Speech Therapy for Toddlers: How to Ask Questions?

Speech Therapy for Toddlers: How to Ask Questions?

Adults like to ask questions. The well-known author of How To Win Friends and Influence People (a favorite book of mine), Dale Carnegie, teaches us to ask thoughtful questions to gain friends and effect people. Not only is it socially appropriate and nice to ask others questions, it also shows that we are genuinely interested in them. A pretty good way to treat others, if you ask me.

Benjamin and Melissa 2 by James Jordan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License

  by James Jordan

Here’s a hypothetical - You go to a party where you don’t know a single soul. In attempts to meet new people and start up conversation, you ask questions. You meet a woman named, Stephanie. You ask: “So, Stephanie I see that you're wearing those new TOMS shoes.” Are they comfortable? Everyone seems to be wearing them." Well, before you know it, you’re having a lovely conversation about shoes and the latest fashion trends.

Does this technique of asking questions work for late talkers or language delayed children?

Well, it all depends on HOW you ask.

When I was a graduate student, finding the right balance on how to ask questions was terribly hard for me. I asked question after question in hopes that the little ones would start chit-chatting with me. “What’s your name?” “What did you do today?” And, if they didn’t answer or respond, I would ask even more questions! Usually, I followed up with a yes - no questions because I thought that if I changed it up, maybe they would respond.

“Did you have fun with Mommy at the Zoo?”

“Wanna play with the farm set?”

Sometimes, I find that striking the right balance when it comes to asking questions, is particularly challenging for parents.I see a lot of well-intentioned parents, beginning clinicians, and other professionals fall into, what I call, "tester mode".

 Tester mode is when we ask questions to test knowledge or to get a response.

My Toddler Talks - Tester Mode Questions

My Toddler Talks - Tester Mode Questions

For example: What’s this?” What does a cow say?” “Yesterday, we saw a cow. Do you remember Larry?” “Where did we go yesterday?” Then, the parent looks at me and says “He knows the answer, he’s just distracted.” So, they’ll get closer to him and give him more clues to answer the question. “Remember, we were feeding the cow and it licked your hand? Where did we go?” And, it continues.

 Another problem with falling into “tester mode” is that different questions mean different things.

What vs.  †Where vs. †Who vs. †Why† vs. When vs. †How are various types of open-ended questions with different degrees of difficulty. A child with a language delay may not know how to answer some of these questions. Check out  Teaching Your Child How to Answer Questions, a very helpful article, by Communication Station to read more about it.

 Now, imagine you’re at that cocktail party and you met someone and all they did was ask you question after question. “What’s your name? Where do you live?  What do you do for a living?” “Come here a lot?”  Hmmm…would you want to speak with this adult? Would you do this with another adult? Probably not. And, yet we do it with children.

It’s easy to fall into this habit and half the time we don’t even know that we’re doing it. Tester mode questions may initially get responses, but then interaction stops because it’s not fun for toddlers.

Here are some tips on how to ask questions to develop language in toddlers:

  • Replace the question with a comment.

    • When in doubt say something instead of asking something. Say, “I see Mickey Mouse”. Instead of picking up the stuffed animal and asking “Who is this?” Or, you could say, “I really like your picture” instead of asking “What is it?” “What did you draw?”

    • Pause.

      • Wait after saying your comment. Count 3 to 5 Mississippis. Children need time to process what you said. They need to think about how and if they are going to respond.

      • Still no response?

        • Make another comment. But, add something a little more. E.g. Mickey Mouse is my favorite.” “It looks like a ______”.

        • Balance questions with comments.

          • Generally, I like to say 3 comments and then ask a question. You’ll see I give a lot of examples of this in My Toddler Talks

I hope you have found this post helpful.

For more language tips and strategies, please see:

How to Use Self-Talk and Parallel-Talk

Expansions and Extensions

How to Use Books to Improve Your Toddler's Language

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