How to Ask Questions to Get Answers

wh question series final

When I worked in the special needs preschool, I would say about 60-75% of my caseload had an answering wh-questions goal. I also added a wh-questions goal to lower-functioning students as soon as I thought it fell into their zone of proximal development (re: the fancy term for what they can do with assistance).

So why is answering wh-questions so important? I could rant about how the school system is flawed and only wants kids to able to answer standardized questions, but that’s simply not true. Everyone needs to be able to ask AND answer wh-questions in order to gain and process information in both academic and social settings.

So now to the inspiration for the above image. Have you ever felt like you go around and around with your child trying to get answers to basic questions? You ask “What did you do today at school?” and you get the dreaded “Uuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhh……,” or even better, you get one-word answers like “fine” or “okay” or “I don’t know” to any inquiry about their day.

It’s enough to drive any parent crazy!

Well today I want to explain the question hierarchy and ways to phrase your questions to get real answers and spark conversation with a child of any age or ability.

The question hierarchy has to do with the level of processing required for different types of questions. Trust me, it’s not as daunting as it sounds.

  • “What” questions are typically the easiest to process. They usually deal with the here and now, like “What are you doing?” (note: exasperated mom voice optional).
  • “Who” and ” Where” questions come next, only because they require the knowledge of what “who” and “where” means. Since they don’t have any tangible meaning, this has to be taught.
  • “When” questions are the next level up, since time is an abstract concept to many children. (If you’ve ever tried to get a child to school or church on time, you know what I mean!)
  • “Why” and “How” questions are the most difficult to process. “Why” questions usually require more of a thought process, and probably empathy or theory of mind to some degree. “How” questions typically require sequencing of steps.

Consider this hierarchy when asking your child questions. It may be that asking them “Why did you do that?” is too difficult, but they could answer “What were you trying to do?”

Next, two rules for getting answers!

One: Make your questions tangible.

Children do much better answering questions about the here and now. They also do better with visual cues. This makes reading a great opportunity for getting great answers. One of my personal favorites is the “No David!” series by David Shannon. Each page only has a few scolding words, but the pictures are vivid and obvious. It’s so easy to read the actual words and then follow-up with a question like, “What did David do?” Your child can look at the pictures for clues, rather than trying to solely rely on auditory recall.

Two: Make your questions specific.

Questions like, “What did you do today?” are just too broad. Most kids know you expect an answer, but they don’t know what answer you are looking for. Does Mom want to hear about lunch? or that new kid? or my art project? or the homework that was due today?

So take the guesswork out of the question. Rephrase it so they know exactly what you want to hear. ” Who did you play with today?” is much more specific and triggers better recall. It also creates a metaphorical springboard for a conversation. “Oh you played with Kate? She sits next to you for reading time, doesn’t she? What story did you guys read today?”

I also have a few side notes for conversations. First off, once you ask a question, wait¬†for the answer! Go HERE to read a whole post on this. Second, sometimes not asking a question gets you a better response than asking incessant questions. In the above example, you could also say, “Oh you played with Kate? She seems like a good friend.” Then, pause and let your child tell you why Kate is so great (or not). I plan to have a post about this, but I think it’s worth mentioning here as well.

So there you go! Remember the question hierarchy, as well as making your questions tangible and specific! All my posts this week will have insight and activities for teaching your child to answer various wh-questions, so stay tuned!