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You Don’t Have To Be a Linguist to Use a Sound Wall

Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Sound Wall

Watch the webinar, “The How and Why of Implementing a Sound Wall”

The wave of implementing sound walls into classroom instruction is rolling in quickly thanks to an awareness of what the science of reading is telling us about how the brain learns to read. There is no doubt that understanding the speech sounds of English, along with being able to examine and analyze these phonemes, will facilitate all of the other phoneme awareness activities that are going on in classrooms.

Think about this: We typically ask students to blend and segment sounds in words they have most likely heard before. For example, “Say shop; now say it sound by sound, /sh/ /ŏ/ /p/.” Notice that we ask our students to say a word sound by sound without ever talking about the features of those individual phonemes. Did you know /sh/ does not exist in Spanish phonology? Imagine how difficult it might be to break apart the sounds in a word that contains phonemes not found in your native tongue!

Phonemes are the building blocks of any language, but they are elusive. In the flow of speech, we squish them together and hardly consider that each has its own unique features. Phonemes are not just acoustic sounds; they are also mouth movements. These mouth movements are more concrete and can be explicitly taught in order to help students anchor each phoneme into memory.

Direct instruction about a phoneme, explaining what is happening with the mouth when making a specific sound, can eliminate many problems that can end up designating children in need of Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction. Teaching these phonemes can happen easily in Tier 1 instructional time. Here is an example of what instruction might sound like from the Kid Lips™ Instructional Manual ( www.tools4reading.com) in a small group or even during whole-group time:


Materials: The corresponding Kid Lips™ picture and a mirror for each student.

Today, we will be learning about /sh/ as in shell. Here is how we make this sound; watch me.

  • I DO: I’m going to bring my top and bottom teeth close together and shape my lips in a wide circle so that I can see my front teeth.


  • WE DO: Let’s try it together. Check that students have correct placement and are looking in a mirror.


  • I DO: Now, I’m going to gently force some air through this very tight spot where my teeth meet. If I place my hand in front of my mouth, I will barely feel the air coming from my mouth, but I can sure hear it. Keep blowing until you run out of air. Do NOT turn on your voice box.
    • Fun fact: You can share with your students that /sh/ is like the sound and gesture (placing your finger in front of your lips) that you make when you want someone to be quiet.


  • WE DO: Let’s try it together. Be certain students have correct placement, are looking in the mirror, and are not activating their voice boxes.


  • YOU DO: Now, you try it on your own. Can you describe what you do to make /sh/? What do you do with your teeth? How do your lips look? Is there any air escaping from your mouth?
    • Make sure the students understand and can describe in their own words all the features of /sh/.
    • Possible student responses: I can feel my teeth coming together; my lips form a circle; if I place my hand in front of my mouth, I CAN’T feel a big burst of air coming from my mouth; if I place my hand on my throat, I CAN’T feel a vibration.
    • Now, tell me where /sh/ is in these words. Is it at the beginning, middle, or end of the word? Say one word at a time, waiting for students to respond before saying the next word.
      • shark, shovel, show, shape, cashier, marshmallow, cashew, mushroom, brush, fish, dish, wash

Follow up daily by reviewing previously taught sounds. Ask students to show how they make the sound. Use the following questions to make this an engaging discussion.

  • What happened with your lips/teeth/tongue?
  • What happened with your voice box?
  • Is the airflow continuous, or does it stop?

Providing brief and explicit instruction makes bringing the science into a classroom a reality. It isn’t difficult, and children are excited to be validated by the many experiences they are having when trying to sound out words or work at the phoneme level.

Tools 4 Reading is offering classes on Sound Walls this summer. Check it out on our website www.tools4reading.com


Watch the webinar, “The How and Why of Implementing a Sound Wall”

About the Author
Mary Dahlgren
Dr. Mary Dahlgren
Author and Literacy Expert
As the founder and president of Tools 4 Reading, Dr. Dahlgren has always focused on developing practical tools and training opportunities to bridge the gap between the science of reading and classroom practice. She brings more than 25 years of experience in the field of education, having served as a dyslexia therapist, elementary classroom teacher, international literacy consultant, national LETRS® trainer, and author.


Learn more about Dr. Mary Dahlgren