Encouraging your child to have conversations with you can be easier if you ask fewer questions. Wait, what? Yes! If we think about it, conversations between adults are hardly ever question-answer, question-answer, question-answer. And yet this is how we so often “drive” conversations with our children.
Questions limit exposure to vocabulary
By questioning rather than commenting we are often limiting the vocabulary children are exposed to. Look at these two examples of a mother reading a picture book to a child.
Mum 1: ‘Where is the gorilla? Can you say gorilla?’
Mum 2: ‘Ooh look, there’s a gorilla, it’s big and hairy and it’s eating a banana’.
In the second example, the child is exposed to more language. Children learn new vocabulary by hearing new words and linking them to events they are focusing on. Although answering questions can test what they already know, it is not an effective way to teach new vocabulary.
Questions can discourage speech
“What are you colouring?” “Is that your favourite colour?” “You like colouring, don’t you?” Peppering children with questions like these can actually DISCOURAGE communication. Feeling pressured to answer correctly makes them much less likely to say anything. Instead, we should try to use the commenting strategy to encourage children to add their own comments and join in the conversation as they choose.
What's the alternative? Commenting Strategy
Comments simply contribute something interesting to the conversation. What the child is doing, what you are doing, or what is happening. Use short, simple sentences like “Little Critter got into trouble in this book” or “We are having four people for supper so we need four more chairs” or “You dumped an entire box of Cheerios down the stairs”. This takes away the pressure to respond and also allows children to hear more vocabulary.
Using descriptive statements
Descriptive statements help maintain the conversation better than questions. Rather than “What is your favourite colour?” say “You are wearing a purple shirt.” This way the child may respond with more details about colour preference, why he or she chose that shirt, or something else entirely. Instead of asking “Where are your socks?” try “You have no socks on your feet”.
Using Open ended questions
We do need to have a direct answer occasionally, such as “Do you need the toilet?” To encourage conversation we should focus on open ended questions that do not require a “Yes” or “No” answer. For example, “Should we have lunch at Grandma’s house or here at home?” or (a favourite in my house) “What adventures do you think we will have today?”