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Use of questioning

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By Nicki Allman

Use of questioning is key in promoting cognitive development and thinking. It provides the opportunity for children to explore their own ideas and opinions, to discover things for themselves.

An important aspect of questioning is to assist in stimulating the thought processes, encourage language development and decision making in the infant mind.

Children answering questions

Questioning enables the practitioner to focus a child’s interest and attention on a given task. If used appropriately, it can be an effective strategy in developing ideas further. Well-planned activities, alongside thoughtful questions which should be planned for, provide a prompt and help to structure communication and thinking. As the practitioner develops confidence in their use of questioning, spontaneity in the use of questioning will occur, especially in child initiated play.

Questioning can also develop the essential relationships within a setting between adult and children, as children see that adults are willing and prepared to engage with them based on different ideas. All this will promote the development of confidence and self esteem. These are key elements within Development Matters.


Open-ended and closed questions

There are two main types of questioning: open-ended and closed. The former encourages more detailed responses to given situations and widens the opportunity for exploration of thought and ideas. Open questions are likely to start with ‘why, who, how, what, when, where’ and encourage longer answers. Closed questions produce a definitive yes/no or one word answer/short phrase answer and are likely to start with ‘did, do, will, have’.

Closed questions can help to start a discussion but the use of open-ended questions develops exploration. The key component here is how the adult uses talk to develop ideas further and enables children to discover things for themselves through self exploration. If an adult uses too many closed questions requiring one word answers, then the child may become dependent on the adult for the whole of the learning experiences and may not develop the ability to discover things for themselves.

It is important to note, however, that closed questions have their place. They can be used as a stepping stone to commence communication processes. Use of questioning is only good if adults follow up an idea by allowing the children to find out for themselves.

Puzzled girl


Story time questioning

Story time is an ideal time to develop communication and language in children as well as an appreciation of books and reading for pleasure.
  • Look at the cover and title page with children. Ask what they think the book might be about. This develops the ability in children to predict events in a very safe way as well as using guess work based on clues.
  • Focus on the pictures as the story is being read. What could be happening in the picture? Why might the alien only have one eye? Encourage children to make suggestions about what could be happening.
  • Read the story, stopping at different points enabling children to make predictions and use their thinking skills to develop their ideas.
  • Extend story time to allowing the children to make their own stories based on what they have seen or heard from the story.
  • Review stories by asking what happened and why.

A great example of this was observed in an Early Years classroom where the teacher had stopped at a particular point in a story involving aliens. The children wanted to make their own stories based on the book. The teacher gathered together a variety of different objects that the children could use and created a story scene. By asking open-ended questions the children were able to develop their own ideas and thought processes. The teacher also scaffolded use of language and sentences to provide the support the children needed in order to be able to tell their own story verbally.

These are examples of the questions the teacher used after recapping the children’s story so far:

  • How did the spaceship/rocket move?
  • How did the dinosaur get onto the planet?
  • Where did he come from?
  • How did Child A get to the planet?
  • What made him go get his mum?
  • Why was his mum so helpful?
  • How did she make him feel?
  • What might happen next?
  • What do you think could happen?
  • How would you feel if you were in the story?

She modelled clear language use, as well as following up a child’s idea to extend their thought processes. She also extended the learning by setting up different activities that the children could explore. The adults in the room used different modes of questioning to extend the children’s ideas.

Mathematics and science activities also enable children to explore the world around them. For instance, in one setting play dough had been set up on a table for children to make aliens that might be found on a planet. The adult nearby asked the children Why does the alien have more than one eye? When a child responded, ‘to be able to see’, she asked Why would that be important on the planet? The child responded, ‘Because it’s dark and it needed to see.’ The adult developed this further by asking further questions which resulted in a discussion about light and how aliens see, but it would be different to human people as aliens were different. This extended the idea of using eyes to see and why light was important. The use of open-ended questioning promoted the extension of thought. Also, the children developed their own understanding of light and eyes using self explorations.

Examples of questions used were:
  • Why is it important for the alien to see?
  • What else did the alien need?
  • How did the alien move?
  • What might he need to move?
  • How do we see? Is it different to the alien?
  • Why would it be important to be able to see on a different planet?


Following up

Use of questioning can be difficult and it is crucial to have a clear repertoire to be used at different points. However, a list of questions will not always mean that language is developed and communication will follow – it is important to always follow up using a variety of different worded questions. Also, it is crucial to use spontaneous times of play to develop children’s language and communication skills, as well as their exploration of the world around them using their own interests. All this will develop cognitive ability as well as confidence and self esteem.

It is essential to note that closed questions are not a bad choice of questioning – if used in conjunction with open-ended questions they can promote the beginning of communication about different ideas as well as the development of further ideas. The infant brain is naturally inquisitive, and the right questions will allow self discovery and independence.


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