a word work program. We still learn about spelling patterns and letter sounds. We still practice working with words daily. For this time, we use my Differentiated Word Lists

Photo of differentiated word list resource hanging on metal hooks on chalkboard.

I have created over 330 lists for use during these activities! When working on phonics activities, my students have access to three differentiated lists for each spelling pattern. Having three levels to choose from allows my students the opportunity to select a level where they're feeling comfortable or one to challenge themselves a little bit. The power of choice in learning is huge!

These lists are condensed to contain ten words on each small page per level and stored on a ring. That's 30 differentiated words to meet the needs of all students using a quarter of a sheet of paper. My students grab a ring during work time and take it to their workspace, returning it when they finish.

Photo of single-page differentiated word lists.

The great thing about these lists is that they can be used in a variety of ways! You can build the sets by sound with the three levels together, or you can assign levels to each student and create student sets instead. I've always preferred to leave the levels together to give my students a choice and opportunity to take risks independently. 

Photo of differentiated word lists for student "Emma."

While a word wall definitely has its place in the early primary grades, these alternatives have proven far more beneficial to my students. I continue to use the personal word books with fifth and sixth-grade students today!

If you'd like to try these Differentiated Word Lists, you can grab a FREE sample here:

Photo of differentiated word lists with text, "Try Differentiated Word Lists Free!"

To get started with these Personal Dictionaries and Word Lists in your classroom, click the links below.


Read more about my word work program in this blog post:

Photo of word work centers in drawers with text, "How to Offer Word Work Activities Students Love."


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Photo of inside page of personal student dictionary with text, "Why I Stopped Building a Word Wall And What I Actually Do Instead."


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