Return to Headlines

Word Wall Tradition Promotes Student Engagement

Andy CunninghamIn Andy Cunningham’s academic literacy class, students always get the final word.


Proof lines one wall of his Park Forest Middle School room. A blackboard as colorful as a flower garden presents a vivid mosaic of dictionary heavyweights such as “miasmic” and “gossamer” — written, often in whimsical script, by eighth-graders at the end of the year.


Cunningham calls it a “word wall,” a tradition in its fifth year that caps a systematic approach to building vocabulary and a love of language. Students choose words that stood out for them throughout the class, anything they think future eighth-graders should know.


“It’s a neat thing, and the kids are always excited when they get to add to it,” Cunningham said. “You don’t have to twist any arms. They can’t wait for their turn to contribute to the legacy.”


Before they can step up to the board with chalk markers, however, students follow a yearlong writing program that includes making vocabulary cards with unfamiliar words culled from readings. Each card includes a paraphrased definition, a drawing illustrating the meaning and a sentence with the correct usage.


By late May, vocabulary folders bulge with cards clipped together. From the stacks, students choose the next crop of Scrabble winners for an eye-catching linguistic celebration.


“Andy’s word wall is a great example of how to spark curiosity with his students about the English language,” Park Forest Principal Karen Wiser said. “Words picked by his students are always chosen in context and help to elevate and expand their language usage.”


Word WallIt’s all part of a daily dive into vocabulary, from exploring Greek and Latin roots to discussing selected words such as “aplomb” or “enraptured” from readings or the wall. Sometimes, everyone savors something ridiculous sounding — “shadoof” or “yammer” — just for the fun of it.


“This course is built around choice reading, so they have all these words in front of them,” Cunningham said. “I want them to enjoy reading, so it’s not like they have to jot down every word they don’t know. I feel like all the vocab words are a huge school of fish, and you’re just trying to catch a few, add them to your collection, and then use them.”


Gazing at the wall, Cunningham takes visible pleasure in citing the literary sources of students’ choices. “Taradiddle” came from the Harry Potter series. “Sadist” appeared in the play Twelve Angry Men. “Prosopagnosia” stemmed from the novel Holding Up the Universe.


He also appreciates the creativity on display; the graffiti-like appearance of some words, or the motion lines accentuating meanings like in comic strips. As does a dynamic gallery piece, the wall dominates the room.


“Visitors are attracted to it,” Cunningham said. “They’ll come in and look at words and wonder what they mean and talk about that together.”


Andy CunninghamBy now, the wall has filled to the point where he’ll soon have to ask for another board to continue the tradition. When he looks back on the transformation from utilitarian to artistic, one fancy word comes to mind.


“I’d say ‘serendipitous,’” he said. “That would be a good fit because it really has been a happy accident. Over time, it’s grown into something quite beautiful.”


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark

Word Wall