“Why, Who, What, Where…

“Why, Who, What, Where…
The Importance of Questions in Children’s Language Development”
By Janice Mervyn M.H.Sc., B.Ed. Reg. CASLPO, Speech Language Pathologist
First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program
Understanding questions and being able to ask questions is a key component of language development. Questions
allow us to get and give information about the world and they lay the foundation for children to participate in
conversations, show their knowledge and learn!
How Do Questions Develop?
Daddy go?
What that?
Where’s juice?
Why is baby crying?
How does this fit on there?
When is daddy coming home?
Many parents cannot clearly pinpoint when their child first began to use questions. Like many other areas of
development, questioning skills develop in a gradual, predictable manner. Initially a child may ask questions through
subtle gestures (e.g, a shrug of their shoulders and an inquiring facial expression) or a rising pitch. With time the
important WH words (e.g., What, Who, Where, Why) emerge and questions become more recognizable. This is an
exciting time as questions offer a window on what a child is thinking and curious about.
Research studies have shown that helping parents develop a better understanding of questions and how to use effective
types of questions can greatly benefit their child’s language and early literacy skills. Specifically, measurable gains have
been reported in children’s receptive & expressive vocabulary, print knowledge and narrative abilities when good
question strategies are used by parents & caregivers.
Value of Effective Questions
To support the development of questions, parents need to think about their own use of questions. Effective questions
can stimulate and extend young children’s communication skills. Unfortunately the most frequent kinds of questions
that parents use with young children are yes/no or close-ended. Close-ended questions usually elicit a one or two word
response. Most often the adult already knows the target answer (e.g., “what is this?” what color is the car?”, “how
many blocks?”). These types of questions allow a parent to test their child’s knowledge; however they do little to
develop language skills. Whereas close-ended questions tend to end the exchange, open-ended questions help develop
a back and forth exchange. This turn taking exchange is very important for later conversation.
Open-Ended questions
“What happened?”
“Tell me more?”
“What do you think will happen next?”
“Why did that happen?”
“I wonder why?”
Open-ended questions encourage longer responses from children and they offer flexibility for what a child perceives as
relevant at the time.
Mastering the skill of answering and asking questions is critical to early learning. Parents and caregivers have endless
opportunities to give children practice in questioning and answering. By including your child in turn taking
conversations, as often as possible, you are providing a good model for your child of rich language including question
Despite the benefits of questions, when questions dominate the conversation, communication growth can be stifled.
Exposing your child to a good balance of questions and comments is important.
You can help your child learn to form questions with the following tips:
Give your full attention when your child is trying to ask a question.
Speak directly to your child and ask open-ended questions.
Be patient when your child is trying to form a question
If your child’s word order is not correct, model the correct order for him/her. (e.g., child: “Daddy when
coming?” …. Adult: “When is daddy coming?)
In daily routines, pose questions out loud and answer them. (e.g., while folding laundry: “Who wears these
socks?”… “Dad wears these socks”). This allows your child to hear models of good questions & answers.
When reading books, model questions & relate it to your child’s life (e.g., “What did he see at the zoo?”
“What did you see at the zoo?”)
Talk talk talk and keep the conversation going! Strive for a good balance of questions and comments.
Remember – early intervention is the best approach!
Visit a First Words screening clinic if you have questions or concerns about your child’s
communication development. Clinics are free and you don’t need an appointment.
For more information, visit our website at www.firstwords.ca
or call Ottawa Public Health Information at (613) 580-6744.