Interactive word walls: Speaking and writing about science.

Focus and relevance
Academic language can be defined as language that is different from everyday language used in social or non-academic settings. Academic language is language used in academic settings, including school settings (Cummins, 1981). The academic language of science, for example, is made up of distinctive features including vocabulary and patterns of discourse different from everyday language use (Gee, 2004; Lemke, 1990). Everyday words such as “volume” can take on different meanings in the academic context of science, including loudness of sound or the amount of space taken up by an object. Though arguably challenging for all students (Gee, 2004), the features of science language, “…can and do present significant comprehension challenges to adolescent students, especially struggling readers and English-language learners who do not have sufficient experience with academic texts in content areas such as science” (Fang, 2006, p. 505-506).
Theory and policy consistently emphasize the importance of building ELs’ academic language to facilitate their academic achievement and long-term societal success (Cummins, 1981; Quinn, Lee, & Valdes, 2012; Scarcella, 2003). Scarcella (2003), a second language theorist has stated, “Learning academic English is probably one of the surest, most reliable ways of attaining socio-economic success in the United States today. Learners cannot function in school settings effectively without it” (p. 3). Researchers involved in policy related to science standards also acknowledge the critical role language plays in science learning. They note teachers should act as “supporters of the language learning that occurs in a content-rich and discourse-rich classroom environment” (Quinn et al., 2012, p. 1).
Word walls can be found in many classrooms. Teachers use word walls to visually display vocabulary that students will learn or have learned during instruction. The structure and usefulness of word walls varies. Many word walls are static lists of words or word banks that are arranged alphabetically and created by teachers. Hilden and Jones (2012) label these word walls “word wallpaper” because they decorate classroom walls with words and are seldom used or referenced by students to support learning. Research has found that word walls become instructional tools when they are conceptually organized, include student-generated materials, link academic vocabulary with concepts, and include visual cues (Cunningham, 2000; Author, 2011; Pinnell & Fontas, 1998). Furthermore, word walls that are organized by theme, include pictures or illustrations, and example sentences differentiate instruction for English learners as they learn to speak and write English (Carr, Sexton & Lagunoff, 2007). To support academic language development in science, we replaced traditional teacher-generated word walls or “word wallpaper” with interactive word walls created and used by students.
Interactive word walls strategically target academic vocabulary, visually display connections between inquiry science activities and academic vocabulary and are constructed by students during class. They often resemble graphic organizers or data tables. They showcase connections between concepts and artifacts (realia – the real thing) from inquiry-based science activities while connecting scientific concepts and academic vocabulary. Interactive word walls usually include a visual representation of specific vocabulary words and labels. When appropriate, they highlight prefixes, suffixes, root words, multiple meaning words, and cognates. Definitions are optional.
Interactive word walls scaffold students as they develop an understanding of key academic vocabulary (Author, 2011). Teachers plan the structure of interactive word walls, select the academic vocabulary, and organize the sequence in which the word walls are built. Students construct interactive word walls in class following inquiry science experiences. Involving students in the creation of interactive word walls provides multiple opportunities for them to experience new and familiar academic vocabulary in context, actively process the word’s meaning, and practice speaking and writing genres of text that are intrinsic to science.
A 5-Step process that supports building interactive word walls will be introduced and modeled during this workshop and classroom examples will be displayed. Post conference support is available at and via email or Google Hangout.
ASTE members charged with training pre and in-service teachers, curriculum developers, and researchers seeking an instruction strategy they can use to improve the science achievement of English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and at-risk students may be interested in this session.

Learning objectives & assessment

1. Attendees will use science standards to identify and select essential academic vocabulary.
2. Attendees with experience how student engagement increases when they interact with one another and participate actively in learning tasks.
3. Attendees will experience using an interactive word wall to generate genres of text, both written and verbal forms, that are intrinsic to science.

Formative assessment will occur throughout the session as attendees participate in selecting academic vocabulary from standards, build an interactive word wall, and then use the interactive word wall to generate written and verbal text.

Attendee participation level – This session will be a combination of lecture and hands-on participation. Attendee will use an NGSS standard to identify essential academic vocabulary, then follow a 5-Step process to plan and construct an interactive word wall. Finally, they will use the interactive word wall to generate written and verbal text.

Presenter bio sketch – Dr. Julie Jackson (aka the Science Toolkit) is an associate professor at Texas State University. She developed “interactive word walls” which have transformed K-12 science and vocabulary instruction. She has a record of sustained and powerful site-based interventions that have improved teaching practice and student scores on high-stakes tests. She has broad classroom teaching experience and has published research articles in international and national peer-reviewed journals. Her main research interest is the seamless integration of research-based practices into the day-to-day planning and execution of highly effective, standards aligned, science instruction that benefits diverse populations.