Use the K-W-L approach before reading to activate prior knowledge

K-W-L charts have been used by reading teachers for almost 30 years, but they can be just as useful to parents of young children to help them with reading comprehension.

K stands for “know” or what the child already knows about a given topic. W stands for “want to know” or what new information the child would like to learn about a given topic. L stands for “learned” or what the child has learned after reading (or having been read to).Empty K-W-L chart

With younger children who cannot read yet, using the K-W-L strategy sets up a pattern which the children can use in the future. One reason some children struggle with reading comprehension is because they don’t think about a topic before they read about it. If children learn to consider what they already know, and link new information to that, they will usually understand the new information better and retain it.

Since writing down words doesn’t help a nonreader such as a preschooler or a new ESL student, drawing pictures can replace the words. Even for children who can read a bit, sometimes drawing the pictures adds fun to the learning experience.

For example, suppose you read the story of Sleeping Beauty to your child, but she has no idea what a spinning wheel is. You find a book about how people used to make yarn by hand before machines did it. What kind of K-W-L chart might arise before you read the book about making yarn by hand?Example of filled-in K-W-L chart

If you, as the parent or teacher, want your child to learn a particular idea from a reading passage, you might steer the discussion to that idea as you and your child fill in the chart. But the chart works best if it reflects the child’s own understanding of a topic, and his own questions about that topic.

For example, if the topic is diamonds, the child might write:Example of a filled-in K-W-L chart

For the K-W-L strategy to help reluctant readers, the questions under “W” and the information under “L” should be linked back to what the child said she knows under “K.” So the teacher or parent might help the child create a chart like this:Example of a filled-in K-W-L chart

By connecting the “Want to Know” and “Learned” information to what the child already Knows, the child is extending the knowledge base she already has, rather than learning and soon forgetting isolated facts.

The K-W-L strategy and chart was first created by Donna Ogle. For more information, see Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570.

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