Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

Activating background knowledge, or what a reader already knows about a topic, may help children have a better understanding of a text they are reading (Correia & Bleicher, 2008). However, having plenty of background knowledge will not guarantee full comprehension of the text (Duke et al., 2011), and too much background information can encourage children to focus on unimportant details or can make reading the text unnecessary (see our previous blog post). Furthermore, having too little background knowledge can make it difficult even for older readers to learn from a text (O’Reilly et al., 2019).

Gaining information and creating knowledge is a cyclical process where new information leads to new knowledge (Duke et al., 2011). Activating and using the knowledge you already have is a key first step in this process.

Using a K-W-L Chart

A simple way to support activation of background knowledge is by using a graphic organizer known as a K-W-L chart. Completing this type of chart can help children recall what they know (Know-W-L) about a topic, identify what they want to know (K-Want to Know-L), and track what they learned (K-W-Learned) from the text. For a K-W-L chart that your children can use at home, see Supplemental Materials for Families below.

Initially, consider having your children start practicing filling out a K-W-L chart with a book that connects to something in their life. For example, if they really enjoy skateboarding, choose a book about that topic. As you and your children practice using the K-W-L chart to support comprehension, you can move on to different books with which your children might not have an apparent connection. The books can be either fiction or nonfiction.

Section 1 of K-W-L: What I Know

Before reading the selected book, your children should fill out the first section of the K-W-L chart: “What I Know.” This section is where children should record anything they know about the topic and how the topic relates to their lives, the world, or other texts they have read. Have your children start by looking at the book cover and a summary of the book, if one is included, to get ideas. If they struggle to come up with something to write down, you can help them brainstorm ideas by asking purposeful questions about the text such as:

  • What do you already know about the topic of this book?
  • How does the topic of this book relate to other books you have read?
  • How does the topic of this book relate to your own life?
  • How does the topic of this book relate to what is going on in the world now or in the past?

Section 2 of K-W-L: What I Want to Know

The next section of the K-W-L chart is the “What I Want to Know” section. Here, children should record any questions or predictions they might have about the book. This can help motivate them to find the answers to their questions as they read.

Your children are now ready to read the book. If they are capable of reading the book independently, they should read it either silently or aloud. If the book is too difficult for them to read independently, then your children can listen to a more advanced reader read aloud or listen to a recording of the book being read.

Section 3 of K-W-L: What I Learned

After reading the book, your children can add to the third and final section of the K-W-L chart, “What I Learned.” In this section, have your children write down any answers to the questions they came up with in the “What I Want to Know” section, document information that suggests if predictions listed in the previous section were correct, and record anything else learned from the text. This allows your children to reflect on the reading, and it gives you an opportunity to check your children’s understanding of the text. Through this process, readers combine what they already knew with new information that they have now learned (Ogle, 2009).

Here is an example of a completed K-W-L chart, using the e-book Why We Stay Home: Suzie Learns about Coronavirus (available to download for free here).

What I Know What I Want to Know What I Learned

My parents are working at home.

I am learning at home.

The coronavirus affects people around the world.

Lots of businesses had to close.

My mom wears a mask when she goes to the grocery store.

This book might tell me about the coronavirus.

How does the coronavirus spread?

What can I do to stay safe?

Why can't I go to school and see my friends?

When will it end?

I learned that the coronavirus is a germ that can be anywhere like chairs.

Germs can be good and bad, but coronavirus is a bad germ.

Some signs of coronavirus are cough, fever, and sore throat.

To stay safe, I should wash my hands, wear a mask, and social distance from others.

The K-W-L chart offers a simple way for caregivers to help their children activate their background knowledge and better comprehend a new text. And, because it can be used by children either independently or together with a caregiver, it is a flexible option to be used with any kind of text for literacy learning at home.

Supplemental Materials for Families

K-W-L Chart

This chart can be filled out by children when reading at home in order to support activation of background knowledge about the topic of a text they are reading. This is intended to help them better understand the text.


Correia, M. G., and Bleicher, R. E. (2008). Making connections to teach reflection. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning14, 41–49. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3239521.0014.204

Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Strachan, S. L., & Billman, A. K. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. In. S. J. Samuels & A. E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (4th ed.; pp. 51–93). International Reading Association.

Ogle, D. (2009). Creating contexts for inquiry: From KWL to PRC2. Knowledge Quest38(1), 56–61.

O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science30(9), 1344–1351. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619862276