Mike O’Neill looks at the ‘KWL approach’ – a classroom strategy for G&T coordinators and leading teachers to share with colleagues

Activity: KWL (Know, Want to know, Learned)
Subject: Any
Key Stage(s):
2, 3 and 4.

Time to allocate:
This activity can be used alongside a learning stimulus in a lesson such as a section of video material, independent research using books or the internet, or a reading from a text. If, for example, a video clip of 10-minutes’ length is used, the KWL activity should be used before, during and after the clip, as detailed below.

Suitable for:
Students working by themselves.

Activity overview:
KWL is an approach that can be used in lessons to focus attention, stimulate metacognitive reflection, address listening skills, induce competition and rouse interest. The activity is often used alongside a piece of film or text so that students can reflect on what they already know and decide for themselves what they would like to find out about a certain subject. Having been exposed to the learning material, the students then reflect and decide what they have learned. In simple terms, KWL is a constructivistic scaffold that enables students to build new knowledge. On a more sophisticated level, KWL allows students to think creatively and to generate open questions that require further probing or elaboration.

Where else could I use KWL?
These examples show how KWL activities transfer across subjects:

  • Students in physics could be asked how the universe came into existence and what they know about its origins. Having completed the ‘K’ and ‘W’ parts of the table, they could be exposed to a section of video or text and then asked to complete the ‘L’ column.
  • In English, students may be asked to think about the key similarities and differences between the styles of two poets. Having completed the ‘K’ and ‘W’ columns and having listened to and discussed examples of work from the two poets, students can then complete the ‘L’ column using the appropriate literary terms.
  • In a geography lesson, students could be quizzed on the possible reasons as to why earthquakes and volcanoes occur. Having filled in the ‘K’ and ‘W’ columns and having researched the topic using books and the internet, the ‘L’ column can be completed.

What does KWL bring to a lesson?

  • Multiple solutions opportunities
  • A focus on listening skills
  • Differentiation by outcome
  • A focus on independent thinking and learning
  • The opportunity for high-quality structured research
  • A potential focus on aspects of literacy, such as key concepts and vocabulary
  • Opportunities for creative thinking and the generation of higher-order open questions
  • Opportunities to discuss work in pairs and groups, to be strategic and to deploy Socratic questioning
  • Metacognitive techniques for self-reflection.

How does the activity work?
Any stimulus can be used so long as it provides new information for pupils and takes them forward in their thinking and learning.

Students may have been studying the first world war in history and may have covered areas such as why the war happened and the events that led to it beginning. A subsequent lesson may lead to the subject of conscription. At the start of the lesson on conscription, the teacher may ask the students what they already know about the term. The teacher may then ask students what they would like to know about conscription, having given them some simple facts about it. The video about conscription is then shown and, during or after the clip, students write down what they have learned. An example of a possible completed KWL grid is shown below.

Would this be useful as a homework technique?
This activity is useful for homework as it focuses students’ attention on the task at hand before, during and after exposure to material. The KWL activity enables students to scaffold their own work and, in doing so, encourages an independent and structured approach to study. While KWL may not usually be set as a homework activity in itself, it does serve as a useful strategy for optimising the way in which information is collected, analysed and evaluated.

Example of a completed KWL grid Topic: Conscription

Fill in the KWL below

K (know) W (want to know)
L (learned)
I know that conscription occurred in the first world war. I want to know why conscription occured and when it started/ended. I learned that the media played a big role in recruiting in 1916 but there were not enough men volunteering.
I know that men were conscripted. I want to know if women were conscripted. Single men aged 18-41 were conscripted, but not women.
I know that some people objected to being conscripted. I want to know what happened to them. I have learned that some conscientious objectors were called ‘absolutists’. Many conscientious objectors were treated badly.

Mike O’Neill is director of educational strategies for the United Church Schools Trust