This blog post was contributed by Astrid Cornelis (Thomas More)
Shared book reading reportedly promotes language proficiency, provided that the children are sufficiently challenged. The questions we ask play a crucial role in how much children will get engaged in the activity and learn from our reading aloud. Which makes us wonder if we indeed ask the right kind of questions. Recent American research made an inventory of the sort of questions kindergarten teachers asked and which answers these questions elicited.
What did the research show?
American kindergarten teachers ask too few and too simple questions during shared book reading (Deshmukh et al., 2019):
- No more than 24% of the interventions were actual questions.
- 85% of those questions were answered correctly.
- More than half of the questions asked could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
- 63% of the questions provoked a one-word answer only.
- Apart from the yes/no questions, question-word questions (Who? What? When? Where?) were asked, but almost no “why” and “how” questions were included.
We can learn a lot from these findings and try to do better in our settings.
“When kids get 85 percent of the questions right, that means the questions the teacher is asking are too easy,” one of the researchers states. “It is not as if only difficult questions can be asked, but children need to be regularly addressed with questions that stimulate and challenge their language skills and intellectual competence. Only one out of six questions met that specific criterion, while ideally two out of five questions should be challenging (Deshmukh et al., 2019). The same applies for parents who share books with their children. Most of them, however, do not ask any questions at all.
More difficult questions, more incorrect answers: all the better!
“Why” and “how” questions require a longer and more complex answer, as is clear from the following example. While the question “Have they become friends again?” invites no more than a “yes” or “no”, the question “How did A and B resolve their problems?” will not only check comprehension, but also challenge the child’s ability to express it.
Difficult questions may increase the “risk” of an incorrect answer. But this is by no means cause for concern, since incorrect answers can be used in such a way as to stimulate more accurate thinking. It is exactly this teacher-child interaction which the child will learn from: the incorrect answer is an opportunity to figure out the correct (or more complete) answer by means of thinking it over and “debating” it together. It would therefore be counterproductive to simply dismiss an incorrect answer and have another child answer the question. Moreover, it is more than worth the effort to ask several children the same question and to have them interact with each other.
How to go about it? Asking questions at different levels
Bloom’s taxonomy offers inspiration for varied questioning. Ideally teachers should ask questions from all categories, also and especially from the more challenging ones (2-6).
1 Questions that test memory
With these questions you check whether the children remember details from the story.
Example: Who takes over Kasper’s working place? What does Filip construct out of a bicycle?
2 Questions that test comprehension
With these questions you verify whether the children understand what has been read (aloud).
Example: You can have the children “hypothesize” about the content of this story or have them explain why Kasper got so tired.
3 Transfer questions
Transfer questions are useful to check if children can apply information in other situations.
Example: Last time Flip wrote on the board: “We make anything except bicycles”. Would he write something on the board now, too? What could that be?
4 Analysing questions
These questions help the children to have a deeper understanding of the text.
Example: In case of “Milo and the magic stones” (Pfister, 2013) you can make children think about the reason or the explanation for the different outcome of the two stories by inviting them to compare the mice’s actions.
5 Questions for evaluation
The questions at this level aim at critical thinking and the ability to form a personal opinion.
Example: With regard to “Wroooaaaaah!” (De Ruiter, 2011) children can be asked to give their opinion about the way in which the story ends. A question such as “Would you, too, tease a lion at the zoo so as to make it roar?” prompts them to think about right and wrong.
6 Questions that prompt creative thinking
With questions such as “How do you think the story will continue? Imagine that …, what would happen then?” you encourage the children to fantasize about different outcomes, plot lines … and to contribute new ideas to the story.
How do you engage your preschoolers in reading books? What is your experience with difficult questions, and incorrect answers?
- Cahill R. (2019). Questions during shared book reading with preschoolers need to be more challenging. UTHealth News. Geraadpleegd op 21 augustus 2019, van https://www.uth.edu/news/story.htm?id=70699746-aed9-4b28-b157-a49a57e26413
- De Ruiter, E. (2011). Wroooaaaaah! Hasselt: Clavis.
- Deshmukh R. S., Zucker T. A., Tambyraja S. R., Pentimonti J. M., Bowles R. P., Justice L. M. (2019). Teachers’ use of questions during shared book reading: Relations to child responses. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 49, 59-68.
- Klinting, L. (2013). Kasper en Flip in de werkplaats. Utrecht: Veltman.
- Pfister, M. (2013). Max en de toverstenen. Rijswijk: De Vier Windstreken.
- Walsh B. A. & Blewitt, P. (2006). The Effect of Questioning Style During Storybook Reading on Novel Vocabulary Acquisition of Preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 273-278. 10.1007/s10643-005-0052-0.