If Walls Could Talk: Strategically Decorate Your Classroom

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Jeniffer Pitharoulis

It’s that time of year again!  As teachers ready their classrooms for summer maintenance, they evaluate wall displays and shelves, wondering what to keep and how they might transform classrooms into even more inviting, student-centered learning environments next year.

A 2015 study from University of Salford Manchester made ripples when listing natural light and air quality as the top classroom environmental factors affecting student learning. The number and size of windows and ventilation systems are largely out of teachers’ control; however, the Salford findings and similar studies provide evidence-based best practices in classroom organization and decoration.

Bring in the outdoors.

Bring in houseplants to give your classroom a touch of nature.

Access to natural light may not be wholly out of our control. When asked for feedback after last week’s state-testing session, students who tested in my next-door colleague’s room praised that tables in there are rotated to face the expansive windows at the back of the classroom. Students said they felt more at ease and able to focus with the view of the sky and trees instead of the whiteboard and cabinets. With more districts moving toward one-to-one technology, our reliance on a single, front-of-room focal point for information sharing is diminishing.

A further conclusion from the Salford findings is that in addition to sunlight, bringing nature into the classroom can also be effective ways to improve the learning environment. Whether through plant or animal life, décor made from natural materials, or artwork displaying natural settings, bringing the outside indoors can emulate the positive effects of natural sunlight and air quality. Inspired by contemporary home-furnishing magazines, I purchased several small plants to live on some of my classroom window sills and shelves. All year, students and visitors alike have commented on the homey and refreshing feel these live elements create.  

Keep it clean.

With her horror stories of clogged sinks, messy tables, and garbage-strewn floors, my mother, an elementary-school custodian,would not be surprised by the Salford study’s conclusion that effective classrooms are clutter-free classrooms. Additionally,  a Concordia University study referenced a survey of 775 middle-school students who reported cleanliness as the top factor in “a good learning environment.”

While most of us are mindful of floors and desktops, we don’t always consider the effects of cluttered walls. A 2014 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University found that kindergarteners in heavily decorated classrooms were off task more and scored lower on assignments than when they learned in a sparsely decorated classroom. Researchers concluded that “overall appearance, including the room layout and display on the wall has to be stimulating, but in balance with a degree of order.”

Make it user-friendly.

Interact with your displays daily.

Instructors often adhere posters and displays to their walls in hopes that the lofty and sophisticated content will translate into student understanding and inspiration. One such display is word walls.

The need for students to build academic vocabulary is spelled out in the Common Core College and Career readiness standard “acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words.” However, merely posting content-specific terms in the classroom is not an effective way to help students learn the vocabulary. According to a study published in The High School Journal in 2015, “interactive word walls,” which give students opportunities to “repeatedly interact with terms related to content for a variety of authentic activities” are a more efficacious way to use wall space.  In this model, teachers explicitly ask students to reference, discuss, and reflect upon the words during the course of classroom activities. The front wall is a viable, living component of our classroom, especially in comparison to the poetry-analysis-procedure posters gathering dust in the corner.

Provide student voice.

Creating classroom communities that celebrate student diversity and achievement is helped by displays that reflect personalities and cultures. A couple of my colleagues take pictures of each of their students holding signs that tells something unique about them and post them on their walls. Students love seeing the faces of themselves and their peers, and they especially benefit from learning fun facts about their classmates. Likewise, engaging students in these personalized “getting-to-know-you” projects can also provide colorful and inclusive décor for your classroom.

Visit other classrooms.

Last summer, I retrieved the butcher-paper cart from a teacher who had just moved in to a former computer lab. I was stunned to discover that the teacher had needed black butcher paper to decorate the walls of her new room. Black? How strange and morbid, I thought. Except, when I peeked into the freshly made classroom, it was not appalling at all - it was awesome. I spent that weekend in my own sweltering classroom, measuring out black butcher paper and festooning it with bright-colored borders.

Whether for state testing, professional-development sessions, or informal chats, popping into other instructors’ classrooms can be the best source of inspiration for your own room.

As you close your window blinds and put your favorite pen into your top desk drawer for its summer hibernation, take a minute to look around your classroom and assess your decor. Is it time for you to design a more impactful learning space?


  • Student Engagement
  • Teacher Leadership
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.