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The Best KWL Chart is Actually a Picture Thinking Routine

Posted by Judy Higgins on Sep 15, 2021

What is a KWL chart, and how is it used in teaching science? Let's take a look first at what the 'KWL' stands for – it's an acronym for what students KNOW, WANT to know, and will LEARN during a lesson. KWL charts are graphic organizers that help students collect information before, during, and after a unit. Using a KWL graphic organizer supports the constructivist teaching model – the idea that deeper learning happens when students are actively involved in the learning process instead of passive recipients of new information.

When teachers use KWL charts to introduce new ideas and topics, they help students identify what they already know about the topic and better understand the objectives of the lesson. KWL charts can also be used by teachers to monitor student success. KWL charts help guide students through nonfiction texts, as they track their progress in three columns titled KNOW, WANT, and LEARNED. There are many different KWL chart format examples, and they can be used to teach a variety of topics and subject areas. I am going to share how I used a Picture-Thinking graphic organizer (one type of KWL chart) with the KnowAtom science curriculum to implement the Picture-Thinking reading strategy. This graphic organizer is even better than a KWL chart because students are working within a context to identify what they know, want to know, and what they've learned. I have been a teacher for about 20 years, and for the last five years of my teaching I have used the KnowAtom curriculum.


KWL Charts and Picture-Thinking Reading Comprehension

The picture-thinking routine is one of my favorite routines. I started using this in my classroom about two years ago, and it really made a huge difference in my students' engagement with nonfiction texts. When I made it part of my regular classroom routine, students started thinking in such different ways. I'm going to take you step-by-step through exactly how to implement this routine in your own classroom, using the Picture-Thinking graphic organizer to help.

What is a "picture thinker?" A picture thinker is someone who thinks more in pictures than in words or sounds. Incorporating the picture-thinking routine in your classroom will help not only those students who think "in pictures," it's a great way for all students to make strong connections between the context and new vocabulary words, concepts, and what they already know. Here's an example of a Picture-Thinking KWL graphic organizer I use in my classroom:

Picture thinking graphic organizer handout
This Picture-Thinking chart is something I use to start every single lesson as a pre-reading strategy. The green line at the top shows you what part of the chart students should complete before the lesson section's reading, with the Clarifying Reflection (blue section) something that you do after the reading is complete.

Using a KWL Graphic Organizer in the Classroom

To incorporate the picture-thinking routine and KWL graphic organizer into your classroom, start with asking students to observe the photo that's on the cover of the KnowAtom student reader (or any other text) and record on the KWL chart the following:

• What do you notice?
• What do you think the image tells us about what we'll learn on this page?

Student reader with photo of a tightroap

In this KWL chart example, a fairly typical student response is "I notice a tightrope." They've identified the OBJECT in the picture. The next column asks students to record the ACTION. "It looks like it's moving back and forth." The last part to discover is a PROPERTY (a characteristic or trait about the object that can be observed, measured, or combined). A student might say, "I can tell that it's strong because it's holding the girl up."

You can see from this example how the KWL chart prods students to think outside the box and to consider more than what's on the surface. For instance, if the student only responds with, "I can tell it's strong," it's important to follow up and ask them, "Why? What makes you think it's strong?" In the last step, students reflect on what they think the picture tells them about what they might be learning about in the lesson (or on the page where they observed the picture). A student might say, "I think maybe we'll learn about gravity because the swing comes back down after it goes up."

This is a great preliminary connection to a concept the student has already learned. The KWL chart tool combined with picture thinking helps generate excitement and interest in what's to come and reduces anxiety about learning something new because we've connected it with current knowledge.

Activating Higher Level Thinking with KWL Charts

The goal of picture thinking combined with KWL charts is getting students to notice the pictures in their readers and think about what they mean and why they're included on that page. One of the things that I've always really enjoyed about the KnowAtom curriculum is its images. They're very compelling, and they appeal to the students. They also help engage students in ideas they might not be familiar with, for example – snow. Even if they've never experienced snow, the picture can help them think about what it would feel like and how it would impact their environment. They start thinking about the picture, which generates excitement in, "I can't wait to read about this."

Chart of sled dogs showing pulling force and photo of sled with dogs

Giving students time to make close observation of the images in their reader and describe them activates a much higher level of thinking than a quick "that looks cool" and moving on. Instead, students notice different dimensions within an image and take a risk to infer its meaning in relation to the text. That's something that can be a struggle for students. While they may be curious, they're often nervous to say it because they're worried about whether they should already know the concept. The picture-thinking routine is a great way to unlock that curiosity and promote risk-taking. It also promotes updating your beliefs as you gather more information. The students modify their understanding of the photo as they move along in the reader and collect their answers in the KWL chart.

Classroom Discussions and KWL Charts

The next step in using the Picture Thinking KWL chart is to invite students to briefly share their thinking with the class or in small groups. If the students are a little bit nervous about speaking to the whole class, they can also turn to a partner and share. The teacher can say something like:

• On page 4 of the reader, what did you notice in the image?
• What do you think the image tells us about what we will learn on this page?

With the students' ideas top of mind, you can then read page 4 together, with students annotating the text or using sticky notes (more about that process is down below). As the students read together, you can reflect on what you're learning together. It's a great feeling to watch them get there together – when they get further into the reading and reflect, "Oh, now I see what it has to do with snow." The KWL chart is a great way to encourage students to connect with the reading by identifying their own questions and waiting for the answers to come.


Read and Annotate: Ways to Annotate the Text

Here's an example of a great way to teach students to annotate the text as they read. That is a useful skill that will really help students engage very deeply with the reading. Annotation is not note-taking. It's a very engaging way to help students quickly mark down reflections on a text. As you can see on the chart, the annotation process identifies something they wonder about (or are amazed about), are confused about, can make a connection about, or think is important to remember.

Annotation chart

For something they wonder about or think, "Oh wow, that's amazing," students mark with an exclamation point. A question mark signifies a place where they're confused. This is a particularly important one because so often, students are embarrassed to admit that they don't get something, so they'll simply skip it. Instead of looking at confusion as something negative, we can look at it as, "This is exciting, this is an opportunity to do some research, or this is an opportunity to engage in discussion with someone so I can find out the answer to my question." This tool helps students go beyond the KWL chart benefits; it actively engages them with the reading on a much deeper level.

Where a student is reflecting and recognizing that "This connects to another idea that I've experienced or learned about," they use a plus sign. This is something that often happens, and we miss that moment because we move on too quickly without giving them that opportunity to think and reflect. As students become more sophisticated readers, their brain starts to recognize these important connections. Using the KWL chart repeatedly throughout the semester gives students a great way to track their improvement, showcasing how they've strengthened critical thinking skills.

Student reader with student's annotated notes
Finally, a star signifies something important to remember. They may be thinking, "This has something to do with the materials we're going to use to do an experiment with." Or "This seems to connect with the picture we were looking at." This kind of annotation is helping students remember what they've learned because they're personally making a connection with it. Annotation helps students read deeper into the text and prepare for responding to their KWL chart questions.

Clarifying Reflection: KWL Chart Benefits

After students finish reading and annotating the text, it's time to move on in the KWL chart to the final section – Clarifying Reflection. After you've completed the page of reading, you're going to pause as a group and allow students a minute to consider:

• How has our thinking changed?
• Can anyone identify something that's confusing?
• Can anyone help us clarify what this means?

Students can share with the whole class or, to make sure you're capturing students who might not speak up, you can ask, "Turn to the person next to you," or "Discuss this in your group." Students share and record how their thinking has changed after completing the reading and group discussion, using their KWL chart responses to help. You can then repeat this step for each new page in the student reader.

Here are some comments that I took directly from different lessons in my students' Picture-Thinking graphic organizers.

I'm confused. I thought that salt was in the bottom of the ocean.

We were reading about how salt gets into the ocean, and there was a connection made about the water cycle. This was one of those great moments when the entire classroom started talking about that. They did such a great job thinking about how interesting it was that they had never thought about how salt got into the ocean. They had all just made that assumption, "Well, it's in the bottom of the ocean." I really appreciate moments like that, because when everybody can look around and say, "Well, this is interesting. None of us thought of that," I think it gives permission that this was an appropriate time to be confused.

Wow, there is so much water on the earth.

One of the visuals in the reader showed the difference between the amount of blue that was on the globe, the water, and the amount of landmass. This caused one student to go and get a globe and bring it back to their group, and a lot of discussions ensued. The amount of thinking going on was quite remarkable.

I remembered the word evaporation from fourth grade, but now I understand why it happens.

This came out of a great discussion between understanding the definition of the word evaporation and understanding what is really going on with the process of evaporation.

How quickly students take charge of this process and begin to do it independently really depends on the group. Students will slowly start owning the process, using Picture-Thinking KWL charts independently. When this happens, it gives teachers more time to observe and guide those who need it most. As we release responsibility to students who feel comfortable taking charge, we see engagement levels rise too.  Teachers should not be doing all the work in the classroom – students should be taking the lead when they can, and experiencing discourse, risk-taking, wondering, and discovering together with their peers.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards, interactive science, Inquiry Based Learning, Next Generation Science Classroom Instruction, science education, KWL Chart, Picture Thinking

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