The Snap Word Train

Over the years, kindergarteners have shown me that the kinds of environmental tools that they will actually use are: ones which are at their level, ones which they have meaningful memories (or ownership) creating, ones which they can see themselves in (via photographs or interests), and ones which they can touch and interact with.

Such thinking led to a transformation of the word wall in our classroom.

First, we replaced static words on a magnetic board with moveable word cards in pocket charts (an idea shared with me by Nekia Wise, Assistant Principal of PS 59 in NYC). The pocket charts allow kids to access and interact with the word wall, taking the snap words (or high-frequency words) in and out of the pockets.

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With this setup, kindergartners loved taking the cards that they needed during independent time and in small group instruction. So much so, that we needed additional copies of cards stacked behind each snap word in the pocket charts.

Due to high demand, we decided to keep the snap word pocket chart in an additional location –one that kids could quickly access near the writing center.

The words in this pocket chart, in contrast, were organized in the order in which we had learned them. Here, it became evident that children had an easier time finding the snap word they needed to spell. They also enjoyed the extra practice of reading all of the snap words together. Many children seemed to prefer and have success with this sequential ordering.

With this in mind, when our Staff Developer, Shanna Schwartz, shard an idea from Renée Dinnerstein’s kindergarten classroom — the snap word train — we were excited to give it a try.

The Snap Word Train

The snap word train features enlarged snap word cards, placed sequentially across a prominent wall (typically above the meeting area). The train grows as children learn new snap words.

My kindergarten colleagues and I have been using the snap word train for several years. We’ve noticed many advantages with this kind of layout:

1. Children have an easier time finding individual snap words:

In order for children to find snap words on a word wall, they need to be able to isolate the first letter sound. This can be especially challenging with snap words that begin with digraphs and vowels, or when children do not know letter-sound correspondence. Keeping the snap words on a sequential train makes the process of finding specific snap words more accessible.

The snap word train also allows children to exercise their visual sequential memory. In Visual Memory: Studies Show Visual Memory Superior to Auditory Memory for Reading and Recalling Details, the Integrated Learning Strategies Learning Center explains, “Visual sequential memory is your child’s ability to remember symbols or characters in a certain order. This skill is especially important in spelling.”

2. The words are large enough to be seen from anywhere in the classroom.

When snap ward cards are written in a smaller font, children often have to move closer in order to see them. This is not ideal during independent writing time, when they need to spend as much time as possible writing (and minimize transitions!). When the snap word train is strategically placed along a prominent wall, writers can easily see the words from wherever they are sitting.

3. They make for fun pointing and reading games.

When the snap word train is placed close to the meeting area, the class can quickly read the cards for a warm-up before shared reading (doing this in different kinds of voices makes it especially fun) or play a few rounds of”I spy.” Children can also use pointers (or make their own, as pictured below) to practice touching and reading the snap words during small group instruction. With two pointers, kids can play “fly swatter,” where they race to be the first one to touch a snap word that is called out.

4. It’s exciting to see the train grow (and many children love trains!)

Have a big celebration when a new word is added to the train! New snap words can be kept near the easel, or in another location, while kids become familiar with them. After the class has practiced reading and writing new snap words across several days, they can cheer as the new cards join the train. This celebration can be followed by a choral reading of all of the cards on the train.

Kindergartners typically learn between 30-50 snap words, so thinking about space for the train is important. When the words on the train stretches all the way across the wall, children can vote on whether to continue the train across the next wall, or to make another story of the train above or below the first one (depending on the space in the classroom). Perhaps kids could even help add wheels or an engine to make the snap word train look like a real train!

5. Any word can become a snap word.

Being able to transfer skills between content areas makes learning more sticky. Snap words can be introduced purposefully (as suggested in the linked post), in alignment with reading or writing units of study. Other high-interest words that children are writing often can be learned as a snap word and added to the train. As a rule of thumb, if the word can be illustrated, it can be added to an alphabetically-organized word wall. If not, it can go on the snap word train.

What About the Rest of the Words on a Word Wall?

Kindergartners begin with a “Name wall,” as recommended in the Units of Study in Phonics, by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Names of students, staff, or book characters are the first words added beneath each letter during a name study (based on Patricia Cunningham‘s brilliant work).

The name wall, then, can grow into a “Sound” or “Alphabet Wall.” Children can add meaningful pictures or photographs beneath each letter. Later in the year, as children learn blends and digraphs, they can add words with blends beneath each letter. High interest, or content-specific words (ones which can be illustrated with a visual, for support with reading) can also be added under each letter. Currently, in my classroom, the Alphabet Wall is placed directly below the snap word train on our magnetic board (as seen above). In previous years, I’ve also found success with the pocket chart Alphabet Wall, displayed at an accessible height.

At the end of kindergarten, we can help children prepare for first grade (when snap word cards are typically organized on a word wall). To do so, children can help decide where the snap word cards go on the Sound/Alphabet Wall. Snap word cards could also be kept in both places — the word train and Alphabet Wall — all year. For students who used a snap word train in kindergarten, first grade classrooms can also do the guided work of transitioning kids from a snap word train to a word wall at the beginning of the year.

It’s Not Too Late!

If you’ve already begun adding snap word cards to a word wall, you can have a conversation with the class about the snap word train. You might say, “I’ve noticed that it can be tricky for us to find the snap words when they are so little or spread across the word wall. I saw another classroom where the words grow into a snap word train! Can I show you a picture? Should we see if this might help us quickly find the snap words we need?!”

Alternatively, if you teach first or second grade and have children who do not know letter-sound correspondence, you can keep a sequential chart of snap words (on a pocket chart and/or on an individual chart for folders) in addition to the word wall, as an additional support.

If you have found other successful ways of organizing or teaching snap words, please share your ideas in the comment section!