K-W-L Charts: A simple way to promote critical thinking with young learners

In this month’s blog post, Katherine writes about using K-W-L charts with primary children. She explains what K-W-L charts are and how they can be used to develop critical thinking skills that mirror those needed in the real world. She suggests how K-W-L charts can be adapted to enhance the learning process further. She ends with a simple reflection task to support your professional development.

K-W-L charts: a simple way to promote critical thinking

K-W-L charts are a useful resource for primary teachers. They were thought up by Donna Ogle in 1986 and initially used as a learning strategy to help students who struggled to understand a text. Since then they have been used by teachers in many different subjects and contexts. English teachers can use K-W-L charts as a tool to help focus children on their own learning and to foster critical thinking.

How does a K-W-L chart work?

A KWL chart is sometimes referred to as a thinking routine. It encourages children to think about their learning, about what they already know or think they know and what they’d like to find out. It promotes curiosity and personalised learning. A simple three-column K-W-L chart is useful when children are going to learn about a new topic or do a project where they need to research specific information.

  • Draw a chart with 3 columns on a large piece of card and display it in a prominent place in the classroom. Alternatively, draw the chart on the board and get each child to copy it in their notebooks.
  • Add the headings: K, W and L. Explain that K means What I know, W means What I wonder or What I want to find out. L means What I have learnt.
  • Write the new topic on the board. E.g. Transport, point to the first column and get children to brainstorm things they already know. This can be facts, vocabulary or any other relevant information. E.g. A boat travels across water. A train is faster than a bicycle. This stage gets children to activate and share their prior knowledge.
  • Point to the second column and ask children what they want to find out about (transport). Give them time to think and come up with some ideas. You might like to extend this stage so that children have more thinking time. Add their ideas to the column. E.g. What is the fastest plane in the world? How many children in the class can ride a bicycle? Accept any reasonable ideas and if necessary have the discussion in L1 and then translate their ideas into simple English.
  • The third column can be completed after the children have learnt more about the topic.
  • If necessary have a discussion after completing the W column, to narrow down and agree on a number of points that the children can focus on.

More complexity

KWL charts can be made more complex by adding more columns. This enables teachers to extend the learning and further develop children’s critical thinking skills.

K-W-L can become K-W-H-L. H refers to How can we find out? After brainstorming a list of things the children want to know, give them some thinking time in pairs to come up with ideas of how they can find out the information. These days this will mostly be a reference to an internet search but you can encourage studnets to think about what they need to write in the search box. They might also decide to ask a particular person for information, in person or by sending an email. Other information can be found by looking at reference books or maps in the library or consulting a dictionary.

The chart can be extended further to include two more columns: K-W-H-L-S-D. S refers to How can I share the information I find? Again, they will need thinking time to consider how best to share the information and you will need to guide them by thinking of whether information is best shared orally (e.g. a presentation), in writing (e.g. a blog post) or in a diagram or drawing, etc. D refers to What will I do next? This is sometimes represented as an A for older children – how can I apply what I have learnt? It refers to a final thinking stage where children consider how the new information learnt will impact on their habits. For example, in a project about  recycling they might find out that plastic is harmful for the environment. A logical conclusion might therefore be a change in habits at home or at school or a campaign to encourage classmates to use alternatives to plastic.

Reflection task

Try out one of the charts above with your class and spend some time completing the reflection tasks below. This can be done in your own professional development journal or in a discussion with a colleague.

  1. Was the K-W-L chart successful?
  2. How did the learners respond?
  3. Did all learners contribute in completing the chart?
  4. Did you encounter any problems? If ‘yes’, how did you resolve them?
  5. Would you use a K-W-L chart again? If ‘No’, why not? If ‘Yes’, would you do anything differently?

If you try K-W-L charts with your class, we’d love to hear how it goes.

Author: Katherine Bilsborough

Katherine has been creating ELT materials for 30 years, for her own students and for some of the top ELT Publishers. She has written more than 30 course books and many online courses. . Katherine also writes monthly lesson plans for the British Council/BBC website teachingenglish.org.uk and blog posts for National Geographic Learning’s In Focus blog. She is the author of ‘How to write Primary materials’, a training course for ELT writers and is the Joint Events Coordinator for IATEFL’s MaWSIG (Materials Writers’ special interest group). Katherine is a co-author of Look, a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.


  1. I use KWL charts with young learners and they’re always welcome because they “tap” on learners’ brains! First of all they help kids “recall” or “apply” prior knowledge which they don’t really know they have. Secondly, all kids get involved in the process because each one tries for their own sake, so there’s no sense of criticizing or being criticized for saying something right or wrong. Regarding the L column, students always feel happy for what they’ve learnt! On the whole, such charts promote personalized learning and ignite interest. Last, they definitely “deviate” from traditional ways of teaching, which is unarguably challenging in the teaching-learning process.

    1. OK this article is very important for brainstorming… I didn’t know about it… .it is leading the strategy of encouragement and makes your class kind very dared to explore and fitch their mindtrain

  2. This model is really good form to students to develop crítical thinking .Also I do other activities to have students active and happy.

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