How To Ask Questions To Check Children's Understanding

Waiting For Answers

Waiting for answers to questions can be hard...
Waiting for answers to questions can be hard...
Asking questions is easy isn't it?  Maybe not.  When I was training to be a teacher they quoted some study that the average time between a teacher asking a question and answering it themselves was 1.6 seconds.

This is a mistake many parents and teachers make - not waiting for an answer.  (You could argue this is a wider issue than pedagogy but let's not go there).  Perhaps it is to avoid the uncomfortable silence, or maybe it is simply that when you know the answer to a question it is hard to judge how long someone who is trying to work out said answer actually needs.
More on Waiting
  • If you don't feel uncomfortable with how long you've waited before you offer a hint or answer, then you've probably not waited enough time.  
  • If you don't feel uncomfortable because your child always answers the questions straight away then there is a good chance the questions are too easy - try to make them a bit harder.

Anyway if you do one thing when asking questions, and nothing else - learn to wait.  Perhaps count to 10 each time you ask.  Honestly, if you don't do this already, stop reading here, practice, and then come back.   None of the rest of the tips are as valuable as this point.

Before continuing it's worth taking a pause to make clear why it's so important to ask questions.  Children when they read can fall into the trap of just reading the words without making any effort to understand.  They are focused on saying the sounds the words represent without trying to interpret them.

This is perfectly normal and understandable.  It is hard to learn to read for the first time so it's natural to focus all their attention on the actual reading, but it's also a bad habit.  We read to get some knowledge or enjoyment but the purpose of reading is to get information from the words, and this should happen from start. 

By asking questions you can check their understanding and help motivate them to actually think about what they are reading.  This is a critical part in learning to read.

Open And Closed Questions

Moving on, how do you actually ask a question and what questions do you ask?  There are open and closed questions, another mistake that people make is to only ask closed questions (don't only ask open questions - you need both).  So what's the difference?
Open or Closed?
Open or Closed?

Closed questions have a definite answer.  For example "Where did the witch lock Rapunzel?" ; " What did Mr. Brown find at Paddington Station?".  Of course the answers can vary in quality ("Paddington Bear" vs "A lost soul with a 'Please look after this bear' tag on him, whom he name 'Paddington' after the station") but it's the same answer.  "Yes / No" questions are a type of closed question - in fact they are as closed as they can be ("Did the witch lock Rapunzel in a tower?")  Closed questions are OK in moderation, but you probably want to avoid Yes / No questions.

Open questions on the other hand don't have a single "right answer" though they can have a wrong answer.  For example, take the question:"How do you think Hansel and Gretel felt being left alone in the woods by their father?" ; "sad", "lonely", "disappointed" are all right answers which could be followed with "why?".  "Happy" would be a wrong answer, still it's one that could be taken further ("why are they happy?", "Would you be happy?", "Why would you be happy?") to hopefully get to a more sensible answer.

Open Or Closed?

Open questions are very useful because sometimes your children surprise you with their answers.  There was a story about a King who to great lengths to hide and change his ears.  I asked my son to "Tell me what the story is about" and he said "The King didn't like his ears," which is a better summary than I could have done.
A very good open question is "Tell me about .."; "Tell me about cars".  I know it's technically not a question but it counts.  If you are stuck, just use "Tell me about XXX."
It's important to remember that it's good to use a mix of open and closed questions.  I would start off though with only closed questions.  I would also suggest very simple closed questions, to build up their confidence.  When you can see they respond well, expand this and ask harder questions.  Feelings can be very good open questions which open the gates.  "Why?" is a good question and it lets you turn the tables on your child!

Future vs. past questions

Most of the time we ask children to tell us what happened in the book.  Actually it can also be interesting to see if they can tell us what they think will happen.  Asking about the past can sometimes leave you wondering if they are just repeating some things or if they really understood it.  Asking questions like "What do you think will happen next?" , "How do you think they will escape?" , "Do you think they will be in trouble?" (perhaps followed by a "why?") really helps check their understanding.  It also gets them thinking whilst they are reading.


Finally remember, in case all this talk about open / closed questions has made you forget: always wait an uncomfortable amount of time after asking a question for an answer.


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