Teachers use K-W-L charts during thematic units to activate students’ background knowledge about a topic and to scaffold them as they ask questions and organize the information they’re learning (Ogle, 1986). Teachers create a K-W-L chart by hanging up three sheets of butcher paper on a classroom wall and labeling them K, W, and L; the letters stand for “What We Know,” “What We Wonder,” and “What We Learned.”

This procedure helps students activate background knowledge, combine new information with prior knowledge, and learn technical vocabulary related to a thematic unit. Students become curious and more engaged in the learning process, and teachers can introduce complex ideas and technical vocabulary in a nonthreatening way. Teachers direct, scribe, and monitor the development of the K-W-L chart, but it’s the students’ talk that makes this such a powerful instructional procedure. Students use talk to explore ideas as they create the K and W columns and to share new knowledge as they complete the L column.

Teachers follow these steps:

  1. Post a K-W-L chart. Teachers post a large chart on the classroom wall, divide it into three columns, and label them K (What We Know), W (What We Wonder), and L (What We Learned).
  2. Complete the K column. At the beginning of a thematic unit, teachers ask students to brainstorm what they know about the topic and write this information in the K column. Sometimes students suggest information that isn’t correct; these statements should be turned into questions and added to the W column.
  3. Complete the W column. Teachers write the questions that students suggest in the W column. They continue to add questions to the W column during the unit.
  4. Complete the L column. At the end of the unit, students reflect on what they’ve learned, and teachers record this information in the L column of the chart.

Sometimes teachers organize the information on the K-W-L chart into categories to highlight the big ideas and to help students remember more of what they’re learning; this procedure is called K-W-L Plus (Carr & Ogle, 1987). Teachers either provide three to six big-idea categories when they introduce the chart, or they ask students to decide on categories after they brainstorm information about the topic for the K column. Students then focus on these categories as they complete the L column, classifying each piece of information according to one of the categories. When categories are used, it’s easier to make sure students learn about each of the big ideas being presented.

Students also make individual K-W-L charts. As with class K-W-L charts, they brainstorm what they know about a topic, identify questions, and list what they’ve learned. They can make their charts in learning logs or construct flip books with K, W, and L columns. Students make individual flip charts by folding a legal-size sheet of paper in half, lengthwise, cutting the top flap into thirds, and labeling the flaps K, W, and L. Then students lift the flaps to write in each column. Checking how students complete their L columns is a good way to monitor their learning.

This table shows A K-W-L chart developed by a kindergarten class as they were hatching chicks. The teacher did the actual writing on the K-W-L chart, but the children generated the ideas and questions. It often takes several weeks to complete this activity because teachers introduce the K-W-L chart at the beginning of a unit and use it to identify what students already know and what they wonder about the topic. Toward the end of the unit, students complete the last section of the chart, listing what they’ve learned.


A Kindergarten Class’s K-W-L Chart on Baby Chicks


(What We Know)


(What we Want to Learn)


What We Learned

  • They hatch from eggs.
  • They sleep.
  • They can be yellow or other colors.
  • They have 2 legs.
  • They have 2 wings.
  • They eat food
  • They have a tail.
  • They live on a farm.
  • They are little.
  • They have beaks.
  • They are covered with fluff.
  • Are their feet called wabbly?
  • Do they live in the woods?
  • What are their bodies covered with?
  • How many toes do they have?
  • Do they have a stomach?
  • What noises do they make?
  • Do they like the sun?
  • Chickens' bodies are covered with feathers.
  • Chickens have 4 claws.
  • Yes, they do have stomachs.
  • Chickens like to play in the sun.
  • They like to stay warm.
  • They live on farms.