We often encourage children to learn about the world by asking questions such as ‘what is that?’, ‘where’s teddy?’, ‘why haven’t you tidied your bedroom?’ but we do not always get the answer we are expecting. It might be that your child has not yet learnt how to answer the type of question you are asking.

Learning to understand and answer questions

Typically, children learn to understand and answer questions in a developmental sequence and it is important that you ask the right question at the right time. Have a look at the Mountain of Questions diagram below. The questions at the bottom of the mountain are typically learnt before those at the top.

If your child is not yet ready to answer some of the more complex questions, be sure to model the answer yourself to help your child to understand how to respond in the future. For example, ‘why can’t we go outside to play today? We can’t go outside because it is raining!’.

The best way to develop your child’s language is to provide lots of good models so don’t forget to make lots of comments by describing and explaining what you and your child are doing or looking at as well as asking questions. A good way of ensuring you don’t ask too many questions is by only asking questions that you don’t know the answer to. For example, ‘What are you drawing?’ rather than ‘What colour is that?’.

What?

'What?' is used most often in questions when children are learning vocabulary such as the names of things (nouns) and action words (verbs).

Examples:

  • What can you see? (the rabbit)
  • What colour is it? (blue)
  • What’s teddy doing? (jumping)

Where?

‘Where’ is used when teaching children about the names of places where something/someone is and about the prepositions required to describe their location.

Examples:

  • Where is teddy? (under the bed)
  • Where are we going? (to the park)
  • Where is mummy? (in the kitchen)

Who?

'Who?' is used to teach children the names of people, characters or animals (nouns and pronouns).

Examples:

  • Who is here? (daddy – noun)
  • Who is chasing the cat? (the dog – noun)
  • Who is driving the car? (she is – pronoun)

When?

'When?' might be difficult for some children as it involves the abstract concept of ‘time’ (such as today, yesterday, last week/last year).

Examples:

  • When are we going swimming? (tomorrow)
  • When did you go to the park? (last weekend)
  • When is your birthday? (in April)

Why?

'Why?' is also more difficult to understand and use in questions – along with ‘HOW’. These involve abstract thinking around inferencing, reasoning, imagination, cause and effect and the ability to comprehend and use more complex language.

Examples:

  • Why is the boy sad? (because he dropped his ice-cream) – Why/Because are often taught together and we tend to use it to help children to understand cause and effect.
  • Why can’t I go outside to play? (because it’s raining) – Why? Is a key question for children to explore and understand more about the world.

How?

'How?' is the most difficult question word to understand as it requires imagination, reasoning and abstract language as well as the ability to produce explanations by means of longer sentences.

  • Adjectives, adverbs and description
  • Instructions and directions
  • Feelings and emotions
  • Sequencing ideas and reporting events

Examples:

  • How was your day? (long/fun/boring/tiring)
  • How do you build a paper-airplane? (First you need to… then fold… and then…)
  • How did you manage the test? (I was a bit stressed, but…)
  • How was your holiday? (Good! We went to… and visited…)

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