KIDS
July 29, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

For preschoolers, story time is not just about books and reading; when parents and teachers ask the right questions, it's a teachable moment.

Story time gives children a chance to enter into the world of the book their teacher or parent is reading. It is also an opportunity for kids to develop thinking and language skills.

Too often, though, parents and teachers don't ask enough questions as they read, a study by researchers at Ohio State University has found. And when they do ask questions, the questions are so simple that preschoolers don't gain as much from story time as they might if the questions were more open-ended and thought-provoking.

Story time should include lots of questions, including ones that allow children to stretch their language and thinking abilities to express themselves.

Ninety-six pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers took part in the study. They were videotaped while reading the book, Kingdom of Friends, to the children in their classes. The book is about two friends who have a disagreement while they are playing and then go on to resolve their argument and make up.

Researchers transcribed all the conversations that went on during the reading sessions, both the talk from teachers and from children. They recorded over 5200 questions and nearly 3500 responses from the children.

Teachers spent only 24 percent of reading time asking questions, and their questions were so easy that kids answered them correctly 85 percent of the time. “When kids get 85 percent of the questions right, that means the questions the teacher is asking are too easy,” said Laura Justice, co-author of the study and professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University, in a statement.

“We don't want to ask all difficult questions. But we should be coaxing children along cognitively and linguistically by occasionally offering challenging questions.”

Over half of the questions asked by teachers were yes-no type questions, like, “Does he look happy?” These usually resulted in one-word answers from children.

The remaining 48 percent of the questions were broader, asking “what,” and “why” — for example, “What did he do?” or “Why do you think they were friends?” And some asked about the procedures or processes of the story, things like “How did they become friends again?”

“When the teachers asked these more sophisticated how-procedural questions, the children would give more elaborate and complex answers,” Justice explained. “Those are the kind of questions we need more of.”

Kids' answers to these harder, more sophisticated questions are more likely to be wrong or inappropriate, but that's part of what makes them so valuable.

“There should be teachable moments where teachers can help their students learn something new. Kids aren't encouraged the think more deeply about the ideas in the story when teachers keep things simple. You want to have a conversation that is a little challenging for the child, because that is going to push their development forward,” added Justice.

The findings apply to parents, too. Parents should also be thinking of ways of building teachable moments into story time at home. About 30 to 40 percent of the questions posed to kids about the books being read to them should encourage children to think about new concepts, many experts believe, and according to Justice, the fact that 85 percent of children's responses in this study were correct suggests that children were not being challenged enough.

Story time should include lots of questions, including ones that allow children to stretch their language and thinking abilities to express themselves. Parents and teachers should go for open-ended questions that ask for kids to think, not just come up with the correct answer; questions like, “What do you think is going to happen?” or “How do you think this book will end?”

Justice believes that, “With some practice and reflection, we can change how we talk with children during shared reading and help them develop stronger language and reading skills.”

The study is published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

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