The Power of Open-Ended Questions

About this resource
Reviewed: 2019

When talking with young children, it can be easy to fall into the trap of asking questions that encourage a “yes” or “no”or very specific type ofanswer. We ask these questions throughout the day with young children. “Do you want an apple or a banana? Do you like the book? Yes or no?”

These types of questions are part of typical conversations we have with people in daily life and represent an important opportunity for children to express their preferences and make choices. However, when adults pay special attention to asking questions or prompting children to express their ideas with open-ended questions, they give children the opportunity to build expressive language skills.

Open-ended questions and phrases allow children to provide a full and meaningful answer that conveys their thoughts and feelings. These questions and phrases can be used throughout the day. Play time, meal time, and times in transit are all opportunities for children to observe their world and share their growing knowledge of how the world works.

Sometimes, it takes adults a little time to get used to waiting quietly for an answer. Children are often thinking quietly as they observe their world. Caregivers and teachers also need to provide time for children to think and formulate a response. The reward of hearing children share their ideas and emotions will make the wait worthwhile. In time, adults and children will become comfortable with the natural pace of these conversations.

Adults create powerful early learning opportunities by changing the type of questions they ask. Rich conversations build background knowledge that will support children’s language and cognitive skills. These skills provide a foundation for success in early literacy learning. Starting a conversation with phrases such as “Tell me about …,” “What do you think about …” and “How can we …” encourages children to express their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s consider a typical time when adults and children can have longer conversations. A closed-ended question about the macaroni and cheese at lunch might be, “Do you like the macaroni and cheese?”Children might answer “yes” or “no.” The conversation would not provide much of an opportunity for children to express complex ideas and feelings.

However, if the adults change the formulation of their question, it changes the kind of response children might provide. Instead of asking a simple question such as “Do you like the macaroni and cheese?” at meal time, an adult might say: Tell me about your favorite foods. What do you think we could add to the macaroni to make it tastier? How do you think the macaroni and cheese got to your plate?

An open-ended phrase such as “tell me what you know about macaroni and cheese” could lead the conversation in many different directions. Children might talk about the shape of the noodles, the color of the cheese, or how the meal was prepared. There might be an opportunity for children and adults to talk about how the cheese is made of milk, which comes from cows, and the noodles are made of wheat, which grows in the ground.

Where will your next question to a young child take you? Try out an open-ended question or phrase and see what you discover.

Rebecca Swartz
rswartz@illinois.edu

Dr. Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist for IEL, completed her doctorate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca’s research and outreach work focuses on infant-toddler care, home-based child care, and the social-emotional development of young children. Her goal is to help parents and early educators by providing evidence-based resources on child development and early learning.
Biography current as of 10/2019