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AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006

KWHHL:
A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION
OF THE KWL

AUTHOR

SUSAN SZABO teaches reading courses to undergraduate and graduate


students at Texas A & M University in Commerce, TX. She is a member
the of the International Reading Association, a faculty sponsor for Texas
State Reading Association Student Council, and a member of Delta Kappa
Gamma, Southwest Educational Research Association, and College
Reading Association.

ABSTRACT

Struggling readers at the middle level need help using reading strategies
effectively in order to become strategic readers. Middle level teachers
need both to model and to teach how to use a variety of reading strate-
gies that will help struggling readers become independent. This article
deals with the development of the KWHHL strategy. The KWHHL was
used to engage eighth-grade struggling readers with the informational text
that they were reading in the classroom. Not only did the KWHHL
provide scaffolding while they were learning to use comprehension strate-
gies but it also promoted the use of differentiated learning.

STRATEGIC READING
Good readers use many strategies routinely while they are reading to help
them comprehend the material. However, poor readers either do not
know about or do not use these comprehension strategies effectively. It is
up to the middle level teacher to help readers, especially those who are
struggling, to become comfortable with reading strategies that make sense

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AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006
KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL SZABO

to them (Headley & Dunston, 2000; Ivey & Baker, 2004; Sweet & Snow,
2002). Consequently, it is important that the middle level teacher include
instruction in how to become a strategic reader.

KWL – ADVANTAGES, LIMITATIONS AND PREVIOUS VARIATIONS


As teacher-researchers do, I reflected on what was happening in my class-
room. I felt something needed to be done to strengthen my students’
engagement with the content textbooks they were reading and to develop
their use of comprehension strategies. I felt that the before-during-after
structure of the KWL (Know-Want-Learn) was good (Ogle, 1986). It
provided for both the structured support and the scaffolding that I
believed my students needed to help them comprehend the text they were
reading.
The KWL content comprehension strategy has a before-during-after
structure. This structure supports/serves several purposes:

• Through brainstorming students can activate prior knowledge of the


topic; this brainstorming, in turn, develops the student’s interest,
curiosity and motivation;
• It helps them to determine what they want to learn about and to
design their own questions so they have their own purpose for
reading;
• It helps each student to monitor his/her comprehension as it allows
the students to assess their comprehension;
• It provides an opportunity for students to expand on ideas.

However, there are also several limitations to KWL. First, it does not
encourage reflective thinking of background knowledge to determine if
what students “know” is correct. Second, it does not encourage devel-
oping questions during reading. Third, it does not encourage vocabulary
growth. And finally, it does not encourage students to look for an
emotional link or experiential link to the material being read.
Since the KWL’s appearance, several variations have emerged. Carr
and Ogle (1987) developed the KWL Plus, which incorporated semantic
mapping and summarizing procedures. Reid, Forrestal and Cook (1989)
developed the KWHLS, which helped students answer the questions,
“How will I learn it and work with others?” and “How will I share the
information I have learned?” Bryan (1998) developed the KWWL so that
students could answer the question, “Where can I learn this?” Moore,
Alvermann, and Hinchman (2000) developed the KWLS, which was

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AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006
SZABO KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL

designed so that students could answer the question, “What Do I Still


Need to Know?” which emphasizes the need for further investigation to
improve metacognition about a subject area. Finally, Allen (2004) devel-
oped the BKWLQ. The “B” encourages the teacher to read aloud to the
students several short additional informational materials, on the topic
being studied, before they begin to read the required text. By building the
background knowledge of the students, each student will have some
understanding of the topic that can then be summarized in the “K”
column. The “Q” encourages students to develop questions after the
activity is finished. This helps the students realize that learning is an on-
going process.

BACKGROUND
Development of the KWHHL was done while I was the reading specialist
teacher at the intermediate level. The intermediate building was the
eighth-grade center for the School District. All of my students were eighth
grade struggling readers who were placed in my Title I reading classes.
They were at least three years behind grade level according to the end-of-
the-year reading placement test given to them by the district at the end of
their seventh grade year.
During the school year, I explicitly taught how to use various reading
strategies using their science and social studies textbooks. For their inde-
pendent reading time, they chose to read narrative stories or short easy
informational text. I chose to teach reading using their content textbooks,
because the majority were having difficulty reading and understanding
them and were not doing well in their other classes.

THE DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTION OF THE KWHHL


I began by using the KWL strategy (Ogle, 1986). Several informational read-
ings were chosen that could be used within the 50-minute class time. On
the first day, I modeled the use of the KWL, by drawing and filling out the
KWL chart on the board, while I read the text out loud. On the second day,
each student worked with a buddy to fill out a KWL chart while they read
another short informational reading. This allowed me time to walk around,
talk with and watch each group. This buddy-system provided scaffolding as
the buddies helped each other with the reading and with filling out of the
KWL chart. On the third day, each student did the KWL chart on their own
while reading yet another short informational piece.
Even though they were doing well with activating what background
knowledge they had, I felt that they were still missing important informa-

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Figure 1. Modified KWL Strategy

K W H H L
What do you know? What do you want to Head Words Heart Words What have you learned?
know?

(This is done before reading (Questions are developed by Head words are words that Heart words tell us what you When we read information
the text. Brainstorm by you both before and while confuse you. (When you read, feel. (Sometimes what we books, we read to learn.
thinking about what you reading in order to set a you may find words that you read makes us think of other Therefore, we need to think
already know about the topic purpose for reading) do not understand. Write the things that have happened to about what we read and
and write below.) sentence and underline the us – good and bad. Write what we already know criti-
word.) down the emotional word and cally
KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION

the event (reading) that trig-


gered that emotion.)
OF THE
KWL

Positive Ideas/Thoughts: Before Reading: Head Words Heart Words & Why New Information Learned
1. 1. 1. 1. 1.
2. 2. 2. 2. 2.
3. 3. 3. 3.
Negative Ideas/Thoughts 4. 4.
1. While Reading 5. 5. “Stayed the same”
2. 1,
2. “Correct but added to”
Neutral Ideas 3.
AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006

1. “Adjusted because flawed:


2.
3.
SZABO
AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006
SZABO KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL

tion. Therefore, I decided to modify the KWL framework, using what I was
learning while reading current research on reading, comprehension and
vocabulary development.

“K” COLUMN – WHAT DO I ALREADY KNOW?


First, I examined the “K” column to try to determine what my students
were doing while they were answering the question “What do you
already know” about what you will be reading. It is important for all
readers to activate their prior knowledge (Miller, 2002; Sweet & Snow,
2002). Teachers need to help students “think about” and “reflect on” prior
knowledge in order to determine if that prior knowledge is accurate. In
addition, teachers need to help students build background knowledge if it
is not present (Duke, 2004). Teachers need to encourage students to deter-
mine if the knowledge they hold is positive or negative because this will
encourage students to think more critically and to recognize that, even
though we may all have the same data, some may accept the data as a
positive idea while others may accept it as a negative idea (Szabo, 2004).
Therefore, I divided the “K” column in half. I labeled the top half
“positive ideas” and the bottom half “negative ideas” in order to help my
students determine and examine their beliefs about the information being
read (Szabo, 2004). I also asked them to try to explain why they believed
it was either positive or negative.
After several uses, this column had to be modified again. At the
suggestion of the students, we divided the “K” column into three sections.
We then labeled the third section “neutral ideas” as there were many facts
the students were writing down that did not fit into either “positive” or
“negative” ideas. (i.e. The earth is a sphere. Rocks are soft or hard.)

“W” COLUMN – WHAT DO I WANT TO FIND OUT?


Second, I inspected the “W” column to try and determine what my
students were doing or not doing. It is important for students to develop
their own questions both before and during reading so that they can be
thoughtfully engaged while they are reading (Ciardiello, 2000; Lubliner,
2004). In addition, developing questions that they are passionate about
provides motivation that enables students to work harder at constructing
understanding (Butcher & Kintsch, 2003; Schallert & Martin, 2003). This
also reinforces the idea that reading not only answers questions but also
may lead to asking additional questions (Ganske, Monroe, & Strickland,
2003). However, my students were just looking for the answers to the

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AMERICAN SECONDARY EDUCATION 34(3) SUMMER 2006
KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL SZABO

questions I or the whole class had developed, and they were not devel-
oping questions of their own while they were reading.
Therefore, I decided to divide the “W” column in half – labeling the
top half “before reading,” which contained the questions that were devel-
oped either by me or by the whole class. To encourage my students to
continually think about the text they were reading, the bottom half was
labeled “while reading.” Each student was instructed to record the ques-
tions he/she developed during reading. The students were encouraged to
leave room to write down the answers as they were found in the text.

“H” COLUMN – HEAD WORDS


Third, after much deliberation, I added two new columns. The first new
column was “H” for hard words, because it appeared that my eighth-
grade students were having difficulty with content vocabulary. It is crit-
ical that students know, understand and use a large number of words
(Rhoder & Huerster, 2002). Research shows that vocabulary knowledge
increases reading comprehension (Gunning, 2004; Neubert & Wilkins,
2004; Sturtevant & Linek, 2004). Research also tells us that words are
learned in multiple ways and through multiple exposures; therefore,
teachers need to provide a variety of opportunities for students to explore
the meaning of words. Students should be actively involved in vocabulary
development if we want them to develop an interest in words. Research
has also shown that curiosity about words will help one to acquire the
vocabulary that is needed to comprehend the content material being read
(Blachowicz & Fisher, 2004; Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2003). However,
when most of my struggling readers came to a word they did not know,
they skipped the word but never went back and used the sentence context
to help them figure out the word meaning; therefore, they were missing
important information that they needed to know.
It is important for students to develop understanding of specific
vocabulary (words for which the meaning stays the same), non-specific
vocabulary (words with different meanings) and content -related vocabu-
lary (technical or jargon). This column guided or forced the students to
record the words that were important or unknown to them. It also
provided a way of differentiating and acknowledging that they all have
different background knowledge and need to learn different words.
The instructions for using this column were modified several times. At
first, students were writing 5-10-15 words in the column. This was too
many words to learn. My students were frustrated with the long lists they
had created. So, for the first modification, I had the students work in

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SZABO KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL

groups to do the assignments. That way, they could help each other with
word meaning. For the second modification, I had each of them look at
their large list of words and choose only 3-5 words that they felt were
important for understanding of the text. Then, the third modification, had
us working as a whole class to develop a word wall using all the selected
words from the students. This allowed the students to share and compare
their words. Using this word wall became a great way to talk about and
review the words. It also helped to build the self-esteem of the students,
as they found that everyone contributed to the list, thus they were not the
“dummy” in the group.

“H” COLUMN – HEART OR FEELING WORDS


The second new “H” column was for heart or emotional/experience
words. It has been shown that each reader responds to the text in a very
personal way, as each reader uses his/her own personal background expe-
riences to construct meaning (Karolides, 1997; Willner, Harden,
Christensen, Kelly, Sowell, Kluth, Darmody-Lathan, Lenters, & El-Hindi,
2003). Therefore, I felt that this column would help students talk about
and explore their own experiences and/or feelings, which would, in turn,
help them to understand the value they attached to the material being
read (Rosenblatt, 1995).
Thus, the second “H” column was provided for the students to write
down their “heart or feeling” words. Students were instructed to find
events/information in the text that evoked an emotion (happy, sad, scary,
frustrated, etc). They were to summarize the event in the text and then tell
what emotion it evoked and why it evoked that emotion. We talked about
how the emotion that a text event evokes depends on how we personally
experienced the event in our life. For example, if a text said, “45,000
people die every year in vehicular accidents,” some may have a sad
response to this statement because they lost a family member in a car
accident. Others will not have any strong emotional response to this state-
ment because they have had no experiences with vehicular accidents.
This column caused the most anxiety. At first students became very
upset when they could not find emotional words (happy, sad, etc) within
the text material. Even with explicit teaching on how to find sentences,
phrases or words that sparked an emotional response, they did not seem
to “get it” or to understand the process. So, for several assignments this
became a whole class assignment where students were actively
responding to the text: “Wow, this is cool,” “Boy, is that stupid,” “That’s
funny,” or “That reminds me of . . .” Finally, when they became confident

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KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL SZABO

at relating the readings to emotions, they were on their own again. While
they worked independently, they were told to limit their responses to 2-3
emotional links. This helped them to understand how linking old experi-
ences to new material can make learning easier.

“L” COLUMN – WHAT DID I LEARN?


Finally, I examined the “L” column to try and determine what my students
were or were not doing. Recognizing one’s own learning growth is
important. In order to see learning growth, each student needed to be
effective both at summarizing and evaluating the material and at
confirming/adjusting his or her own knowledge as a result of the reading.
I found that my students were summarizing well, but were not really
thinking about prior knowledge and the connections they could make.
Nor were they thinking about what they knew or thought they knew, eval-
uating that against the reading and adjusting their understanding when it
was not correct.
Therefore, I divided this column in half. At the top of the column,
they were to reflect and summarize by writing 3-5 things that they had
learned while reading. At the bottom of the column, they were asked to
write, “stayed the same,” “correct but added to,” or “adjusted because
flawed.” Which phrase they wrote was determined by reexamining the
prior knowledge that they had written down in the “K” column before
they began their reading. Next, if the prior knowledge was flawed, they
were to discuss how this knowledge was changed. This step was to illus-
trate that sometimes we all have prior knowledge that is wrong and that it
must be adjusted or “fixed” if we are to fully understand the material.

CONCLUSIONS
After using the KWHHL for a semester, I was excited, as I saw that the
learning experiences for these eighth graders were enhanced. The modifi-
cations seem to have worked, as all of my students had, to some degree,
benefited by using this modified format. First, they all started developing
their own questions. Moreover, by providing a place for question develop-
ment both before and during reading, the students said that they felt
forced to think of questions while reading to fill in the KWL worksheet, as
they did not want any empty spaces. While not optimal, this response was
acceptable, as I know that with repetition, the act of questioning while
reading will eventually become a habit.
Second, I believe that my students’ vocabulary had grown, as they
appeared to be more comfortable using their hard words both orally in

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SZABO KWHHL: A STUDENT-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF THE KWL

group discussions and in their journal writings. The hard words in the “H”
column provided a way to honor individual learning as it helped my
students to study words that were important to them in a meaningful way
(Katch, 2004). As the majority of the students choose different words, we
were able to use the word wall to study a variety of words in context and
students were able to help each other with the word meanings. As they
chose the words they wanted to learn and to add to the word wall, they
became engaged in the reading, which in turn increased their comprehen-
sion of the text (Juel & Deffes, 2004). They found that they did have some
control over their own learning and began to feel successful.
Third, my students did learn how to link the text to emotions and
experiences. Even though this was a difficult and frustrating task, they
persevered. Through class discussions, each student also found that
listening to others share how they linked their personal experiences to the
text helped him/her to understand and bring new meaning to what he/she
was reading.
So, as the year came to a close, I believed that the KWHHL was a
success. There was evidence of students’ growth not only through the tests
they were taking and the semester grades they were receiving but in the
oral and written language that they were using both in class discussions
and in their writing journals. Because they were forced to use the words
in a variety of ways, they claimed ownership of the words. However,
more importantly these struggling readers were starting to behave like
good readers. Continually being open to changing the format of the
KWHHL, as we encountered problems with its usage, allowed the
students to become comfortable with choosing and/or adapting strategies
that work best for them.
However, after developing and using the KWHHL, several questions
remain. First, what provides the most powerful vocabulary learning expe-
rience (choosing their own words, learning about peer’s words through
class discussion or preteaching of vocabulary words by the teacher)?
Second, although we know that one’s understanding is improved if the
reading is linked to past experience, can we become so involved in
finding emotional/experiential links to what is being read that we hinder
our understanding of the new material? Third, does using the KWHHL
enhance the learning of non-struggling readers?

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