The KWL structure (Ogle, 1986) is intuitively appealing, and it is instructionally elegant.  It proceeds at the outset from the idea that students know something and that what students already know can help them construct new understanding.

New understanding grounded firmly in previous learning is far more likely to stick and become the foundation for further learning.  KWL potentially scaffolds the complex tasks of associating new understandings with background and prior knowledge and of learning how this association is carried out.  The lack of procedural knowledge needed to make inferences about text may interfere with student understanding even when the declarative knowledge—the content–is present.

Strategy selection in any instructional situation is more than just reaching into a grab bag or bag of tricks. In fact, we actively resist the characterization of a bag of tricks. It must be purposeful, and the procedural value of the strategy should be obvious to the student.  However, Egan (1999) points out even the best graphic organizer can become repetitive and overly predictable if used too frequently.  Fortunately, variations of the KWL exist as a result of inquiry by teachers and teacher educators (see Table 18.1).  Each uses prior and background knowledge with a graphic organizer to scaffold procedural knowledge so students develop a habit of thinking that characterizes scholarship:  inquiry.  The “Want to Know” section of the KWL asks students to predict what they will learn based on the knowledge they already have identified and organized in the “Know” step of the classroom structure.

Step by Step

  1. Students work individually, in small groups, or as a whole class (Egan, 1999) to create a graphic organizer (Figure 18.1a) divided into three columns. In the first, students identify through brainstorming the existing knowledge they already possess about the instructional topic—What I Know.
  2. Once students finish brainstorming, they categorize the types of information students expect to use. Our experience is that this important step is often left out.
  3. In the second column, students determine what they want to find out that they don’t already know—What I Want to Know.
  4. After reading, students complete the third column by putting down what new information they have acquired—What I Learned.

Applications and Examples

When teacher candidates take classes emphasizing the instructional needs of students learning English in the credential classes we teach, we begin with a KWL chart.  Because topics related to bilingual students are often in the newspaper and the talk they hear during their field experiences often emphasize this aspect of education, teacher candidates often have a wide range of knowledge upon which they can draw even before reading the first chapter of the course text.  The KWL chart helps them organize this information.  Those teacher candidates with misinformation also have an opportunity to reconceptualize their understanding through the process, as well.  Then, as students read and participate in other class activities they are able to see how their conceptions of what they want to know change to accommodate the new information.  The graphic organizer makes very clear what the teacher candidates have learned and how they have come to this understanding with the result that they are far more likely to remember and use the knowledge.

When Columbus Day approached, kindergarten teacher Chris Iacono wanted to tap what students already knew about this explorer.  She wrote about her experience using [Figure 18.2]

[Insert Figures 18.2a, 18.2b, 18.2c about here.]
Figure 18.2 In her own words, Christine Iacono, Mary B. Lewis Elementary School, Colton, CA.

After seeing the blank expressions on my kindergartner’s faces when I announced that were going to learn about Christopher Columbus, I decided to use a modified version of KWL with them.  Since none of them truly knew anything about Columbus, I started the lesson by displaying several books about Columbus on the bottom tray of the white board.  I told students that I was going to read some of the books to them because he was someone famous that I wanted them to know about.

I asked them to look at the covers of the books and think about what they thought the books might tell them about Columbus.  I wrote the title of our chart, Christopher Columbus, and the letters K., W., and L. in different colors on the white board.  I explained that we were going to list the things we know about Columbus under the K and the things we want to know under the W before I would read the books.  Then, I told them that we would be listing things in the L section after I read to them to find out all the things they learned about Columbus from the books.

The first student answer I wrote in the K section was, “He is a pirate,” I asked the student why he thought Columbus was a pirate, and he justified his statement by pointing out the obvious ships on he covers of all the Columbus books.  I continued listing their answers and asking them to tell me their reasoning for their answers.  We categorized the predictions, orally, as jobs and places where Columbus worked.  We moved on to the W section, and the first question was, “Is he a pirate?” The students generated several relative questions and the final question was, “When is his birthday?”  Then I chose two of the books and read them aloud to the class.  During the reading, whenever I would get to a part of the book that answered their questions from the W section, I could see and hear the “aha” from the group.

After the readings, we started listing the things we learned from the books in the L section of our chart.  The first things we listed were, “He is not a pirate,” and “He is a sailor.” We continued to list the things we learned, but when we looked to see if we had answered all of our questions from the W section, we were missing one answer about Columbus’ birthday.  Someone thought he book said it as October 12, 1492, but we went back into the book and found that date was not his birthday—it was the day he landed on the island.  When I asked them how we could find the answer to our unanswered question, another student came up with “the computer.” We logged on to the computer and searched to find a site that gave us some information about his birthday.  They were surprised to find out that there was not an exact date listed, and we added the information to our chart even though is wasn’t in the book.

The KWL chart was very successful.  It made it possible for students to look for relevant clues about Columbus from the covers of the books and justify their ideas. It focused their attention by giving them a purpose during the readings—answering their own questions from the W section, and it helped them organize what they learned from the books.  The question about his birthday even extended the lesson to include a technology component that we weren’t expecting.  We finished with an art project about the three ships in Columbus’ fleet.

Figure 18.2c Informational Books We Read

Carpenter, E. (1992). Young Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of New Worlds.

New York, NY: Troll Associates.

Gross, R. B. (1974). A Book About Christopher Columbus.

 New York, NY: Scholastic.

Bjorkman, J. (1991).  In 1492. 


New York NY: Scholastic.

Strong, S. (1991). The Voyage of Columbus in His own Words (a pop-up book).

Columbia: InterVisual Communications, Inc.

Read more about the real Christopher Columbus: