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Teaching your very young child to answer questions

An important element of having a conversation is that of answering questions. Conversations can take many forms. They might contain sentences showing surprise, sentences asking for information, sentences giving information etc. Chances are, even a short conversation will contain question forms of some sort. Whether your child is just learning his native language or is mastering English as a second language, learning to ask and answer questions is therefore a foundation skill.

The first point to bear in mind when teaching your young child to answer questions is to stop asking too many! While this might seem counter-intuitive (after all, this blog is about learning to answer questions! ), asking too many, or asking questions they are not ready to answer will put any child off the task. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of asking question when we want to prove to ourselves that our child has definitely mastered a skill we've taught them. For example, if you've taught your child how to identify and name colours, it's very tempting to ask him 'What's this colour?' 'And what about this one?'constantly. Answering incessant questions is not a fun task - and even a young child is likely to rebel and refuse to participate. .

Children have a specific sequence in which they start learning to answer questions. Questions that begin with 'Where?' are the earliest to be mastered. ('Where is mummy?', 'Where is your ball?' etc.) These are questions that can be answered by merely pointing - which explains why they are acquired so early on. Next come the 'What?' questions. ('What is this?', 'What are you eating?' etc). Who? When? and Why? would follow after this. Of these, 'When?' and 'Why?' are particularly difficult to master as the answers involve verbal reasoning or intangible concepts, such as time. When working with very young children, follow this developmental sequence.

Another very early question form that your child needs to master is the 'Do you want...?' questions. To teach this, start by offering choices to your child. This is a very simple and powerful way to teach your child to communicate. Ask her 'Do you want the red dress or the blue dress?', 'Do you want to play with cars or blocks?' etc. When your child indicates a choice, respect it. After she's chosen the red dress, avoid saying 'Oh, actually, let's just wear the blue one today'.

To teach answers to 'Where?' questions, start with the here and now. Ask him about things that are in plain sight, for example, his toys or a member of the family. Questions such as 'Where did we go yesterday?' need more complex cognitive and verbal skills. Keep these for later.

To teach answers to 'What?' questions, avoid the quiz-like questions like 'What's this?' or 'What's that?'. Instead, use these questions to give your child the power to change the course of an activity. Ask him, 'We've finished the puzzle. What's next? Cars or paint?'. This essentially turns the question into a choice making question, gives your child the power to choose and makes him a more willing conversation partner.

To teach answers to 'Who?' questions you can try this simple activity: sit in front of the mirror with your child. Ask in an exaggerated fashion, 'Where is mummy?' a couple of times. Then point to yourself. Do the same saying your child's name. You can add a couple of soft toys and dolls to this task, to create interest and variation.

To learn to answer 'When?' questions, first relate it to time. On a regular basis, point to the clock and say 'Is it time for bed?'. Then say 'Yes', before you take your child to bed. The time of favourite TV shows is another great teaching opportunity. Look at the clock and say 'When is Peppa Pig? I think it's now. Let's find out!'. While your young child is not going to learn the read the time from this conversation, he will learn that these is an association between time and the 'When?' question.

Answering 'Why?' questions are perhaps the hardest to master. They need significant congnitive and language skills. If you think your child is ready to begin, make a start with questions that are relevant to your child's life. A good one to begin with is 'Why are you happy?' or 'Why are you sad?'. You will have to answer the question yourself with a possible answer like 'Why are you happy? Did daddy take you on his bike?' or 'Why are you sad? Did you fall and hurt yourself?'. Bear in mind though that unless your child is cognitively ready for this, he will not be able to process the information given to him.

If you're looking for resources to help your child develop this area of his language, check out these pages for 'Where?' and 'Who?'.

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