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Teacher Tips: Asking Open-Ended Questions

06 May 2015 by Kathryn Surchek
Encourage your students to answer open-ended questions.

The ideal conversation, of course, prompts children to both think and respond:

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

Child: So it can be the roof.

 

Teacher: What might happen if you didn’t have a block on top?

Child: Then the rain might come in.

Teacher: How else could you keep the rain out?

Child: With an umbrella.

Teacher: How would that work?

Unfortunately, I notice when I’m with children that while I tend to ask a lot of questions, they’re not always open-ended. I really have to work to broaden my repertoire of questions and be quite intentional about asking questions that encourage children to come up with their own ideas and put those ideas into words (and not just answer yes/no or with a “correct” response such as “yellow” or “pig”).

So, how can we remember to ask these kinds of broad, thought-provoking questions?

  • Generate a list of generic open-ended questions and print them out in a large, italic font to create a banner to post around the top of the classroom. They make a pretty border—and they’re right there to see and use as you’re in the moment interacting with children. Alternatively, post these same questions in centers on large notecards as a reminder, or print out and laminate this list to carry with you.
  • Before reading a book with children, write questions and statements on sticky notes and flag selected pages:
    • “Look at the cover. What do you think this book will be about?”
    • “Why is the monkey throwing coconuts?”
    • “Tell me what you think will happen next.”
  • Ask “How did you decide … ?” to get children to talk about something they are doing. To keep the conversation going, follow up with “What if you … ?” or “How else could you … ?” and present an alternative to the action they took to help them articulate their decision-making process.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for children to practice responding to these types of questions—and try to wait for them to answer (when I’m working on building my wait time, I discreetly tap each of my fingers to be sure children have at least 10 seconds to reply). They may not be used to conversations that are more open-ended, and it might take some time for them to get familiar with responding in more complex ways.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Give yourself time to make asking open-ended questions a regular part of your teaching practice. (I still have to work on it—and my 50th birthday is just around the corner!).
  • Consider creating a "question of the week" that you will ask to each child in your class in a one-on-one setting over the course of the week. Make time for these individualized back-and-forth conversations on the playground, during meal times, while waiting in line, during centers, etc. Simply ask the question and then show interest in the child's unique response by asking follow-up questions like, "Tell me more" and "Why do you think that?"

Many thanks to MMCI instructors Kathy McKechnie and Nancy Walsh for sharing their wonderful ideas! Any errors or misinterpretations in them are my own (not theirs), as I modified them to fit the format.

For more teacher tips, you can read my previous blog post Teacher Tips: Engaging Children in Conversations.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published on December 6, 2013, but has since been revised to keep the content fresh and accurate.
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