English as an Additional Language · vocabulary

The Picture Word Inductive Model: A Strategy for Developing Vocabulary and Language

Over the last several weeks, I have been working with EL tutors, as well as several student newcomers, pushing myself to learn quickly about language acquisition. I’ve always recognized the complexity and irregularity of words and sentence formation, but wow! There really is a lot to learn! Many of the strategies and resources I’ve been using are great for developing language skills in all learners. One strategy that I’ve especially found useful is the Picture Word Inductive Model, and I see value in this strategy for developing writing skills in English speaking students, as well.

I first read about the Picture Word Inductive Model in Larry Ferlazzo’s book, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching All Levels, and it made sense to me as a strategy to use for vocabulary and language development. First developed by Emily Calhoun in 1999, the PWIM uses pictures of objects, actions, or scenes to draw out words from listening and speaking vocabulary. Her ten-step process leads to the teaching of “several skills simultaneously, beginning with the mechanics of forming letters to hearing and identifying the phonetic components of language, to classifying words and sentences, through forming paragraphs and stories based on observation” (Captured from the ASCD book description). Not a process or strategy I’d ever heard of before, I was immediately interested!

To be honest, I have not used the full ten steps. Instead, in my most simple version, here are the steps I’ve used within the PWIM:

  1. Find a picture that is relevant to the people I’m working with.
  2. Name and label the images.
  3. Engage in conversation and sentence building with the images. 

That being said, there are a number of ways I’ve extended and expanded my three steps, including and not limited to:

  • Using Jamboard or another digital application so that labels can be moved and manipulated
  • Color-coding nouns and verbs in the picture
  • Asking students to write sentences
  • Pushing students to write additional sentences and even paragraphs or stories

This is a picture of our school library that I’ve used on Jamboard. Students can move the labels around, learning and practicing key vocabulary words.

Expanding the activity, I’ve added verbs on the yellow sticky-notes, and students can practice verbalizing sentences. The color-coding of nouns and verbs helps students to understand the key differences between parts of speech.

I have left some pictures unlabeled, leaving that work to students. Picture captured from: https://www.freepikcompany.com/legal#nav-freepik-agreement

Jamboard allows me to duplicate pages, using some pages for labeling, others for vocabulary and language practice.

Writing a text of any kind requires significant cognitive work, involving memory, hand-eye coordination, strength, concentration, executive functioning, planning— and the list goes on because I haven’t even gotten into imagination, comprehension, and information integration. The PWIM has allowed me to isolate single or targeted skills, providing opportunities for intentional practice. I can select pictures that are of interest to specific students, challenge them to practice letters and sounds, to verbalize and draft simple sentences, or to describe a situation. That way when students are writing their own pieces, the cognitive load may be taken up less by these practiced skills, allowing for more intellectual energy on other competing and important challenges within their writing process.

2 thoughts on “The Picture Word Inductive Model: A Strategy for Developing Vocabulary and Language

  1. I worked with Dr. Calhoun & the Iowa team to co- lead and train many Iowa teachers with PWIM. It was the best work I’ve ever done! Emily is an amazing educator that has changed the way I think about integrated instruction.
    Thanks for sharing this!!!


  2. We used PWIM in our statewide reading work and were fortunate to work with Emily Cahoun. Vocabulary and concept development as well as phonics work that focused on integrating oral and written language. So many benefits for students!


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