What are KWL Charts?

KWL Charts are an excellent resource to help students activate their background knowledge when discussing new topics.

  • A KWL chart is a 3-column chart that incorporates the before, during and after components of learning/reading.
  • Can be used for many different scenarios: research projects, at the beginning of a thematic unit, before reading a book, etc.
  • The letters KWL stand for “What we Know,” “What we Wonder,” and “What we Learned.”
  • Great way to get students engaged in new topics
  • Students get to show off what they already know, they get to ask questions about what they want to learn more about and they also get to demonstrate what they have learned at the end!

How are they used?

This research based strategy “helps students to activate background knowledge, combine new information with prior knowledge and learn technical vocabulary related to a thematic unit.” (Tompkins, 2012) Teachers’ help and input are a necessity in order to make KWL charts as effective as possible. The teachers need to guide the students through the process by directing, scribing and monitoring the development of the KWL chart. However, the students are the ones that are providing their input, talking through their prior knowledge with the teacher and other students, as well as making the KWL chart their own by asking questions that they are wondering about. “Students use talk to explore ideas as they create the K and W columns and to share new knowledge as they complete the L column.” (Tompkins, 2010)

Teachers follow these steps:

  1. Post a K-W-L chart. Teachers post a large chart on the classroom wall, divide it into three columns, and label them K (What We Know), W (What We Wonder), and L (What We Learned).
  2. Complete the K column. At the beginning of a thematic unit, teachers ask students to brainstorm what they know about the topic and write this information in the K column. Sometimes students suggest information that isn’t correct; these statements should be turned into questions and added to the W column.
  3. Complete the W column. Teachers write the questions that students suggest in the W column. They continue to add questions to the W column during the unit.
  4. Complete the L column. At the end of the unit, students reflect on what they’ve learned, and teachers record this information in the L column of the chart.

(Tompkins, 2010)

What is the difference between background and prior knowledge?

Activating background and prior knowledge is one of the most important parts of teaching a new topic. Background knowledge is all of the information that is necessary to comprehend a specific topic. This information is always accurate. Whereas prior knowledge is all of the knowledge a reader brings to a topic whether it is accurate or inaccurate. The best way to teach background knowledge is through direct instruction. KWL charts are a specific way to directly teach background knowledge. When this instructional method is done as a class, it allows the students to discuss what they know about a topic. Then the class can talk through the ideas and fix any information that may not be completely accurate.

Background Knowledge…

  • Background knowledge is extremely important in order for students to be able to understand what they are learning about.
  • With no background knowledge it is very difficult for students to comprehend
  • “Rich background knowledge enables learners to supply missing details to infer a text’s meaning when an author’s explanation is incomplete.” (Brody, 2001) This is the same with learning about any new topic in the classroom.
  • Accurate information
  • Needs to be taught through direct instruction

Prior Knowledge…

  • Prior knowledge is much different than background knowledge.
  • “Prior knowledge refers to accurate or inaccurate text-related knowledge that a reader actually possesses.” (Brody, 2001)
  • What a student brings to the topic whether it is true or false
  • Students may think they “know” a lot. This is when teachers need to clarify and fix any incorrect knowledge.

It is a good idea to find out what your students know before teaching them a new concepts or topic. This is where the K in the KWL chart comes in. The students have the opportunity to convey what they already “know” about a topic and the teacher has the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings that some students may have about the topic. If a student’s prior knowledge is incorrect it is important to let them know that they had a great idea, but it’s just not accurate information. If they do not have enough accurate prior knowledge to bring to the topic it is important to directly teach the necessary background knowledge so they have the best chance to be able to comprehend the new information.

 My opinion on KWL Charts…

From my own experiences as a student and now as a teacher, I think KWL charts are a great resource to activate background knowledge and to engage the students in a new topic. However, in order for KWL charts to be effective, the students need to have background or some prior knowledge about the topic. This is also tricky because you want the students to have some knowledge on the topic in order to complete the K part of the chart, however often times students think they might know a lot about a topic, but it turns out what they know is inaccurate. This is an issue that the teacher needs to consider and be ready to correct the students so they can have the best chance at understanding the new information.

Another challenging part of KWL charts can be getting your students to come up with question to ask or what they wonder about in the W column. I know as a student this was always the hardest part for me, especially if I didn’t know that much about the topic to begin with or if the topic didn’t interest me. As a teacher this can be challenging and ultimately frustrating, but you need to find ways to engage the students. Maybe use media (youtube, google images, etc.) to help them become interested in the topic.

What most students will say for the W column (especially Middle and High School)…

  • “Nothing!”
  • “I don’t know what to write”
  • “I don’t wonder anything about this topic.”
  • “I don’t care”

(Jones, 2012)

 Final Thoughts

KWL charts can be a very effective instructional method if and when used correctly. They help engage students in their learning by activating their background knowledge and having them ask questions and participate in discussions about a new topic. KWL charts are a great way to start a new unit/topic or to use before reading a new book. The students are responsible in a way for their learning by asking questions, but at the same time are directly guided through the chart by their teachers in order to clarify any misunderstandings and to offer assistance with what to write in the columns.

Example of KWL Charts

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APA References

Jones, R. (2012, August 26). K-w-l. Retrieved from

(Jones, 2012)

Tompkins, G. E. (2010). K-w-l charts . Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall, Retrieved from

(Tompkins, 2010)

Brody, S. (2001). Teaching reading: language, letters and thought. (2nd ed.). Milford: LARC Publishing.

(Brody, 2001)


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