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Pretesting Students and the KWL Strategy

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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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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Ben Johnson

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

Jim's picture
6th Grade Math Teacher

I enjoyed your BLOG. I use the KWL chart in my classroom for both Reading and Math class. Sometimes my students make individual charts while other times we make a class KWL chart. Students really enjoy sharing what they know, what they want to know and what they have learned. The chart gives them a sense of ownership with their learning. This tool is great to see how far they have come, but I have trouble using them for grades because I am not sure how to grade them or even if I should grade them. Some students take more time than others, while other students just complete it because they have to. Is there a better way to assess these charts??

I also wanted to comment on pre-tests. Pre-testing is very important as it gives the instructor an idea of where each student is at academically. Pre-tests help me with grouping, my instructional strategies, interventions, etc. My pre-tests are always correlated with my post tests. I do change the questions as some students would simply memorize answers and not learn the material. Yes, that happens in 6th grade!

Romona's picture
Middle School Math Teacher

I like the idea of showing the students what will be on the test via a pretest. It would definitely help with grouping and with where the emphasis should be placed for the lessons. My only worry is about testing the students too much. Is too much testing detrimental?

Kayla's picture
Third grade teacher from Georgia

I really enjoy using the KWL in my classroom. We sometimes construct a class KWL but mostly we use individual KWLs. Each student is required to note what they know and what they would like to learn. I take them up and read them carefully - noting some of the students suggestions for what they would like to learn. Once we have completed a unit/topic, then I allow students to fill out the Learned section. This is used as a summarizer to my lesson and not as an assessment.

Pretest are very important. Eventhough students can tell you what they "think" they know about a subject, that does not mean the information they provide is accurate, how ever the "K" on a KWL will give you insight to the prior knowledge student has about a subject. Pretest must be given in order to successfully measure what a student already knows about the unit/topic/subject. It needs to be similar to the post-test (but not necessarily the same). As a educator, as long as the pretest covers the same skills and knowledge content then it is applicable.

Ms Lorge's picture
Ms Lorge
6th grade math

This was my first year teaching 6th grade math, and I only did one pre-test at the beginning of the year. This is something that I regret. I struggled with a group of students being bored because they already knew a lot of the material that I taught. I have been researching ways on how to differentiate my instruction for next year. After reading this blog, I am inspired about the idea of pre-testing before each unit. This will help me identify students who are proficient already and need to pushed to a highly level and those who will need additional support to be successful.

BJ's picture

I agree with your thoughts about the overuse of the KWL to identify what students already have in their schema. I use the KWL chart when we are reading non-fiction books. For example, when we began our Famous Georgians Unit I used the KWL to find out what students already knew about people like Martin Luther King, Jr, Jimmy Carter,and Jackie Robinson. I like using this strategy with non-fiction because it teaches the students how to use it independently when they read non-fiction texts. If implemented correctly, students could then use their KWL chart to write an informational piece. This is how it is used in my second grade class. After reading your post, I feel that I need to do a better job with implementing pretests. Thanks for your insight.

Ellie's picture
6th grade English teacher

I agree with your view of the KWL chart. It is getting used in the wrong ways and is not effective as a pre-test. I also liked the point you make about knowing the end result and letting students know exactly what will be on the final test, or what the final requirements are for the paper they are writing, etc. This was a great reminder of how to effectively assess students and the process we need to take to get there. There should be no surprises.

Tara's picture

I have used a KWL chart in my classroom with much success. However, in order to be used as a true learning tool, it must be thought-out and well-planned ahead of time; not just a time filler. Know why you are using the KWL chart. How will you use the information you gathered? I loved the last paragraph regarding pretests. Yes, as educators we need to make our learning valuable and meaningful to our purpose. Thus, our pretests need to be planned to cover the objectives we intend our students to know, learn, and understand. They need to know these objectives clearly ahead of time to organize and connect their daily learning. So, using a KWL chart, or any form of pretesting is valuable but must be used in a valuable way to improve student learning.

Linda's picture

I think it is very easy to just start teaching a topic and them create a test when you think you have covered enough material. I think many of us have done this when we are stressed and tight for time. It is an easy way to teach and requires less pre-planning, however, it does a huge disservice to our students. I have found that students learn so much more when I take the time to create really good assessments before I start planning my daily lessons. I am a strong believer in creating an assessment at the beginning of planning my units.

Ryan's picture
8th Grade US History

Good topic with a lot of good comments! I really liked the idea presented towards the end of the blog where you said, "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?" I agree that tests and what are on them should not be a surprise to the students!

Matt M's picture
Matt M
West Fargo

I from time to time use a KWL chart with my ELL students to get a real basic idea of what they think they may know. Depending on the group of the ELL students, some have a lot of prior knowledge on the content they just don't know how to accurately tell or write about it because of the English. In other cases, they have no knowledge on the subject material that I am teaching. I have used pretest in my teaching, but I have found out that in most cases the ELL students do poorly. While this is a probably a lack of content knowledge and English skills, I find that most students just rush through the test and guess. While I agree with this article that pretesting in and of itself is a great idea to help drive instruction, I haven't found it to be of the greatest help in my teaching. However, I think that I can still find out some promising information from a pretest such as what areas are the weakest and what areas do the students have a better understanding of. This can help drive my instruction.

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