We all do it – when we play with young children, we ask them a lot of questions. But is this the best way to support their language development?
In a word....no!
Whenever I am asked if I have one top tip for helping children to talk, this is my answer – don’t ask so many questions!
As adults, asking questions to children is something that comes very naturally because we think it is more likely to get us a response. Typically, the main reasons we ask questions are:
To fill a silence
To find out information
To encourage children to talk
To ‘show off’ what they know!
When I first started working as a Speech and Language Therapist, asking fewer questions was one of the trickiest things to learn, but once you see the benefits, it soon becomes a habit.
So why is asking questions not particularly helpful? Let’s consider the following scenario:
Your child is playing with a toy farm.
They pick up the horse and you say ‘What’s that?’
They make the horse jump around the farm and you ask ‘What’s the horsie doing?’
They put the horse down and reach for a pig – ‘Oooh, what are you going to do next?’
In this scenario, if the child does not know the answers to the questions, they are likely to remain silent. Asking ‘What’s that?’ is a missed opportunity to teach them the vocabulary. If the child does know, and responds accordingly, it is likely that the adult was already aware that their child knew the answers!
We know that in order to begin to say new words, a child has to hear that word multiple times so that they can develop an understanding of what the word means, and learn when to use it.
For that reason the best thing you can do is to comment, very simply, and very often, on the things around them and things that they are doing.
So returning to our farm yard scenario:
As the child picks up the horse, you would simply say ‘horse’.
When they make the horse jump you comment ‘jumping’ or ‘horse jumping’.
As they pick up the pig you might say 'Hello pig!'
By commenting, you are making it explicit to your child that the word ‘horse’ refers to the brown animal with the mane, and ‘jumping’ refers to the up and down movement.
If your child already has some language, use the opportunity to extend their vocabulary – so you could say “brown horse” or “horse is jumping over the gate”.
Perhaps more importantly, asking questions places children under pressure to give you an answer. But what if they don’t know the answer? We have all been in a situation when someone asks us something and we don’t know the answer – it makes us feel uneasy and anxious. Asking lots of questions to children can have the same effect, and may make them more reluctant to talk.
When parents practice this for the first time, they are often amazed by the impact. If they ask their child ‘What’s that?’ they usually get no answer at all, yet they replace their question with a comment, and their child will often copy the word they just said.
Children love it when you show an interest in what they are doing – commenting shows them that you are involved and engaged with their play.
Why not give it a go next time you play with your child?
If you find yourself asking a question, stop and think: “Do I need to ask this question?”
If not, then try to re-phrase into a comment instead.
Here are some ideas:
Instead of: ‘What’s teddy doing?’ Try ‘Teddy’s having a bath’
Instead of: ‘Where does that piece go?’ Try: ‘Wow, you knew exactly where to put the tree’
Instead of ‘Ooh, what colours did you use in the painting?’ Try: ‘I love the red and the orange you used’
We would love to know how you get on!
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