KWLs: I have opinions about them.

In the CRISS world we call a KWL a KWL+; the + representing some sort of activity students do to transform the new learning that goes beyond the listing of facts/details/whatever in the L column. Can the L and + overlap a bit? Sure. Does the + need to be on the same page as the rest of the KWL? Nah. Teachers and students should use that + as a reminder to not just start and stop learning with that particular organizer. I promise, the CRISS police aren’t going to bust down your door for modifying a strategy. Our fictional police force is dealing with far more serious offenses like improperly formatted haikus and excessive use of ellipses. (Not that I have issues with them…)

Back to my opinion. I loved KWLs when I first learned of them but despite my enthusiasm, they fell flat in my classroom. The issues seemed to fall into three categories:

  1. I’d use the wrong prompt.
  2. I’d accrue a long list of questions under the W column, most of which had nothing to do with what my unit was actually covering.
  3. The kiddos didn’t know how to do a KWL…despite telling me otherwise.
Prompt issues
The wrong prompt was the easiest to diagnose and fix. If my students indicated they didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything then the prompt was probably too specific or too broad. The specific prompts were so narrow the students couldn’t pull on background knowledge and thus they didn’t know what they might want to know. The broad prompts were overwhelming. Students didn’t know where to start on their own papers and then when it came time to share they didn’t want to contribute ideas that seemed too simplistic or—heaven forbid—might be wrong.

So how to find the correct prompt? In general, it should be broad enough that students can latch on to something—anything—and actually kinda sorta the least bit interesting. Consider incorporating some sort of visual. For example, ask students to complete a KWL on weather and show pictures of a stormy sky, an angry-looking weather map, or a complex chart/graph with only a few familiar words or trends. If the students don’t think they know anything about the topic but can state something they see or know from the visuals, they at least have a place to start and that will lower their affective barriers for the rest of the assignment. Students feel better when they know they don’t need to turn in a blank paper.

You can also change your topic into something opinion-based. Going back to the weather example, ask students to do a KWL on, “What is the ideal weather for spending all day outside? Be specific about temperature, wind, cloud cover, etc.” Again, affective barriers will be lower because clearly there is no wrong answer. You may need to provide more specific instructions for the W. You don’t want students asking questions about the idea of a perfect day, so tell students their questions need to touch on something in their K column. For example, instead of a sun worshipper wondering, “Why would anyone love a rainy day?” maybe they’d ask, “What is the hottest point of the day?” The rainy day student asks, “Why does the earth smell so good after a nice rain?” or “Does a day of steady drizzle make more rain than a short storm?” You can also help any student by giving them a target (i.e., 3 questions) or types of questions (e.g., “You should ask one question that makes a comparison and one that asks why or how something works.”).

What to do with Wants?
Once the students start contributing Ks and Ws, you may not be able to stem the tide! This may not seem like a problem until that nice long list of questions stares at you from the wall — every single one reminding you, and the students who generated them, of what interested them… and quite likely, what you aren’t covering in the lesson.

The most common suggestion for dealing with all those Ws is to assign some or all of them to students as bonus questions or as a part of a research assignment. I always hesitated with those because often they felt like “more” work not “more enriching” work and I worried it might make students want to ask fewer questions, certainly fewer interesting questions, the next time I tried to use a KWL. But that was my particular group of high school students – assigning those questions might work for yours. So how to manage the Ws?
  • Categorize them as a class. Ask students to look at them all and try to group similar ones into a single category. For example, if the lesson was on generating electricity and students asked, “How do coal power plants work?” and, “How do nuclear plants work?” and, “How do wind turbines work?”, have them condense the questions into, “What are the different ways electricity is generated?”.
  • Identify the ones relevant to the purpose for learning. Once students have completed the K and W, give them the lesson or unit objective(s) in student-friendly language. Ask students to identify ones that are relevant to the objectives. You can indentify any they missed and guide them away from those that don’t qualify. Try to include any reasonably close question during the unit to acknowledge and reward that valuable questioning mindset!
  • For the remaining questions which are not as relevant to the unit (and this may be the majority of the questions), ask students to rank or vote on which questions they find the most interesting. This can be done quickly by giving each student (or small groups of students) 3+ small stickers to affix by the questions they find most interesting. Modify your lessons to incorporate those questions.
Teach the Strategy
If the prompts are right yet the students are still struggling with generating Ks and Ws, go back to the basics and teach students how to use the strategy: Model, model, model.

I often skipped modeling of “basic” strategies because students would assure me they had used the strategy before. Turns out they may have completed them but they never really learned them. And they darn-tootin’ never learned my expectations. So go back to square one and teach them the strategy:
  1. Draw a KWL. Explain the K is for background knowledge and you expect those items to be incomplete or incorrect. The W is for questions—ideally ones that actually interest the student. The L column is tackled after learning new information and the point of it is celebrating their ending point and comparing it with their starting point.

  2. Go through the KWL process yourself. Pick a subject the students know and enjoy but you know little about. For example, my students grew up watching SpongeBob but I’ve never seen a full episode. Ask every student to write everything they know for 3 minutes (or turn to a partner and talk about the topic for one minute each).

    When they’re done writing, think-aloud as you brainstorm your K’s. List details but also model how you turn those details into opinions or assumptions. For example, “SpongeBob is a children’s show so I bet most episodes have some sort of moral to them.” Or, “SpongeBob has been around for a while so it must be a very popular cartoon.”

    When it comes time for the Ws, ask a variety of questions. “What is the name of the blue character with the big nose? Actually, what are the names of all the characters? I’m more of a Simpsons fan—are there references to the Simpsons in SpongeBob (or vice versa)? What is the best episode for a newbie to watch? What stations show SpongeBob? How long has it been on? Has it won awards?” Depending on the questions you list, you can model categorizing them, as mentioned above.

    Finally, ask a few students to share what they wrote or read aloud a summary paragraph from Wikipedia. Add details to the L column, star correct K items, correct misconceptions, and indicate if you were able to answer any Ws. Point out you clearly need more lessons on SpongeBob, but reflect on how the process helped show you what you learned and what you have left to learn (along with other authentic reflective insights about the strategy). Plan the modeling so you can keep it short: A few minutes for students to write, a minute for your Ks, a minute for your Ws, a few minutes for students to teach you, then a couple of minutes to correct and reflect.

  3. Move on to student practice. Pick a topic the students will be interested in but may not know much about. Future movie sequels, weird animals, diseases, school-based issues (later start times, no homework) are always a hit. You know your students. Do what you know will intrigue them. Keep up the pace, deliver new information quickly (1 paragraph or a 1-2 minute video), and ensure students reflect. You may need to do multiple rounds of student practice.

KWLs, or KWL+s, if you want to be oh-so-CRISS-like, are a pretty nifty tool for activating background knowledge, discovering misconceptions, identifying student interests, and making it plain as day how much a student has grown in content knowledge from the first to last moments of a lesson. However, if the prompts aren’t right or the students don’t know how to do the strategy, it will be of no use. And if you do the strategy and ignore the student-generated questions or assign them as lesson add-ons, it’s possible you’ll turn off future effort. Try tweaking your next KWL to make use of some of the oh-so-painfully learned lessons above and let me know how they turned out on Twitter (#KWL, @Project CRISS) or email me at With your permission, I’ll add comments here so others can learn.

Oh! Here are some of my favorite links about KWLs and a few nifty student samples teachers have submitted.