Environment: Print

Authentic print in a classroom reflects what is valued and important to the community.

It offers children resources they can use as they grow as independent learners while also celebrating their efforts and making their learning public. Authentic print is written in “real” teacher or children’s handwriting. The content of what’s written is meaningful to the children. Its purpose is to anchor the children’s learning of strategies, skills, and procedures they need to be successful readers and writers. By engaging in the process of creating authentic print during lessons and interacting with it to support the reading and writing children do on their own, children internalize the meaning of print, are invested in using it for support and, as a result, are more likely to apply the content. In contrast, commercial print is developed by a poster company or bought at a teacher supply store. The content is not created with the children, and therefore is not as meaningful. A child-centric, print-rich classroom contains a variety of different types of displays such as anchor charts, word walls, labels, visual supports, and children writing and should reflect current teaching and learning.

Authentic Print

“Commercial products…do not invite engagement, wonder, or imagination, making them that much easier to be ignored at the conscious level. The image of the learner embedded in these materials is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within this environment.” - Patricia Tarr, Consider the Walls

Child Made Alphabet

Commercial print often looks “cute.” It may contain little animals or pictures that you think children find appealing. However, the opposite is actually true. Authentic displayed writing is much more powerful and meaningful for children. Therefore, use your walls purposefully by displaying only print and charts that you created in front of or with the children.

When creating charts and displays with the children in your room, be thoughtful about how you create them in order to broaden your children’s understanding of the writing process. You may choose to do the writing or you might have children do some of the writing. You may choose to come up with the language for the chart or you might make it a shared decision. You may decide to use the chart-making activity as an opportunity to teach explicit phonics skills or you may not. In other words, consider your goals and match them to the different types of writing available to you.

A print rich environment may also include connections to a child’s native language. English language learners benefit from increased exposure to child created print, language, and visual supports. Being aware of native language influence will allow you to target your shared and interactive writing instruction.

Type of Writing Who holds the pen Who comes up with the ideas Why choose this method
Modeled Writing Teacher Teacher If children need to see an example of an experienced writer demonstrating how to generate ideas, how to compose a text, how to revise and/or how to edit
Shared Writing Teacher Teacher and children If you want children to share their ideas and their understandings while translating some of their responses in order to capture their thinking clearly and precisely
Interactive Writing Teacher and children Teacher and children If you want children to share their ideas and understandings while also working on specific phonics and spelling skills

Guidelines for Creating Anchor Charts

“I’ve found that often we use our dry erase or chalkboards to chart things, but then erase them at the end of the day. For many kids, this information just goes into short-term memory. By creating, displaying, and referring to anchor charts across all subject areas, I believe we can help kids transfer ideas and ‘anchor’ them into long-term memory.” - Debbie Diller, Spaces & Places

Anchor charts are one of the most effective, engaging, and child-friendly ways to support instruction and reinforce key concepts, skills, and vocabulary. A great anchor chart can be like adding another effective educator to a classroom. Children can review the steps of a specific skill, strategy, or process during guided or independent practice using an effective anchor chart. When these are created with the children in your classroom, they can be used to capture their thinking and learning and also serve as a resource for children as they become increasingly independent learners.

Create essential anchor charts.

  • Create anchor charts for ideas you want children to remember or information that they might have trouble remembering. There doesn’t need to be an anchor chart for everything.

  • An anchor chart that helps children remember different strategies for decoding an unfamiliar word is helpful. An anchor chart that lists the names of the parts of a book (cover, title, etc.) is not necessary if the children already know this information.

  • Create anchor charts with your children. Children learn more about the concept on the chart if they are involved in making it, rather than just reading ones bought from the store. Making the chart becomes a part of learning the information.

  • If you are teaching your readers about character traits, instead of purchasing a store bought list, create one with your children. When you read a book in which a character exhibits a trait you want your children to learn, add the trait to the anchor chart “Character Traits” and provide the example from the book to anchor their learning.

When creating anchor charts, use examples to illustrate the ideas.

  • If you are making an anchor chart of informational text features, beside each feature, use a real-life example (an image or a quote) from a book that you have shared with your children.

  • Use pictures, drawings, children’s names, quotations or photos. Personalizing the anchor charts will lead to greater child investment. Pictures will help early readers and English language learners.

  • If you are creating an anchor chart that lists feelings, take a photograph of one of your children making an expression that reflects that feeling (e.g., surprised or angry). These photographs will illustrate the vocabulary word and personalize the chart for the children.

Anchor charts should be built over time.

  • If you are teaching a big concept such as comprehension strategies, you might consider adding one idea to the anchor chart each time you teach a strategy. In this way, the anchor chart reflects your current instruction.

Display anchor charts in the area of your classroom where they make the most sense. Refer to them.

  • If your class has created a “Book Handling Responsibilities” anchor chart, consider hanging it in your classroom library. Also display it at eye level so children can read it easily.

  • Refer to your anchor charts during the natural course of your instruction. The more you model using them for reference, the more the children will use them for their own independent thinking and work.

  • If you are conferencing with a child who says they are done with their writing, you can refer to the “What to do when you think you are done” chart and discuss next steps.

Retire anchor charts.

Keep up the anchor charts that are needed and reflect current learning. Classroom resources should be relevant so that they will be used by the children. Retire anchor charts when they are no longer current to life in the classroom so they don’t become decorations. But what can you do with them? Throwing them away seems like a great loss of learning. Here are some tips:

  • Photograph Them - Take pictures of your retired anchor charts and place them in a photo album for children to peruse. You might also give each child a copy of the photo for them to place in their individual reading and/or writing notebooks as resources.

  • Laminate Them - You might create a big book of retired anchor charts that children can reference when they need to or read for fun when they are in the classroom library.

  • Type Them - Create a document with the information contained on the anchor chart and give them to the children to use as resources when they read and/or write. Or send them home so families can see what learning has taken place.

Guidelines for Displaying Children’s Writing

Displaying children’s work sends an important message: as your teacher I value your work and your efforts; this is your learning environment. Research indicates that children (especially ELLs) will be more apt to look at their own work over commercially created materials. Remember children in early elementary classrooms are growing each and every day as writers. Their print is a work in progress – perfection should not be the goal. When you display children’s writing, ensure that children feel empowered by the experience of seeing their work on display by taking these few steps:

  • Designate a space for each of your children. Allow each child to select the piece they want to display. Ask them to record a note that explains why they chose that piece. Did they try out a new strategy for the first time? Did they write about something particularly meaningful? Display this as well as the writing piece. (If the children are too young to write their own note, let them dictate it to you.)

  • Display children’s works-in-progress. Encourage children to celebrate the writing process and to recognize the gains they are making as young writers.

  • Display the children’s writing at their eye level. Children will naturally be eager to read their own and their peers’ work over and over.

  • Avoid the red pen. Displaying children’s work that has your writing, grades, or your corrections on it undermines the children’s sense of ownership over their work. If there are errors, or teaching points you want to make, do it in the children’s writing folders, not on their displayed writing.

  • Rotate the children’s writing. Once their published writing is retired from display, create a basket for the library entitled “Classroom Authors” and store their work there. This will send the message that their writing is authentic and has gone through the publishing process as has the work of the other featured authors in your classroom library.

High Frequency Words

High frequency words, or sight words, are words that often have very little meaning on their own (for example, “of”). Actually, they are often considered “service” words or connector words because they link words with more concrete meanings together. Pictures do not help you understand the meaning of sight words. After all, what picture could you draw for the word “the”? However, they are important to the overall meaning of a sentence.

While some high frequency words do follow regular phonetic rules (e.g. “he”) most of these words do not. Therefore, these irregularly spelled words must be must be memorized by your children. Take, for example, the word “have.” If this word followed the general phonetic rules for English, you would pronounce it with the long a sound and it would rhyme with “gave.” Therefore, children need to learn how to read and write these words with automaticity in order to build their reading and writing fluency.

Additionally, English language learners’ ability to acquire sight words depends heavily on their oral language proficiency. If children do not have the word in their oral vocabulary, it will be more challenging for them to learn the sight word. Therefore, it is crucial that sight words are explicitly taught.

How do you teach high frequency words?

A good rule of thumb is to choose approximately three to five new words a week to introduce to your children. You can select these words from the children’s writing (which high frequency words are they using and misspelling most often?) or from common high frequency word lists such as the Dolch list (which has the 220 most common high frequency words) or the Fry list which compiles 1000 of the most common high frequency words.

Once you have selected your words for the week, write each one of them on a different colored index card (this will help your children differentiate between similarly spelled words later on when you display them). Then follow these steps when introducing each word:

  • Show and say the word.
  • Use the word in context (i.e., in a sentence).
  • Then children should say the word, chant the letters of the word, and write the word on a piece of paper or on a wipe off board.

Engage the children in saying and spelling the word through multisensory activities such as clapping each letter or jumping up and down as they say each letter throughout the week. Do a fun activity at least once each week to reinforce their spelling. There are many word wall chants, cheers, and games you can play with your children to bring these words to life. Quickly reinforcing how to read and write these words can be a fun transition activity (“Before you line up, hold up the number of letters in the word ‘they’”) or a quick five minute review (“Let’s ‘write in the air’ this week’s word wall words”).

Also, promote searching for and identifying sight words in context, mirroring how children authentically encounter the words. You can provide children with reading materials, appropriate to their levels and that can be written on, and ask them to circle, underline, or highlight the sight words they find. Or ask them to count how many times they notice certain sight words occurring in suggested texts.

At the end of the week, hang your words on your word wall.

High Frequency Word Lists

There are several lists of high frequency words that you can refer to when choosing words to teach your children. The Dolch word list includes the 220 most common words encountered in children’s books. The Fry word list is a list of commonly used words in English ranked in order of frequency.

Use what you know about children’s reading and writing needs to decide which words to teach. Refer to their writing and your anecdotal records to pinpoint exactly which words your children would benefit from learning.

Chants for Learning High Frequency Words

Use multisensory teaching strategies to present information in a way that engages visual, auditory, and tactile learners. For example, use chants to introduce and review high frequency words to help children see the words, hear how they are spelled, and use their hands and/or bodies to help commit these words to memory. Here are some examples of chants you can use to help children learn to read and spell high frequency words with automaticity.

Tip: Be sure to use a separate movement for the letters and the word in order to enhance children’s understanding of the difference between the two.

Examples of Chants and Cheers

Name of Cheer Action for Each Syllable, Letter, or Sound Action for Word
Clap and Snap clap hands snap fingers
Marshmallow bring hands together without touching, as if you have a giant marshmallow between your hands squash the marshmallow with one clap
Army march salute
Motorcycle rev the handlebars of the motorcycle you are pretending to ride pop a wheelie
Basketball Dribble your pretend basketball shoot the ball
Baseball take practice swings with your pretend bat swing the bat for a homerun
Jumping Jacks do jumping jacks clap hands once
Violin play the strings on your pretend violin make a big bow
Rock and Roll strum your pretend guitar strum big
Golf swing your pretend golf club swing for a hole in one
Driving drive a car by turning the wheel turn the wheel quickly
Scorpion pinch the air with your claw bring your arm up from behind like a scorpion’s tail
Boxing punch uppercut
Red Hot shake your pretend pom-poms jump and shake pom-poms
Drummer tap your pretend drum hit the cymbals
Slimy pop your hips use a squeaky voice
Piano play the keys slide your fingers down the keys
Stomp and Clap stomp your feet clap your hands
Writing write the letters in the air with a pretend pencil underline with a wide, sweeping motion
Inside and Out jump in and out (forward and backward) big jump
Jump Rope turn a pretend jump rope with little jumps turn a pretend jump rope once with one big jump
Robot Shutdown robot dance slump over with slow, quiet voice, like you’re running out of energy

To engage and involve your children, create a chart with the chants that you teach them so they can participate in selecting the ones they want to use each day.

Guidelines for an Effective Word Wall

Did you know that over 50% of the words children read are high frequency words? According to Dr. Robert L. Hillerich, a Professor at Bowling Green University, “Just three words I, and, the account for ten percent of all words in printed English.” So how important is it to explicitly teach children these words? Very! If children can read high frequency words in a snap, their reading fluency will increase and they can focus on the more challenging task of comprehension. If they can write these words in a snap, they can build their writing fluency, learn the standardized spelling of common words, and increase the readability of their pieces. Explicitly teaching three to five high frequency words each week is key to helping children learn them.

The word wall is the place in your classroom where high frequency words are housed after you have taught them (other important words such as vocabulary or theme words should be posted elsewhere). The word wall serves as a visual reminder and reference tool for your children that they can use whenever they read or write. A word wall makes it possible for children to write conventionally without asking for help, allowing them to be more independent. When children can spell these high frequency words correctly and with automaticity, it frees them to concentrate on applying themselves to the content of their pieces or on spelling more challenging words. Incidentally, as children peruse the word wall in search of the word they are looking for, they end up reading and reviewing several other important words as well. The word wall also gives children practice with visual discrimination, an important building block for reading. For example, the words the, their, these, and there all look similar; however when they are posted near one another, children can see how each letter’s spot creates a very different word. Word walls that speak to all learners are relevant, up-to-date, interactive, highly visible, and are particularly beneficial to the English language learner.

Where should I place the word wall in my room?

Place the word wall where children can easily see the words and reach them. Children need to be able to touch the word they reference, at least with a pointer if not with their hand, because that way someone can give them feedback that they have indeed found the correct word! This makes the learning concrete, something our young and struggling readers need.

Also, you will be less likely to add words to the word wall on a regular basis if you have to climb on furniture to access it.

How do I create an effective word wall?

  • Use a solid background to make the letter and word cards “pop.”

  • Use white 3x5 cards with the upper and lower case letters written in black marker. Letter cards on a contrasting color to word cards visually teaches children that letters are distinct from words.

  • Display the letter cards in one long line, Aa-Zz, to emphasize the alphabetic principal. This makes it easier for emergent and struggling readers to find a particular letter because it is placed in its spot in the ABCs. Also, you won’t run out of space for words under any given letter if there isn’t a second row underneath.

  • Use varied colored 3x5 cards for your word wall words to facilitate easier tracking and copying of the word during independent writing. If a child can’t find a certain word, a friend can help by saying, “It’s on a green card, under…Rr.”

  • Write the word wall words in large, black letters. Black ink contrasts well with the colored cards. Handwritten words allow them to be as large as possible, thus making it easier for children to be able to see the words from anywhere in the room.

  • Refer to the word wall throughout the instructional day. Teach children how to use it as a reference so they learn how to use it independently. Play word wall games to get children comfortable with finding words and familiar with the words that are on the word wall.

  • A good rule of thumb is to choose approximately three to five new words a week to introduce to your children. You can select these words from the children’s writing (the high frequency words they use and misspell most often) or from common high frequency word lists such as the Dolch list (which has 220 of the most common high frequency words) or the more recent Fry list which has 1000 high frequency words. Once you have selected and written your words on index cards, follow these steps when introducing each word:

    • Show and say the word.
    • Use the word in context (i.e., in a sentence).
    • Then have children say the word, chant the letters of the word, and write the word on a piece of paper or on a wipe off board.
    • Engage the children in saying and spelling the word through multisensory activities such as clapping each letter or jumping up and down as they say each letter throughout the week. Do a fun activity at least once each week to reinforce their use.

The Word Wall and Spanish Language Classrooms

Since small words are generally easy to sound out and spell in Spanish, it can be argued that an A-Z word wall is not necessary in a Spanish language classroom. Rather, words could be grouped by their spelling, such as words spelled with c/s/z; words with silent h; and words spelled with ll or y, etc.

Still, if you are seeing frequent misspellings of common words, a bank of words organized alphabetically can be key to supporting and keeping your children accountable for reading and spelling these words.

Activities for Teaching and Reviewing High Frequency Words

One of the best ways to help children learn high frequency words and remember how to spell them automatically is to play games using the word wall as reference. Games played on a daily basis will help promote children’s reading and spelling skills while also highlighting the usefulness of print in your classroom.

Rhyme with the Word Wall

Say a sentence containing a word that rhymes with one of the word wall words and is spelled with the same pattern. Children must decide which word rhymes and how to spell it.

  1. Children number their papers 1 to 5.
  2. Give the following clues for the lessons words.
    • Example: Number 1 begins with a t and rhymes with walk.
    • Children write “talk” on their papers.
    • To check their answers, say the rhyming word and let children say the word they wrote and chant its spelling.

Musical Chairs

  1. Put a word card on each chair.
  2. When the music stops, have each child pick up the word card from the chair they are closest to and sit in the chair.
  3. Children read and spell the word to the person sitting next to them.

Review Endings

This activity helps children learn to spell word wall words that need an ending.

  1. Children number their papers 1 to 5.
  2. Call out a word that you can add an ending to.
  3. Example: Say you have the word “jump” on your word wall. Call out “jumping.” The frog is jumping over the log. Jumping.
  4. Children write “jumping” on their papers.
  5. Ask which word wall word was used with an ending.
  6. Class says the word and chants its spelling.
  7. Continue in same manner with four additional words.

Partner Find

  1. Give each child a card with a word on it. Make sure to pass out two of each word.
  2. Children have to find their partner with the matching word.
  3. Children say and spell the word to each other.

Make Sentences

  1. Dictate a sentence using several of the word wall words (example: “Josh will come to my house to play” ).
  2. Children listen as you repeat the whole sentence.
  3. Then repeat the sentence one word at a time, giving children plenty of time to find the words on the word wall and write them. Remind the children to begin sentences with a capital letter. Have days when you dictate questions and exclamatory sentences. Use children’s names in the sentences. Children might also like to dictate sentences using lots of words from the word wall.

Be a Mind Reader

  1. Children number their papers 1 to 5.
  2. Tell them that you are going to see who can read your mind and figure out which of the words on the word wall you are thinking of. Tell them you will give them five clues. By the fifth clue, everyone should guess your word, but if they read your mind they might get it before the fifth clue.
  3. For your first clue, always give the same clue:

“It’s one of the words on the word wall.”

Children write the word they think it might be next to number 1.

  • The second clue is: “It has four letters.”

Children write the word next to number 2.

  • The third clue is: “It begins with a digraph wh.”

Child writes word next to number 3.

  • The fourth clue is: “It has a short e vowel sound.”

Child writes the word next to number 4.

  • The fifth clue is:

“It begins the sentence: __will lunch be ready?” [When]__

  1. Do several words in the same manner. As children get familiar with this activity, they may like to be the person giving the clues and having their mind read.

Word Sorts

  1. Write 10 to 15 words on large index cards and place them in a pocket chart.
  2. Have children write these words on separate smaller cards or papers at their desks.
  3. Have children sort the words into different piles depending on features certain words share. Children may sort all words that begin with a certain sound, have a certain vowel sound, or contain a certain blend or digraph.

Guess the Covered Word

The purpose of this activity is to help children practice the important strategy of cross-checking meaning with letter-sound information.

  1. Write four or five sentences on the board, sentence strips, or overhead. Cover a word in each sentence with two sticky notes — one covering the onset, the other covering the rime.
  2. Call on a child to read the first sentence.
  3. Children make several guesses about the covered word. Write the guesses on the board.
  4. Take off the first sticky note that is covering the onset.
  5. Erase guesses that don’t begin with that onset and add any new guesses.
  6. When all the guesses that fit the onset and meaning of the sentence are written, reveal the whole word.

Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check

  1. Have children fold a piece of paper into three or four columns.
  2. Call out five word wall words.
  3. Children write the list of words in the first column.
  4. Begin with the first word. Say it and notice parts to remember. Look closely at the letters to notice the visual details. Cover the word with a card and think about how the word looks. Write the word from memory. Uncover and check it with the word in the first column.
  5. Cover and write the word again and check.
  6. Continue with remaining words.

Flashlight Fun

  1. Turn off the lights.
  2. Say the poem together with the class: Flashlight, flashlight, oh so bright, Shine on a word with your light.
  3. Shine the flashlight on individual words for the class to read and chant.

Let’s Cheer

  1. Choose five words from the word wall.
  2. For each word, print each letter of the word boldly on a piece of paper.
  3. Cheerleaders face the class holding the letter to spell the word.
  4. Call out the first letter of the word.
  5. The child holding that letter steps forward and raises the paper as the class says the letter.
  6. Continue until the entire word has been spelled.
  7. Say the word three times in unison.
  8. Take turns being cheerleaders and spelling the rest of the words.

Word Fun Center

  1. Choose five words from the word wall and write them on the board.
  2. Ask the children to make the words using different materials that you have available, such as painted lima beans, letter tiles, pasta, stencils, Wikki Stix, Play-Doh, alphabet stamps, or magnetic letters.

Word Jar

  1. When five new word wall words are introduced, write them on a slip of paper and add to the Word Jar.
  2. Choose five children to pick a word from the jar.
  3. One child at a time reads their word, and the class chants the spelling.
  4. Continue with additional words.

Rainbow Words

  1. Pass out paper to each child.
  2. Choose five word wall words.
  3. Say a word and have children chant it and write it on paper with a crayon.
  4. Do the same for the additional words.
  5. After all the words have been written once with a crayon, children go back and write each word again with two different colors of crayons.

Secret Letter Bag

  1. Place letters of the alphabet in a brown paper bag.
  2. Select a child to pick two letters out of the secret letter bag.
  3. The whole class reads the words on the word wall between those two letters.

Word Banks

A group of words that share the same category or feature can be grouped together to form a word bank. There are many categories of words, such as theme words or vocabulary words, that children need to learn. Post vocabulary words throughout the classroom and separate them from the high frequency word wall. Build banks of meaningful words over time through read alouds and content area work. Group words together in ways that make sense to children. Think about how word banks can support children to learn new words and use them in their writing. Refer to the word banks often and teach children to use them.

  • Group tier 2 words together in related categories. Think about how children might use them to add color to their writing. Some ideas for vocabulary word walls might be, “Ways animals move” (slither, leap, gambol, etc.), “Ways to speak” (whisper, bellow, declare, mutter, etc.), or “Words that describe people” (charming, witty, brooding, blue, etc.).

  • Post tier 3 vocabulary words to support children reading and writing in different content areas. For example: “Animal Habitat Vocabulary” (biome, environment, camouflage, savannah, arctic, burrow, etc.) or “Words for Community People and Places” (chef, ladle, firefighter, hydrant, avenue, etc.).

  • Word banks are also a wonderful support for ELLs and can be organized around a number of key concepts (number concepts, phonetic sounds, new academic words, language conventions, conversational phrases, and/or writing structures).

  • Contextualize the words that you post. Add picture support, definitions, or use the word in a sentence to help children remember word meanings. Use photos of your children, copies of illustrations from books, or drawings to illustrate the vocabulary words that you post. This is especially helpful for beginning readers and emerging bilingual children.


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