KWL charts are an effective combination of a variety of tools that research has demonstrated work well with engaging students of all ability levels, but they are particularly useful for struggling readers. KWL charts are first and foremost a visual depiction that allows the student to control the text that is entered into the graphic. For that reason, they appeal strongly to learners who engage visually.
Another strategic underpinning of the KWL chart is that it activates students’ prior knowledge by asking the question, “What do I already know?” The chart is divided into three columns, labeled “What do I already know?” “What do I want to know?” and “What have I learned?” The answers to the first question are listed by the student prior to reading the text. The student can also return to the chart while reading if he encounters additional familiar information.
Madeline Hunter in her famous lesson planning template urges teachers to activate students’ prior knowledge before attempting to provide direct instruction. The KWL chart is a tool that enables teachers to activate prior knowledge in a way that engages the student in the activation, making him an active learner rather than a passive listener.
The second column in the chart is also completed by the student prior to engaging with the text and may or may not be revisited during reading. The student lists what he wants to learn as a result of the reading. It is this aspect of the KWL chart that makes it particularly well-suited to use with informational (non-fiction) texts, such as science and social studies. When the student thinks about what he wants to learn, he engages himself as an active learner.The final column, “What did I learn?” is completed by the student after he has finished the reading. It is this activity that helps the student (and teacher) recognize whether there are gaps in the student’s knowledge that need to be filled with extra help. It also offers the student the opportunity, in a structured manner, to summarize what he has learned. Summarizing is a technique employed by competent and advanced readers and may not be a written activity for them. For a struggling reader, summarizing is essential and must be done in writing if the teacher is to be able to determine during formative assessment whether the student knows and is able to do the standards the teacher has identified for mastery.
Ms. Hunter collaborated with basketball coach John Wooden at UCLA. One of Coach Wooden’s favorite aphorisms was “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Ms. Hunter’s educational theory of the importance of lesson planning for teachers is a direct application of Coach Wooden’s advice. The KWL chart is, for struggling readers, a concrete tool that helps them plan, so that they don’t fail to interact and engage with a text.