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How to Help Children Answer Open-Ended Questions

22 May 2015 by Mamie Morrow

We recently reposted a popular blog post about asking open-ended questions. We are thrilled that early childhood educators are becoming more intentional about engaging children in meaningful learning conversations. But has this ever happened to you? 

Teacher: Why did you decide to put the triangle-shaped block on top?

Child: Because

Teacher: Because why? 

Child: Silence

I think all educators would agree that there is a skill to crafting and asking open-ended questions. Did you know there is also a learning curve for answering these wonderful questions that require thought and more than a one-word response? When teachers ask an open-ended question, the focus of the conversation switches to the child. To formulate an answer, the child needs time to pause, think, and reflect. Some children are used to this type of inquiry while others need practice to become comfortable verbalizing their thoughts and opinions.

So, how can we help children develop the skills necessary to answer open-ended questions?

  • Encourage children to ask questions throughout the day and model providing thoughtful answers. Additionally, model asking and answering questions with other adults in the classroom. For example, “Mrs. Debbie why are you putting on your coat?” To which she answers, “Oh, I need my coat because I know it will be cold outside. It snowed this morning.”
  • As you begin asking open-ended questions try to converse with children when they are relaxed, for example while they are playing or eating. Say, “I see you really like to build with the blue blocks. Tell me, what makes the blue blocks special?” Or, “You just poured the milk all by yourself. How did you learn to do that?”
  • Use open-ended questions to follow-up other questions. Back-and-forth exchanges model natural conversations and are more likely to elicit responses. For example, ask “why, how and what if” follow-up questions to children’s comments. Don’t forget to provide wait-time.
  • In whole group settings, try asking the class an open-ended question and let the children first talk with an elbow buddy for a minute and then share ideas with the group.
  • For our shy and quiet children, engage in one-on-one self- and parallel talk as a way to bond and open up the door for future conversations. Describe your actions and what you see them doing in a conversational way. For example, “I see you are putting a dress on the doll and giving her a nice big hug. I am dressing my doll in shorts and a t-shirt because she wants to go play at the park…etc. ”

 

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