As children are beginning to develop language skills, I often see parents getting caught in the cycle of asking their child question after question to practice and “show off’ the newly acquired language skills. While it appears that the child is practicing listening and language skills, often the questions are rote and have only one word responses. Is this really beneficial to language development, or is there a better way?
Questions can be a good way to initiate communicative interactions with your child. However, depending on your child’s language level, asking the “right” questions, is what makes the difference between a brief conversation and a rich social interaction.
Before we start talking about how to best use questions in everyday communicative interactions with your child, let’s talk about the different types of questions. There are three different types of questions: yes/no, choice, and wh- questions.
- Yes/No Questions: These are questions that lead to a response of “Yes” or “No”. They generally begin with words such as “Is, Are, Am, Can, Do, Will, Would, Could”. For example, “Do you want to go to the movies?”, “Can I have that ball?”, “Would you like a donut?”, and “Are you sad?” While there is an opportunity for the child to expand on the yes/no answer, it is not necessary for an appropriate response.
- Choice Questions: These are questions that provide the expected answers within the question it self, in an either/or format. For example, “Do you want milk or juice?”, “Is the shirt blue or black?”, and “Are you sad or mad?”
- Wh-Questions: These are questions that begin with the words “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How (even though that doesn’t start with wh-)”. These questions allow for a variety of different responses, including providing labels (“What is this?”), locations (“Where is the ball?”), people (“Who has the book?”), temporal words (“When do we sleep?”), causal relationships (“Why did the balloon pop?”), and sequences (“How do you do this?”).
In addition to understanding the different types of questions that can be asked for the sake of variety and exposure, it is very important to understand another major difference in questioning. Most of the question examples listed above are similar in that they are considered to be close-ended questions. Close-ended questions are those that are generally answered with only one word or a short phrase. Their purpose is to get a quick answer. They do not lead to lengthier conversation. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are set up to necessitate a lengthier response. Asking open ended questions will lead to longer and more meaty communicative interactions. For example, when talking about a child’s favorite flavor of ice cream, rather than asking, “Do you like chocolate ice cream?”, ask, “What flavor ice cream do you like and why?” Rather than asking “Did you like that story?” ask, “What did you like about that story?”
While asking open-ended questions is a great way to get language going, be sure not to ask questions that are too general. They often lead to getting the answer, “I don’t know”. Occasionally, I hear parents talking about how their children “never tell them anything”. They complain that their child is unable to answer the question “What did you do in school today?” For many kids, this question is too vague. For young children, their school days seem indistinguishable from one another. There is always math, reading, writing, spelling, social studies, lunch, recess, etc…, making it difficult to come up with something specific to report. Instead, pick a specific part of the school day and ask an open-ended question. (For example, ” Can you tell me what you did at recess?,” or “What was the book about from your read-aloud today?”
With my own children, we have added “high, low, funny” to our dinner routine. We talk about the high from our day, the low from our day and something funny that happened. In the beginning, my children had difficulty coming up with ideas to share. However, now that they have become accustomed to this routine, I find they always have something to share. It almost seems that they are thinking about it throughout their day, in anticipation of our dinner conversation.
So, now that you have learned more than you thought was possible about asking questions, be thoughtful about your child’s current level and the purpose of your questioning. Are you looking for responses that provide brief information or looking to start a communication interaction? As social scientist Thomas Khun said, “The answers you get depend on the questions you ask.”