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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Pretesting Students and the KWL Strategy

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In 1986, Donna Ogle created KWL, a reading strategy that engages the students in the text or textbook and helps students analyze what they are reading. Students are asked to describe what they already know about the reading topic. Then they are asked to look at the title, the introduction and the pictures and determine what they want to know more of, in essence to determine why they should continue reading the literature.

After reading, then they describe what they learned from the reading selection. In KWL this was done verbally. In KWL+ this included a worksheet. In either form, the purpose was to stimulate discussion, questions, and curiosity in the topic being studied.

For too many teachers, KWL has become the preferred method for pretesting any student knowledge before beginning a lesson. Ogle never intended KWL to be used as a pretest. It is a discussion tool designed to stimulate questions.


In this era of questioning the value of American public education, it is critical that teachers are able to show that students are learning in their classrooms. Many have used the term "value-added" borrowed from business, to indicate student progress in the classroom content. In order to establish what value a teacher has added to the student, a pretest must be given to find out what they know or do not know. Then, after the lesson, a test is given to determine what the students actually learned. The difference between the two scores is the "value" that has been added by the teacher.

For many years, teachers have believed in this basic principle, but for the most part, they have deemed it superfluous because students are not expected to know anything prior to the teaching. This could not be further from the truth. Each state has scaffolded and spiraled the educational content to such a degree that almost nothing the students are expected to learn each year is brand new. Additionally, it is possible, and probable, that students have learned knowledge and skills independent from the school system (isn't that what we want?) It therefore, becomes not only prudent, but vital for teachers to determine what students know before instruction begins in order to customize the instruction to student needs, and not waste time on teaching things the students already know.

The Pretest

Recently in one of the university classes I teach, I was surprised by aspiring student teachers who gave their classes a pretest on the topics to be studied and who did not alter their instruction one bit, even though a majority of their students scored 80 percent or better on the pretest! This is a waste of time and energy for both the teacher and the students. Interestingly enough, the student teachers were stymied when some of the scores on the tests were lower than what was earned on the pretest.

For teachers who are serious about determining what students have learned in their classroom, using KWL poses problems when they want to establish those "value-added" measures. How can a teacher compare the KWL data to a final exam and discover what the teacher added in knowledge and skills? There is nothing wrong with KWL as a learning tool, it is just a lousy pretesting tool.

Starting with the End

But, preparing a pretest before instruction adds another dimension to the already overworked teaching profession. It means that the teacher must know beforehand what will be tested (and taught). Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design explain that if we are to be professionals, there is no reason that we would ever begin instruction without having the final exam already prepared and aligned to the correct learning objectives. This portends the end of an era. No more can teachers afford to just teach and teach, and then create the test over what they believe that they have taught the students.

The best pretests cover exactly the same objectives as the test, perhaps different questions, but not necessarily so. Is it wrong to show the students what will be on the final exam before you prepare them for it? Is it wrong to show a pole vaulter the height of the bar before he tries to catapult over it? With comparable pre and post tests teachers (and students, parents, principals, and politicians) can determine exactly what a teacher has added to that student. How is that so difficult?


Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carol Olson's picture
Carol Olson
Special Education Teacher ND

I have also used the KWL chart in my classroom. It helps to connect new information with what students already know. How do you assess the KWL chart?

Joe Dillon's picture

I've heard learners reflect that they didn't like KWL activities at the beginning of units because they learned that teachers would never really allow students to pursue the things they wanted to know. I personally like the KWL strategy with reluctant readers in non-fiction texts, always remembering that when students take away something other than what I might've foreseen or planned, that is a discovery and a cause for celebration, not an error on the part of the reader.

dsking1's picture
Mathematics Professional Development Specialist/Olympic ESD 114

Besides revealing what facts and information students already know or don't know, pretesting should be carefully designed to surface students' misconceptions in understanding. Such information is important for learning and teaching in all content areas, but especially in science, mathematics, and social studies. Identified misconceptions might then become learning objectives targeted on the learning trajectory for the unit of instruction. As Mr. Johnson pointed out, we don't pretest just for the sake of pretesting. It can be a very powerful tool for improvement of both teaching and learning. That's what it's all about. It's well worth the time and effort.

alisha's picture
Elementary School teacher from Fort Lauderdale, FL

I like to use the KWL chart for preassessing my student's knowledge when we are about to read a nonfiction book about a subject such as 'frogs'. I try to see what they already know and then I get them thinking ahead by asking them if they think they will learn anything new from the story. So now they are looking forward to reading the story. I think it is great to use as an informal assessment. The way I assess them is through comprehension (can they recall the information from the story). If some students can't, I know I need to model going back into the story to find the answer. (Sorry, if this sounds so basic, but I teach first grade).

Annette Loubriel's picture
Annette Loubriel

I thought KWL was a reading strategy used to improve the effectiveness of reading for knowledge. I went to school in the seventies. Also, I have had conversations with my mother in law who taught elementary language arts in the sixties. She tells me about the way she introduced subjects to the students that remind me a couple of good teachers I had who did the same. What she describes and what I remember is exactly what the KWL exercise is (the oral exercise). I totally agree that when it is done in an informal manner and orally, it serves the purpose of putting the critical thinking, mental outlining that goes on in your mind whenever you are researching a project. With practice what you gain is effectiveness in acquiring knowledge from reading, and also other learning activities. We are talking here about a mind process- analytical, critical. Written tests so many times kill this higher purpose. I agree with the concept of "understanding by design". I was a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry before being a homeschooling teacher and I totally agree with the concept of designing the learning experience of my children to acheive a purpose. "By Design" is a jargon taken by the industry that means basically to be effective, to make things happen by making things happen. For example, in Singapore before 1984, children were not succeeding in Math. They made an assessment of the situation and concluded that the imported school books they were using were not serving their students well. As a result they discarded all of these books and wrote new ones DESIGNED to acheive results- books that were effective with no time wasted.

T.J.'s picture
Math Teacher from Georgia

I am intrigued by the last paragraph of the post. The idea of previewing the actual posttest as the pretest is something I have been trying recently. My students have had reasonable success on standardized tests in years where I have used the strategy. I dare say that they had more success on those tests than they did on the previewed post-test. I would love to hear others' experiences with this previewing strategy.

Mr. Lewis's picture

You bring up great points about pre-test and post-test data. Too often teachers don't pay attention to the pre-test data which does make life more difficult for them. The analogies you use in the last paragraph are dead on in driving your point home. Great post!

MeghanM's picture

Great insight on pre and post tests.....I use the KWL chart in my classroom before reading a piece of writing to help my students gain background knowledge and use for a discussion tool. I only assess the skill that the students are working toward- which is building background knowledge. Are they able to link into their prior knowledge and apply it to the subject we are going to read about? This is the question I consider for assessing the KWL chart, not the actual content they are able to come up with for this lesson. I think the pretest should contain the same objetives/content as what you will use for the post test, because this measures actual growth.

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