Pretesting Students and the KWL Strategy

June 2, 2011

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?


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