Submitted by members of the Speech and Language Department at the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board:
Nancy Cherwinka, Hons. B.A., C.D.A., Communicative Disorders Assistant
Tealle Plant, Hons. B.A., C.D.A., Communicative Disorders Assistant
Cindy Waite, M.Cl.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) conducted a public inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. Following the inquiry, the OHRC released the document “Right to Read” in a full report which outline the findings.
Through the inquiry into early reading skills, the OHRC found that:
“Ontario’s public education system is failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence-based approaches to teach them to read”
(Right to Read, 2022).
The method widely used in Ontario’s schools is a contextual-based system that teaches word-solving skills using a three-cueing system and a balanced literacy approach. The report outlines many reasons why this approach does not work for:
“...students with special needs (excluding gifted), learning disabilities, boys, Black, and other racialized students, multilingual students, students from low-income backgrounds and Indigenous students.”
Using a three-cueing system and a balanced literacy approach has created an environment where many students do not have the foundational skills to become functionally literate.
The OHRC concluded its inquiry with 157 recommendations on how Ontario’s education sector can meet the basic need and right to read. One early intervention strategy that meets the OHRC’s recommendation for direct, explicit, systematic instruction of foundational literacy skills is introducing “sound walls” into classrooms.
What is the difference between a word wall and a sound wall?
Most kindergarten and early primary classrooms have a “wall” in the classroom with words posted on it in an organized manner. The purpose of such a wall is to provide a scaffold to help students develop sight words and aid as a prompt for independent spelling. There are two types of walls. Although they both display words, they use different organizational formats (Bottari, M., 2020).
A word wall is organized alphabetically using all 26 letters of the alphabet. Typically, “sight words” or “high frequency” words are placed under each letter card based on the first letter of each word. Word walls are driven by the teacher’s point of view as they know and understand all the different spellings of sounds, and they are organized in a print-to-speech format. Students using word walls learn to memorize a word, and therefore they are able to read and spell only that word. The word wall does not help students learn to read new or unfamiliar words. When using word walls, students find the print/letter first and then match the sound (Bottari, M., 2020).
The downfall to using a word wall is that our language is organized in a speech-to-print manner. Children hear speech sounds before they learn to match the sounds to a particular letter or letter pattern. English is not phonemically represented by 26 letters of the alphabet, but by 44 distinct sounds, some of which have multiple graphemic representations. One solution is to use sound walls instead.
A sound wall supports students by focusing on the articulation of sounds (phonemes) and the various letter/letter patterns (graphemes) that represent the sounds in words. You will often see two walls in a classroom using the sound wall format.
1. Consonant Wall
The first wall is for consonant sounds instead of consonant letters. The wall displays cards showing a picture of a mouth producing a sound. It is then organized by the place and manner of articulation for each sound including consonant digraphs “sh”, “ch”, “th”, which are usually not included in word walls. In addition, each card displays the voiced and unvoiced sounds (e.g. /f/ & /v/ are produced in the same place and manner, but /f/ is voiceless and /v/ is voiced). Both are presented by one card. Voiced sounds are those produced when our vocal folds are vibrating (/v/) voiceless sounds are produced when the vocal folds do not vibrate (/f/).
2. Vowel Valley
The second wall for vowels is visually represented in the shape of a valley to mimic the change in position of our mouths (high/mid/low) and shift in our jaw (front/center/back) when producing the vowel sounds. We only have 5, sometimes 6 vowel letters, but those letters represent 18 vowel sounds (Bottari, M., 2020).
Once students are taught how each sound is produced, grapheme cards, representing the variety of graphemes that can be used to represent a sound, are placed next to the phoneme card. For example, the /f/ grapheme card shows all the different ways the /f/ sound is represented in print (e.g. “f”, “ph”, “_ff”). Examples of words can then be placed on the wall based on the first sound in the word. When looking for a word, students can connect the sound they hear to the visual representation of that sound and locate the spelling. This process also helps students connect phonemic awareness skills to print. A sound wall is created from the students’ point of view rather than the teacher’s. A sound wall creates opportunities for students to learn many words by transferring the knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondence to multiple words, rather than just one, as is often the case with word walls. In addition, sound walls are easier for students to navigate, especially for words that have digraphs (a combination of two letters representing one sound “sh, ch, th” ) or for exceptions to the pronunciation rules (most vowels).
Word Dilemmas and Sound Wall Solutions
As mentioned, our English language, more specifically our phoneme-grapheme system of representation, is complicated. In most cases, when students try to spell or read a word, they try sounding out the word and then match the letter to the sounds they have said. Furthermore, using a sound wall instead of a word wall makes sense when considering words like “the, she, phone, Charlotte” as these words do not fit intuitively onto a word wall.
On the traditional word wall, “the” would be placed under the letter “t”, “she” under the letter “s”, “phone” under the letter “p”, but those are not beginning sounds for those words. Students would have a difficult time finding the words if they were using the “sounding out” strategy.
Often the names of students are posted on walls. For example, the name “Charlotte” on a word wall, would be placed under the letter ‘c’. If a word wall happened to include consonant digraph cards, it also would not be appropriate to place it under the “ch '' card as that is not the sound it starts with either. If students other than “Charlotte” wish to spell that name, they would have a difficult time finding it. On a sound wall, we get away from this dilemma as we put “Charlotte” with the phoneme card “sh/zh” as that is what the first sound says, and “ch” is listed as one derivation of the grapheme for that sound.
It seems like a small distinction, providing students with the sounds they say versus the letters they may write. However, this small distinction has been shown to have huge impacts on a child’s ability to read and write. For example, one might spend a long time searching for a word online or in a dictionary because they don't know the first letter(s) (e.g. searching under "f" for "phone").
Speech and Language Implications
Using sound walls, which incorporate knowledge of sound awareness and production and phoneme/grapheme correspondences, can be beneficial to early speech sound awareness/production and phonological awareness development. The acquisition of speech sounds is developmental, with most sounds acquired and established by the time students enter Junior Kindergarten.
For those students who are having difficulty with speech sound production, or are receiving speech-language support, the visual representation of the sounds on the Consonant Wall and Vowel Valley can be used as a reminder for them to correct their sounds. It can also be used by teachers as a prompt to cue students when they make an error (e.g. “Remember, the /k/ sound is made at the back of your mouth”). In addition, later developing speech sounds are modelled and practiced earlier by implementing a sound wall system.
Early developing skills include rhyming awareness and identifying the initial sound in words. Implementing a system where words are displayed by initial sound will aid in the development of these skills. For example, when practicing rhyming, teachers can give clues like “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with cat and starts with the /b/ sound”. Placing phoneme-grapheme cards on a sound wall will also begin to build the letter-sound relationships students need to move toward reading and writing words.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read report outlined that early intervention (prior to Grade 2) and choosing evidence-based interventions will be essential in moving forward with their recommendations. They suggest that changes should be made across the province of Ontario and a consistency of intervention across all school boards should be implemented. While it will take time to implement such recommendations, individual school boards and even classroom teachers may wish to explore the recommendations now. Shifting from using a word wall to a sound wall is a good start. A small change could make a big impact on students' abilities to learn how to read. As the Ontario Human Rights Commission concluded in the Right to Read Report: “It is time for change”.
Learn more about Sound Walls:
- Kid Lips™ program created by Tools 4 Reading
- Reading Rockets - Transitioning from Word Walls to Sound Walls
- Science of Reading Sound Wall Starter Kit by Learning A-Z
- Louisiana Literacy Setting Your Classroom Up for Success with the Science of Reading created by the Louisiana Department of Education
Ontario Human Rights Commission (2022). Right to Read: Ontario Human Rights Commission inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system: Approved by the OHRC: January 27, 2022
Dahlgren, M. and Fierro, A. (2021). Educational materials; Kid Lips. Tools 4 Reading. https://www.tools4reading.com/
Bottari, M. (2020). Transitioning from word walls to sound walls. Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/transitioning-word-walls-sound-walls