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Using PWIM to Teach Vocabulary

Using PWIM to Teach Vocabulary

PWIM, or Picture-Word Inductive Model (Calhoun, 1999) is a strategy that uses pictures as a starting point from which to teach a variety of English language components such as vocabulary, spelling, phonics, word structure, and even writing. This article describes how I introduced and adapted the use of PWIM to teach vocabulary to my first grade class.

Studies in the past thirty years (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1991; Proctor, Carlo, August & Snow, 2005) have demonstrated the importance of vocabulary in children’s academic progress. Without a sizeable amount of vocabulary, it would be difficult for students to read with comprehension.

The gains in vocabulary will contribute to the children’s reading comprehension, grammatical knowledge and writing skills. A recent review of vocabulary instruction research (Manyak & Bauer, 2009) highlights the benefits of instituting “well-designed vocabulary instruction” (p.175) for English learners.

Bringing Words to Life

A key finding in Beck, McKeown & Kucan’s book, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Development (2002), is that vocabulary instruction should “develop an interest and awareness in words beyond vocabulary school assignments in order to adequately build their vocabulary repertoires” (p.13). Neuman & Dwyer (2009) exhorts the need to have “strategies that introduce children to new words and entice them to engage in meaningful contexts through semantically related activities…” (p.391). PWIM is exactly such a strategy; it creates “interest and awareness” beyond class assignments and it introduces new words through a meaningful context.

Picture-Word Inductive Model of Vocabulary Instruction

The Picture-Word Inductive Model “focuses on learning to read and write through inquiry” (Joyce, Calhoun & Hopkins, 2009, p.54). Basically, this model utilizes a picture as a starting point.

  1. The students are led to inquire about the picture and identify what they see in the picture.
  2. The teacher then labels the picture by drawing a line from the identified object or area, says the word, writes the word, asks the students to spell and read the word out loud. The does the same for each of the words or objects identified.
  3. The teacher subsequently leads the class to read and review the picture word chart (also known as PWIM charts). In the lessons that follow, the students will “use the picture word chart to read their own sets of words, classify words according to properties they can identify, and develop titles, sentences, and paragraphs about their picture” (Calhoun, 1999, p.22).
  4. In the classification phase, the students group the words “in terms of phonetic, structural or content properties and share their categories and why they put a particular set of words together” (Joyce et al, 2009, p.64).

This activity happens several times during a PWIM cycle and each cycle can last from 5 days to 2 months (Calhoun, 1999), depending on the “richness of the picture, the reading level of the students and the curriculum objectives of the teacher” (Joyce et al, 2009, p.64). The cycle usually ends after the paragraph development stage.

Benefits of PWIM

The benefits of PWIM are that it builds on the students’ listening and speaking vocabularies, the students hear and see the words read aloud and spelled correctly several times, they participate in the reading and spelling aloud of the words identified, they see a direct sound-symbol correspondence and the PWIM chart serves as an immediate reference (Calhoun, 1999).

This model enables the students to build their sight vocabulary substantially in a non-threatening and enjoyable manner. In the words of Calhoun (1999), the students “enjoy finding objects and actions in the picture, seeing the words and sentences they generate expressed in print and becoming part of the curriculum, classifying words and sentences, and discovering useful language concepts and generalizations” (p.24). Some recent research studies (Calhoun, Poirier, Simon & Mueller, 2001; Joyce, Hrycauk & Calhoun, 2003; Swartzendruber, 2007) on the use of PWIM as an instructional strategy showed an increase in the students’ sight vocabularies.

Adapting the Use of PWIM

In my grade 1 class, I conducted a whole class PWIM activity after the first reading of a new Big Book and elicited all the possible words from a picture related to the theme of the Big Book. The words were shaken out from the picture pasted in the middle of a large piece of butcher paper. Coincidentally, nearly all of the words “shaken out” (Calhoun, 1999, p.22) by the students could be found in the grade one English language syllabus guide.

The set up

After that, I provided each group of 5-6 students with the same picture, on a large butcher paper, for them to shake out the words. The students would shake out the words that they have already seen and shaken out as a class. However, they also shook out words which were not found in the class PWIM chart. It was taken as a challenge, especially by the high progress students, to shake out new words. The group PWIM charts were then presented to the whole class by the groups. Finally, the class and group PWIM charts were hung in the classroom in full view of all.

The Follow up

In the follow up lesson on the next day, I provided the same picture, on an A4 size paper, for each student to shake out on his/her own. As we did not have individual word cards, I chose to provide the same picture for each student so that they had their own PWIM charts to refer to. After shaking out the words, they would then paste the individual PWIM charts in their word bank books. We would re-visit the words in the PWIM charts two to three times a week.

Reinforcing the learning

In each sequence of shaking out the words, from class to group to individual, the students will encounter the words at least three times. The words and their corresponding meanings, which are found in the objects in the picture, are reinforced. Whenever the students are unsure of the word(s), they merely need to follow the line to the picture, to find meaning to the word(s) in question; smiles of comprehension usually follow suit.

The spelling and structure of the spelling of the words are also reinforced through the re-visitations in that week. The most heartening part of the activities is the fact that the academically weaker students do not need to ask the teacher or their peers for help in spelling the words. They can refer to the class PWIM chart during the shaking of the group PWIM chart; they can refer to both the class and group PWIM charts during the shaking of their own PWIM charts.

This creates a sense of achievement and boosts their self-confidence. They are so willing to engage in this activity because they are no longer afraid of not knowing the words or getting the words spelt wrongly. The objective is to build understanding through confidence-building activities, and finally to learn without fear.

Closing thoughts

PWIM was easy to implement; it engaged the students and aided them in their understanding and learning. The more words they gained in their sight vocabulary, the more the students were able to access the print in the storybooks and the academic world they are situated in. With this access, they have more control and choice in their own learning experiences.
The experience gained from this personal inquiry demonstrated to me that this strategy is worth implementing.

Give it a try

It provided a simple way of finding out whether PWIM could work and what needed to be considered in the implementation. Teachers in a certain sense help unlock the gates to literacy for many students. With a wider repertoire of instructional strategies, teachers can then choose the appropriate key (i.e. strategy) at the appropriate stage to do so. In doing so, more of our students can enter and join the literacy club. Wouldn’t you consider giving it a try?


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