4 Reasons Why Asking Questions Won't Help Your Child Learn Language (And 2 Things to Do Instead!)
"What color is the bus?" "What does the horsie say?" "What's that?" We often ask young children questions about what they know, known as testing questions, to help them learn new words and to engage in conversations with them, but is this really the best way to do either of these things?
Let's try it out. What is this?
Okay, so what did you learn? Nothing? Sounds about right! It was probably unclear what element of the picture I was asking about and might not have felt very good to not know the answer (especially if you imagine that I was standing in front of you awaiting your answer). This is the type of situation we put our kids in all the time when we ask them to show us what they know during our conversations with them.
So let's take a closer look at what's really going on when we turn interactions into interrogations, especially with children who have delays in the area of language development.
1. Pressure to perform
Asking testing questions puts pressure on kids to communicate and to demonstrate what they know. For children who find using and understanding language difficult, this can cause them to feel anxiety around communication. It also assumes that the child knows the answer to the question, which might not be the case for these kids. This anxiety can in turn make children less likely to want to interact with us, thereby reducing the opportunities they have to practice and learn new language.
2. Taking the fun out of interaction
People interact with each other for a variety of reasons: to share information, build relationships, get their needs met, have fun together, etc. People do not often communicate to tell each other things that are clear to both parties, such as to say the sky is blue or the letter 'A' makes an 'aah' sound, so when we ask children to tell us things that are obvious or self-evident such as the name, function, or description of an object, they know that we already know the answer and the only point to this question is to test them. Feeling put on the spot and assessed does not make for an enjoyable conversation experience.
Another important aspect of communication is that people interact when they have a message to send - something they want to share with another person. I think this is the reason children often ignore these types of questions. They are not interested in what colour the bus is... their parent is, so they do not feel inclined to send a message about it.
3. Shifting attention
Imagine you are playing a game of chess. It's your turn. You are thinking about your move and strategy to win the game. Suddenly, your opponent starts asking you questions. "What colour are your pieces?" "What directions can the rook move?" "How many squares are on the chessboard?" These questions force you to shift your attention from what you were interested in and thinking about to answering arbitrary questions that distract you from the game at hand and make it difficult to play.
When a child is listening to you read them a story or engaging in play, they are interested in the activity and thinking about what they are seeing, hearing, and focused on. Being interrupted to answer questions requires them to shift their attention and can disrupt the flow of their activity.
4. Limiting conversations
Children learn language best when they are exposed to it through back-and-forth interactions and when they hear new vocabulary and grammar in a variety of different contexts. When we ask questions, we are only exposing children to one sentence type - the interrogative, and we are limiting their type of conversation turn to answering questions. This often leads to shorter conversations, with the child taking less turns. And in my experience, often shuts the interaction down completely as the child either responds "I don't know," or simply ignores the question (and the asker!) all together.
So if asking testing questions does not teach new language in the way we are intending, is shutting down interactions, and increasing anxiety around communication, what should we do instead?
Well, let's try this again...
This is a ferrule. A ferrule is a piece of metal or rubber which protects the tip of the umbrella. Sometimes the ferrule is flat, like in telescopic umbrellas, and other times, like in this picture it forms a point. Ferrules can also be found at the bottom of table and chair legs, or on walking sticks and crutches.
I imagine you learned much more when I told you about the picture than when I asked you about it. This is also true of our interactions with our children. Telling them about what they are seeing and experiencing exposes them to new vocabulary in a natural and meaningful way. It takes the pressure off them to demonstrate their knowledge and keeps interactions fun and interesting.
1. Turn your questions into comments
Anytime you want your child to learn new vocabulary or grammar, the best way to accomplish this is through repeatedly modelling it. All you need to do to accomplish this is make comments instead of asking questions. A good rule of thumb is to just tell your child the answer to the question that you were going to ask. I've provided some examples below to give you ideas of how to turn question into a comments.
What does the dog say? → The dog says "Woof, woof."
What's that? → Look, it's a helicopter!
What is your dinosaur doing? → It looks like your dinosaur is eating all the food.
What are you drawing? → I wonder what you are drawing?
'I wonder..' statements are great for asking a question without really asking it. This way your child has the opportunity to elaborate if they want to, but without pressure, and if they don't, you are able to continue the conversation without it being shut down by silence.
2. Model how to answer questions
Reducing questions seems simple, but you may be surprised at how difficult it can be to change how you communicate with your child. You may realize you are a rapid-fire question asker or find that despite your best efforts, you've started asking a testing question again. Don't worry - it takes time to change habitual behaviours. In the meantime, you can offer choices to give your child a model to copy to answer your question, such as if you ask "Where is your teddy going?" You could add, "Is she going to have a bath or go to bed?"Or you can just answer the question yourself, "What colour is the school bus? It's yellow!" Over time it will become second nature to use more comments and less questions.
Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for asking questions, like when you truly do not know the answer to your question and when it adds to your interaction by being about what your child is genuinely interested in and there is value in modelling how to ask and answer questions. But if your child has a language delay and your goal is to build their skills in this area, questions should not be the bread and butter of your interactions. My advice would be to limit asking one question for every five comments.
Try it out, see how it goes, and feel free to share your experiences or ask any questions you may have about turning questions into comments in the comments section below!
Also, check out the Hanen Centre for a great in depth article on how to use questions and comments more effectively to encourage language development in children with language delay.
Pepper, J., & Weitzman, E. (2004).It Takes Two to Talk: A practical guide for parents of children with language delays (2nd ed.). Toronto: The Hanen Centre.