Asking children questions is a popular interaction between children and practitioners, and for good reason; questions can help children to focus their thinking and expand their knowledge of a subject. A good question, asked by someone who is genuinely interested in what you have to say, can be a powerful experience for a child.
Teaching or testing?
We do, however, have to be careful of overusing questions, or interactions risk becoming a test. ‘What is this?’, ‘what does it do?’, ‘what do you think?’. The practitioner’s role is to teach, not test, and we never want children to think adults are only interested in their knowledge rather than their thoughts. Those are two very different things.
For example, how many times this week have you asked a child what colour an object was? Quite a few, I am guessing, and the truth is that the child knew the answer already, and they knew it yesterday, and the day before that as well. That is a test - not a question - and proof that a poorly asked question leads nowhere.
Think of the last great conversation you had with a child. What probably made it great was that you found out something about the child that you did not know before. They shared their thoughts and opinions. Think of conversation as a ‘ball’ that goes back and forth between the participants; the longer the ball is in the air, the deeper and richer the conversation. You will remember these conversations, and inserting the occasional question may help children to focus their thinking to extend language and the conversation.
See our top tips below for asking children questions.
1. Make sure the question you ask relates directly to what the child is doing
You want the question that you ask to be useful and contribute to the child’s thinking and learning. When children are engaged in what they have chosen, they are showing that is where their interest lies. Watch for a while to see if a question would help enhance their experience.
2. Wait for the answer
Thinking of an answer may take time. The child has to process what you are saying, reflect on how it relates to them, retrieve the language they need, and then speak. Do not be tempted to ask another question to fill the silence.
3. Only ask a question if it will add to the learning
The purpose of questioning children is to support language and thought development and, therefore, sometimes there are better interactions to use during play. Perhaps just commentating on what the child is doing would be of more benefit. Always balance questions with a range of other interactions, such as adding your own experience of what the child is doing, or making suggestions for the play.
4. Use open-ended questions to enhance the child’s thinking skills
Open-ended questioning offers the child the opportunity to think before expressing their thoughts, feelings and ideas. They allow children to use their language skills as they describe or explain things to you. Some examples are:
- what do you think about?
- how did you…?
- how do you think this works?
- what would happen if...?
- what else can we use this for?
- hat can you tell me about?
5. Limit closed questions
Answering a closed question requires almost no thinking and uses little vocabulary. They rely only on a child's capacity to recall information they already know; for example, 'what shape is this?'. They can be useful to start a conversation though, so that the practitioner can move to open-ended questions to get more information. For example, 'do you like the park?' can be followed by 'tell me about what you like there'.
6. Limit questions with children under 3 years old, or children with a limited vocabulary
Answering a question in a meaningful way requires children to have a large stock of words. Young children, or those with English as an additional language, do not have this yet. Instead of trying to take language from the child, give it to them instead; talk about what they are playing with or what they are doing. This will increase vocabulary, and eventually they will have enough language to use when you do ask a question.
7. Don’t ask questions the child already knows the answer to
This sounds obvious, but many children are asked the same questions every day. If we did this to an adult, we would soon be told to stop. Overall, small children are polite and aim to please, so they will carry on answering the same question to a variety of adults. Asking children the colour or shape of an object is a habit which needs time to change. Work as a team to ask better questions, and reap the rewards of hearing some fascinating information from the children you work with.
Have fun, and enjoy really getting to know the children you work with.