Build your first class display, the vocabulary way

Ah, the summer holidays – a time for teachers to relax and reflect on another successful year of teaching. But if you’re an eager (and perhaps a slightly nervous) NQT, you’d be forgiven for wanting to use this time to prepare for the beginning of your teaching adventure. Well, being organised is always going to make the process smoother (as long as you still make room for rest and leisure), so let’s talk about one of the more fun, creative parts of your summer checklist: the classroom display!

As Kress and Van Leeuwen suggest, “visual displays and the arrangement of the classroom can…be understood as a teaching tool, a medium to communicate desired qualities and expectations”. When creating a language-rich classroom, displays are particularly valuable. The language used within them sets the standard for the vocabulary we want our students to use. More than this, the visual nature of displays provides opportunities for interactive engagement and enables students to explore words from multiple angles. So, what are some good ideas for language-rich displays?

Choose your words carefully

Word walls have long been a classroom staple, but how do we decide which words to showcase? An effective display should be clearly organised; it shouldn’t just be a messy collage of random terms. The words we want to focus on are what Beck refers to as Tier 2 and Tier 3 words. Tier 2 vocabulary consists of tricky words that are regularly used by mature language users, found and used in any subject across the curriculum. Tier 3 vocabulary, on the other hand, refers to subject-specific terminology, like onomatopoeia or evaporation. A great idea is to build your walls around Tier 2 or 3 words that relate to themes or topics you are exploring in class. If you are reading Goodnight Mister Tom with your students, you might highlight Tier 2 words like ‘evacuate’ and ‘ration’ as terms they can use in their reading and writing. Similarly, a maths class that is teaching averages might want to create a display around Tier 3 terms like ‘median’, ‘mode’ and ‘range’.

Roots and affixes trees

One of the best ways of preparing your class for intuiting new language is through familiarising them with common roots and affixes. Once a student understands that the prefix ‘min-’ means ‘small’, they’ll be able to independently see the links between words like “minion” and “minor”. Covering your classroom wall with a roots and affixes tree is a fruitful way of promoting this familiarity. Simply hang up a large poster of a tree against the wall, with word roots and affixes being attached or written along the trunks, whilst words that contain these elements are written along the branches or leaves. To keep your students engaged, encourage them to add to the tree themselves as they are taught new roots or affixes, or get them to refer to the tree whenever they encounter new words containing target roots and affixes.

Get visual

It’s time to get arty! Incorporating images into your word displays not only makes them attractive for your students, it aids retention and understanding of new words. Teaching the word ‘devour’ alongside an image of a greedy man gobbling food helps to affix this association to their minds, bolstering recollection of this language. It’s also an opportunity to encourage students to actively process new language. Why not provide them with words and instruct them to create the illustrations? By creating accurate visual depictions, they will demonstrate deep understanding of the language – not to mention the pride of seeing their artwork hung up around the classroom. And as Helen Sharpe exemplified when teaching Macbeth, this method can be effectively built around the topics and themes you’re focusing on in class.

Synonym and antonym pockets

This display is all about getting your students to be more adventurous with their word choices, as well as helping them to build links between the different words in their lexicons. All you have to do is hang your wall with small ‘pockets’ or folders that are labelled with tier one words, preferably language that you see your students using over and over again. The challenge is then for your students to fill the pockets with as many synonyms and antonyms as they can think of – a fun task that could be a great way of getting their brains whirring back into action after summer. Of course, you don’t have to use pockets. If mind webs are a bit more up your alley, why not cover your wall in a big, sprawling semantic map?

Making metaphors

I’ve left my personal favourite for last. One of the best ways to ensure your students truly and deeply understand the nuances of a word is by getting them to create metaphors that capture the word’s meaning. For instance, you might make a metaphor for the word ‘ascend’, which says “ascend is a lift going up high because ascend means to go upwards, just like a lift going higher and higher”. A great way to do this would be to assign certain words to each of your students, which they can then start building their imaginative sentences around. This way, they have to really think about what a word means and how it relates to the world they know. Once your students have all finished making their masterpieces, you can stick them on the wall, perhaps alongside some nifty illustrations!

Of course, we’d love to hear your own word display ideas as well – or even see some photos of them being put into action! Share your wondrous word walls with us on Twitter, or write a comment down below.

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