The teaching world is abuzz with sound walls, and for good reason. Sound walls are visual tools that are rooted in evidence-based practices from the Science of Reading. In this blog post, we will explore what sound walls are, why they are essential for phonics instruction, and how you can effectively implement them in your classrooms.
What Is a Sound Wall?
A sound wall is a visual classroom educational tool that is used to teach phonics skills to young readers. It helps students understand the relationship between spoken sounds (phonemes) and their corresponding written symbols (graphemes). This fosters a deeper understanding of phonics – the relationship between sounds and letters. When we visually connect sounds to letters, students can develop better decoding and encoding skills, which aid in improved reading, spelling, and overall language development.
Word Walls vs Sound Walls
To dive further into what a sound wall is, let’s first look at one of the most common displays we find in a classroom: a word wall. A word wall organizes words by sorting them under the 26 letters of the alphabet. This means that under the letter C, you’ll find words such as cat, cheese, chemist, and circle. In case you didn’t notice, none of these words begin with the same sound. This can be phonetically confusing for students and is a core reason why teachers are opting for sound walls rather than word walls. The English language has 44 unique sounds, called phonemes, not 26 sounds as organized by such alphabetic displays.
In contrast, a sound wall considers all the different phonemes (sounds) of the English language and displays words/graphemes according to these phonemes, rather than by the letters they begin with. When sounds are organized this way, it becomes much easier for students to utilize this knowledge when decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words.
The value of sound walls is even greater than the example provided above. The way sound walls are organized provides a number of benefits to your phonics instruction as well.
How Are Sound Walls Organized?
Sound walls are displayed in two sections: a vowel valley and a consonant wall. These sections are commonly displayed side by side on a bulletin board or wall. Let’s take a closer look at each section.
The vowel section of a sound wall, known as a vowel valley due to its shape, covers all the different vowel phonemes (sounds) found in the English language. The valley representation mimics the gradual change in our mouth shape and jaw position as each of these sounds are articulated. This representation is beneficial for both students and educators as it can aid them in producing sounds correctly whilst differentiating between the various vowel sounds.
All vowel sounds are voiced; voiced sounds are those where a vibration can be felt in the throat due to the activation of the vocal cords. In contrast, unvoiced sounds do not utilize the vocal cords to produce the sound, so they do not produce a vibration in the throat. Students can differentiate between voiced and unvoiced sounds by placing their hand on their throat to feel for a vibration as they produce a sound. Knowing the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds is handy for beginning readers and spellers as it can help them discriminate between similar phonemes.
The core difference between vowel sounds and consonant sounds is that there is no obstruction to the airflow in the mouth when a vowel sound is produced.
The consonant section of a sound wall displays the different consonant phonemes in the English language. These consonant phonemes can be voiced or unvoiced, depending on whether the vocal cords are being engaged when a sound is being produced.
The consonants section is organized a little differently to the vowel valley; the phonemes are organized by the manner of articulation, which relates to how sounds are made using the mouth. Unlike vowel sounds, consonant sounds are produced with a large degree of obstruction in the vocal tract by the tongue, lips, or teeth, and a consonant wall nicely organizes consonant sounds accordingly, which can help with sound articulation.
Here is a brief outline of the manners of articulation and a short description of each:
|Manner of Articulation
|Stops are sounds that briefly stop the airflow before releasing it. They cannot be elongated.
|/p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/
|Fricative sounds create a friction-like sound by forcing continuous airflow through a tiny hole.
|/f/, /v/, /th/ (voiced and unvoiced), /s/, /z/, /sh/, /zh/, /h/
|Affricates are sounds that begin as stops and are released as a fricative.
|Nasal sounds occur when airflow passes through the nose due to a lowered velum (palate).
|/m/, /n/, /ng/
|Glides are produced with little obstruction to the airstream. They are similar to vowel sounds and are almost always followed by a vowel.
|/hw/, /w/, /y/
|Liquid sounds are produced with some obstruction to the airstream but without any friction. They can influence the vowels that precede them and can be influenced by their adjacent sounds.
A sound wall also displays ‘x’ and ‘qu’, although they make two sounds.
Adding a Schwa Sound
When explicitly introducing sounds from a sound wall, it is crucial for both teachers and students to pronounce the sounds without an added schwa sound. For example, incorrectly adding an ‘uh’ to the end of a sound – ‘puh’ for /p/, or ‘cuh’ for /c/ – makes it very difficult and challenging for students to identify phonemes or differentiate between them. The extra ‘uh’ may even show up when they are spelling, such as writing ‘pulant’ for the word ‘plant’.
It is important to encourage students to correctly articulate each phoneme without adding a schwa sound. This will lead to better accuracy when manipulating each sound while blending and segmenting.
Why Are Teachers Using Sound Walls?
As demonstrated thus far, sound walls hold great benefits when used as a part of an explicit, systematic, and sequential phonics program. Here are several benefits of using a sound wall in your classroom:
- Sound walls provide a visual representation of the relationship between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (written symbols). This can help students understand the mapping between spoken language and written language.
- Sound walls promote phonemic awareness whereby students develop skills in identifying, manipulating, and differentiating between individual speech sounds. This ability is crucial for decoding and encoding.
- Sound walls can help improve articulation of sounds, making it an effective speech development tool, particularly in the speech therapy context.
- Sound walls support phonics instruction as they bring to focus various sound-spelling correspondences, which can help students grasp phonics rules and patterns.
- Sound walls are multisensory. They engage the visual and auditory senses, and when combined with hand gestures for sounds, they provide students with a multisensory experience during phonics instruction.
- Sound walls act as a valuable reference tool; teachers can use them when introducing and reviewing sounds, and students can use them when they encounter unfamiliar words.
- Sound walls are rooted in evidence-based practices from the Science of Reading.
How To Use a Sound Wall
Guidelines to Setting Up a Sound Wall
The most important aspect of effectively using a sound wall in your classroom is to introduce it slowly. Here are two different approaches commonly used by teachers:
- Begin with an empty board and gradually add phonemes and graphemes as your students learn them. This means that your students will not become overwhelmed with all the different elements on the board.
- Put together the entire sound wall but cover any untaught phonemes and graphemes with ‘locked’ cards. Remove the locked cards as you teach the new phoneme and grapheme.
It is also important that students are familiarized with a sound wall before it is implemented. Introduce them to the symbols and images used and what their purpose is. If beginning with a complete sound wall, orient students to the layout of the wall and focus their attention on how the different sounds are organized.
How to Introduce New Sounds
Here is a brief guide to introducing new sounds:
- Start by revising previously taught sounds to reinforce prior knowledge.
- Introduce the new sound. Focus on correct articulation and mouth formation. Provide students with a mirror to view how their mouth looks as they articulate the sound.
- Encourage students to participate in discussion about the sound, e.g., what is your tongue doing? Place your hand over your vocal cords. Is it a voiced sound or an unvoiced sound?
- Have students repeat the sound many times to ensure correct articulation. You may even provide them with a mirror to view how their mouth looks as they are articulating each sound.
- Provide examples of the sound in words. Have students brainstorm more words that contain this sound either as a class group or in partners.
Mirrors are an important aspect of improving sound articulation. Students should always have a mirror on hand to view the shape of their mouth when articulating sounds. The mouth images on a sound wall are important cues in helping your students get their mouth position ready to say a new sound. Students must be explicitly taught the phoneme and must be guided to recognize it in words.
Additional Sound Wall Activities
- Phoneme Detectives: Provide students with a list of words and have them find words with the same pattern on the sound wall.
- Play I Spy: For example, “I spy something in the classroom with a /th/ sound.”
- Sound Wall Race: Divide your class into 2 groups. Ask students to find a phoneme on the sound wall and write it. The team who finds it first wins!
- Sound Wall Charades: Show a student a grapheme. He must silently do the correct articulatory gesture while the other students guess the correct phoneme.
- Sound Wall Word Generators: Show students a grapheme. Whoever writes the most words with that pattern wins.
- Sound Wall Song: “Phoneme, phoneme, hear the sound. Tell me a word with this sound…” The teacher chants the rhyme and chooses a phoneme that has been taught. The teacher calls on volunteers to brainstorm words with that sound.
- Memory: Use the sound wall cards to create a memory game. Place the cards facing downwards. Students will try to match the cards to the words with the corresponding grapheme.
- Word Building: Move the letters on the sound wall to create words. Have students read the words. It’s a great idea to use the word mapping process when spelling words.
On a final note…
Sound walls support teachers in delivering explicit phonics instruction with a direct focus on individual phonemes and graphemes and by highlighting the relationship between them. Integrating sound walls into your phonics instruction helps students develop phonemic awareness and phonics skills. It’s important to remember that the key to effective use of a sound wall is interactivity and engagement, so be sure to incorporate games, movement, and other fun exercises.
Individual Student Sound Walls
Individual sound walls can also be a helpful self-reference tool for students when they are reading or writing. It is super easy to put together – all you need is a file folder! It’s also a way to use sound walls in your classroom or home if you don’t have space to display a large version on a bulletin board or wall. You can purchase an individual sound wall separately here: