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What are the best types of questions to ask primary children?

Nearly a third of teaching time is devoted to questioning children, according to Steven Hastings in Questioning. We all know that questions are a vital part of teaching. Questions can both check and deepen children’s understanding, stimulating discussion, imagination and critical thinking skills. By modelling questions we show children how to articulate questions of their own.


No type of question has greater value than any other. All types of questions serve different purposes, so the type of question you ask depends upon your aim. Closed questions are useful for discovering whether children can recall facts. These questions generally start with:


· Who

· What

· When

· Where


Open questions deepen children’s thinking. They require children to make connections with prior learning, and to reflect and engage in discussion. Often these questions don’t have a single, correct answer.


If all questions are valuable, what’s the problem?


Ted Wragg, in his video Types of Questions, noticed that only 8% of questions asked in primary classrooms are open-ended. He said that children’s higher order thinking skills would benefit from answering a greater range of open-ended questions.

To help you to create a lively, vibrant learning environment try varying your questions by using a range of words:


why, how, when, where, what, who, is, did, can, would, will, might, identify, describe, explain, analyse, compare, evaluate, justify, happen, change, cause, result, affect, find, same, different, advantage, disadvantage, improve, agree, disagree, strength, weakness


How long should I give children to answer a question?


It is generally believed that teachers give children about a second to answer a question before asking somebody else or providing the answer themselves. According to Payne and Scott, Making Every Primary Lesson Count, teachers tend to give less able children less time to answer before moving on in order to save them embarrassment.


So, what can you do? You can increase the length of time you give all children to answer questions. Payne and Scott recommend counting to three in your head. Although it feels strange at first it gives children the time to consider their responses more deeply. Those three seconds need to be silent so that children can gather their thoughts. Once they’ve answered your question give them a few extra seconds in case they would like to expand upon their answer or another child would like to build upon what they have said.


How can I help children who are afraid to answer questions?

Many children don’t like to be put on the spot in front of the whole class, and there are plenty of adults who don’t like it either! You can use talking partners so children can share their answers together which also provides reassurance and a confidence boost. Children can then share their joint response or their partner’s answer with the whole class, or you can simply wander around listening in to children’s discussions.


When I ask questions how can I involve all the children at once?


You can get every child to answer a question by using every-child response systems:


  • Children answer a question with thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs in the middle (I’m not sure)

  • ‘1, 2, 3…show me!’ Children show their answers on a whiteboard or a number/letter fan.


What’s the best way to support a child who has difficulty answering a question?


When a child is consistently unable to answer questions we know that it damages their self-esteem, which in turn means they stop trying. By tailoring questions to our children’s individual abilities we avoid this to some extent, but we must also challenge children and stretch their thinking. Once you’ve asked a question and given the child three seconds to answer, stay with them and support them to reach an answer.


When children say ‘I don’t know’ how can I respond?


Try rephrasing the question in case language is the barrier. You could also break the question into smaller parts.


Teacher: Which word is a determiner in the sentence: ‘He put out three bowls for the dogs’?

Lara: I don’t know.

Teacher: Which words are nouns?

Lara: ‘Bowls’ and ‘dogs’.

Teacher: A determiner is a word that goes before a noun to give us more information about it. Which words give us more information about ‘bowls’ and ‘dogs’?

Lara: ‘Three’ and ‘the’.

Teacher: So, which words are determiners in the sentence?

Lara: ‘Three’ and ‘the’ are the determiners.


How do I challenge children who answer questions easily?


Ask follow-up questions that probe children’s thinking. ‘Why’ is a useful follow-up starter word.


Example 1:

Teacher: What food group should we eat the most?

Jim: Fruit and vegetables.

Teacher: Why are fruit and vegetables good for us?


Example 2:

Teacher: Who can you see in Van Gogh’s painting?

Fred: Five men and women.

Teacher: What do you notice about their faces?

Fred: They aren’t smiling.

Teacher: Why do you think the lamp is lit?

Fred: Because it’s dark.

Teacher: What season do you think it is?

Fred: Winter because in summer it would be light.


How can I encourage children to listen and respond to each other’s questions?


Foster an atmosphere of mutual respect, so that all children feel happy to contribute. Don’t tolerate ridicule. Remind children of their class rules and sanctions. Elicit the importance of obeying the rules, and support children to empathise with each other.


Ask a series of linked questions which include different children.


Teacher: How can you make your story feel more dark and scary, Alice?

Alice: By using different adjectives.

Teacher: What do you think of that, Rebecca?

Rebecca: Yes, she could say the girl’s scream was ‘blood-curdling!’


Remember: ask a variety of different questions – both closed and open-ended. Aim to ask more higher-order questions to help children to make connections and see the ‘bigger picture’.


References


Questioning, Steven Hastings, TES, 4th July 2003


Types of Questions, Ted Wragg, 4th November 2015


Making Every Primary Lesson Count by Jo Payne and Mel Scott, Crown House Publishing, 2017.

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