Revising KWL Charts

I have just finished reading David Harbinson’s post on KWL charts, which contains a neat suggestion of adding an ‘how to find out’ column to the chart, changing the ubiquitous acronym from KWL to KWHL.

When I first started out in ELT, I put a lot of focus on the activities learners did in my lessons. I often thought about activities in terms of:

  • How engaging they were
  • How much time they took up – the more the better!
  • How fun they were

Now, a few years into teaching and post Delta, I take a very different approach to classroom activities. Before using any activity in class, I actually do the activity myself. This sounds like a logical thing, but you would be amazed at how many teachers take a look at an activity and instantly ‘know’ what it involves, without going through the motions themselves.

I feel it is important to do an activity yourself before giving it to your learners for one fundamental reason – that reason being namely the following:

To know what the learner is really doing linguistically and cognitively during the activity 

In education in general, but particularly in ELT, there is a lot of talk about how lessons help learners to develop and expand on their skills, knowledge and cognitive abilities.

Bearing in mind the fundamental principle above, after reading David’s post I read an article and did a KWL chart myself. The results were surprising.

The Activity

I quickly scanned the Guardian’s news homepage and chose something I thought I might find interesting. After having done this, I realised that I was already off to an unfair advantage, as our learners rarely have a say in what they read – it is usually the teacher who chooses. In the end, I clicked on an article about Netanyahu’s fight for political survival in Israel.

I made a KWL chart. I began with the Know and Want To Know columns. As I don’t know much about Israeli politics and politicians, both the know and want to know columns were fairly empty. This was another step or experience that got me thinking about the learners when they are in this position: if the teacher chooses the article, how likely is it the learners might know nothing about the topic of the text or even might have no interest in wanting to know anything?

I started reading, writing down the answers to my Want To Know comments in the Learnt column. While doing this, I immediately noticed two things:

  1. I wasn’t reading the article in full – I was scanning for the specific information I was after.
  2. I stopped ‘reading’ (rather scanning) about one third down the article because I had found all the answers to my questions and didn’t find the need to read any further. I didn’t find the article particularly interesting anyway.

However, at the bottom of the chart I made a couple of notes: Shabbat dinner and Bibi. These were neither things I knew nor things I had learnt. If anything, they were items which had appeared in the text, with some clarification of what they were, but they were things I still wanted to find out more about.


By this point of the KWL chart, the following has happened:

  • I haven’t read the article in full
  • I have only scanned parts of the article
  • The little I did know hasn’t come in useful
  • What I did want to know has been answered
  • My thirst for knowledge about Shabbat dinner and Bibi hasn’t been quenched

I think this says a lot about the chart, and more specifically about what the learner is doing during each stage of the chart. In fact, with the exception of scanning, I can’t see any sub-skills it is encouraging learners to develop!

An Alternative

Reading or listening should involve a number of sub-skills. A receptive skills lesson should encourage learners ideally to do two things:

  1. Transfer sub-skills from L1 to L2
  2. Develop sub-skills further

So, with this in mind, I went about changing the KWL chart, so it could be sub-skills focused.

I chose another article on the Guardian website. I wrote down the heading of the article as the title on my worksheet.

I added the sub-heading of Knowledge and Expectations. In this section, I made notes of what I already know and what I expect to be in the article. This meant I had to do two things:

  1. Activate my schematic and contextual knowledge
  2. Make predictions about the content

I then read the text through to see if any of my a prior knowledge and predictions were in there. I noticed as I read that I was reading quite quickly – largely scanning and skimming – which helped to give me an overall impression of the article while trying to identifying specific information. This means what I just did was multi-skilled, which is important in receptive skills, as it is rare that we only use one sub-skill at a time.

I then thought about what I want to know more about. I made this a sub-heading and then read the article again, making notes about things I would like to find out more about, such as Robert Doisneau’s famous photograph of two people kissing, which the article alludes to, and the organisation All Out.

As I was doing this, I noticed that I was processing information bottom-up, in that I was reading the article fairly quickly, then when something caught my attention, I stopped to focus on it, read it again, look at what came before and after so as to understand it, and then I wrote it down.

Again, all of these are important sub-skills used in reading, and this approach helps to develop them. It also encourages extensive reading, as in order to find out more about the things I identified, I will have to search the internet and read more.

I then thought about what I have learnt and made this my final sub-heading. Reading the article through one last time, I found myself calling on my summary skills to make note of what I had read and learnt. I also found myself commenting on and reflecting on the article, which again are very authentic sub-skills we make use of while reading.


The KWL chart has been an ELT activity which has stood the test of time, but if we are going to help our learners to improve and develop their language skills, we will need to alter the chart.

While reading, learners need to be developing a number of sub-skills, including scanning, bottom-up processing and summarising. Any reading activity should encourage the development of these and more, and it should try to be authentic in experience where possible; for example, it is rare that we read something without talking about it, so making use of summary skills to then tell a classmate what you have just read and what you think about it is a useful, important and authentic sub-skill.

5 thoughts on “Revising KWL Charts

  1. I tried the alternative today with my group of two adult students – a company course, don’t use a book. I’d chosen a text about Scott Jurek running the Apalachian Trail. Vocabulary focus were words related to success and failure. Prior to that, I had my students read the article the way you suggested. I explained first the way we’d work. Then I gave them the title and had them write their “knowledge and expectations”. To my surprise, they had many and we spent a while diuscussing them. Then they read the article, looking for info to their comments. We discussed their findings, then I asked them whether any of their questions were unanswered – and there had been many. I wasn’t sure how to deal with those, so I suggested they do further research at home. The “want to know more about” bit was a bit blurry, and somehow melted with the first part. This was when we talked about any unknown words. Writing the summary had my students focus and was worthwile. I have mixed levels there so next I might just assign a different wordcount depending on their level. What I liked: 1 – My students had a choice. Next time it would be even better if they could choose what they wanted to read. 2 – I hadn’t had to prepare a bunch of “comprehension questions” in advance, yet all interesting language was dealt with. I might even try this with my exam classes, before going on to doing the task itself. 3 – One would probably proceed this way when doing research, having to “scan” lots of articles and identifying which ones were useful for futher use. Most of the work goes on subconsciously, so I told my students that for the purpose of language learning it was a good idea to take these notes. Also, not to sure how to put that, but the whole task had a different “feel” than any other time I do (coursebook) readings with pre-prepared questions. One concern I have – not sure how this would work with a class of more then six students? Follow up: they’re supposed to tell me a story of a sports achievement of theirs using the new vocabulary. We will also probably analyse the past tenses in there next time. To sum up: A great, meaningful, principled, low-prep idea, thank you for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anthony, thank you for the great post! Stepping into a learner’s shoes has produced amazing results in this case! Teachers should really do this more often. I have to admit I don’t always go through activities myself but I’ve started to do more of it lately.
    I became more aware of this need as a result of my Spanish lessons. I’m trying to turn my “traditional” teacher into a more dogme-like one:) She usually provides scaffolding for me throughout the lesson, but one day I said I’d show her how to do task-teach-task and asked her not to correct me or help me during the initial task. And you know what, the first couple of minutes of it were terrifying! I really started to appreciate the courage it takes our students to speak without support at the “task” stages of the cycle. So now I’m more careful about setting a task they can cope with and not stressing them out too much.


  3. Anthony – while doing the activity you set out for your students to do is always a good plan, I liked how reflective you were during the process with regard to your processes. Isn’t it funny that through this, you validate that experiential learning is definitely effective (I mean had you not experienced what you asked students to do with a reading, you may never changed your practice!). Ultimately, you’ve got a great addition to this chart.


    1. Thank you for the comment Tyson!

      I couldn’t agree more. In general, I think going through the motions we expect our learners to is important, but in this particular case the experience was eye-opening. It showed me a lot about the activity and it gave me a good idea of what the learners would be experiencing through it.

      I’ll definitely be keeping up the experiential learning approach to classroom activity preparation 🙂


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