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What kind of questioning and adult-child interactions really extend children's thinking and language? Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Laura Manni explain

The most effective early years pedagogues encourage talk with adults and among children by keeping with the child's interest and attention. One of the most common methods of prompting interactions with children is through questions. But how often do we, as pedagogues, think about questioning and how it effects children's language development and their ability to think and reflect?

There is great potential to increase children's capacity to learn from an activity through careful adult-child talk, and questioning is one of many strategies that can either support and encourage children's learning - or limit or stop it in its tracks.

The effectiveness of verbal interactions to promote development of children's language and thinking skills relies heavily on the level and depth of the child's involvement in the activity, and the activity itself.

Planning appropriate and relevant experiences and recognising when to support children's spontaneous learning will increase the opportunity for quality interactions. Further, interactions involving sustained shared thinking (SST) have been identified as some of the most effective in supporting children's learning.

Sustained shared thinking

Sustained shared thinking is defined as the result of two or more individuals (adults and children) working together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept or evaluate activities. It requires all participants to contribute to the thinking and that the thinking must be extended (see Further reading).

The following is a good example of SST, in which the adult is guiding learning, rather than dominating it. Look at how children can be encouraged and supported by adults in the process of making sense of the world: Grace (aged four): 'How did God make us?'

Adult: 'I don't know. What do you think?'

Grace: 'I don't know.'

Adult: 'Well, how would you make yourself?'

Grace: 'I would make myself happy.'

Tom (aged four): 'I think when God made us, we made God.'

Grace: 'He putted (sic) our bones in first, and then he putted blood on the bones, and then he putted our skin on.'

Tom: 'No - he opened up our bones and put the blood in us.'

Grace: 'No - if he put it in our bones, the blood wouldn't come out.'

Or we can see this example from the same nursery: Abid (aged four): 'What kind of skeleton animal is that?'

Adult: 'They think it's a dinosaur. What do you think?'

Abid: 'A dinosaur.'

Adult: 'Is it really?'

Abid: 'Looks like it.'

Adult: 'Let's look at its head.'

Kylie (aged three-and-a-half): 'It looks like it's dirty. It's very old.'

Adult: 'How can you tell it's old?'

Kylie: 'Cos it is... 'cos all the dirt around it.'

Adult: 'It does look very dirty, I must say.'

Learning and discovery

In the following example we can see how an adult can encourage speculation through questioning.

Adult: 'If I take one side of the shape away, what different shapes can you make?'

Nelson (aged four): 'A circle shape.'

Adult: 'You might be able to make them into a circle. Try.'

Adult: 'If I give you that piece...Can you make a different shape...? What can you make, Nelson?'

Nelson: 'Rectangle...Look I'm making it. (He makes a square). Done it!'

Nadia (aged four, has also made a square): 'And me!'

Adult: 'What shape is it?'

Children (together): 'Square!'

In this example the children are literally and mentally playing with facts.

As they grapple with the task, they are supported by the adult who uses questions that encourage the children to test out their own hypotheses.

These children are motivated by the pursuit of learning and discovery for their own sake, and their excitement, captured here through their language, is proof of this motivation. They are not being told what a square is, nor pushed into identifying it. They are finding it out for themselves and from the 'ers' and 'ums' of not knowing follow the 'ohs' and 'ahs' of learning - the sounds of meaning being made.

Now take the above example and compare it with another experience involving shapes found in a different Foundation Stage setting: Adult: 'This week we're going to carry on talking about shapes. We're going to look at one like this (draws triangle in air). Do you know what that shape is?'

Britney (aged four years and two months): 'Square?'

Adult: 'No, this is a square.' (She draws in the air.) Britney: 'A circle?'

Adult: 'No, this is a circle (draws in air). It is called a triangle.'

In this example, the child's verbal contribution has been reduced to a cautious one-word guess of what the practitioner has in mind.

The fact that her responses are expressed as questions indicates that she is both uncomfortable in this learning experience and aware that there is a 'correct answer' to be found.

Such an exchange, with the adult's negative responses, promotes the view of adult as expert and of learning as remembering rather than investigating.

If children are to be encouraged to reflect en route to becoming lifelong learners, it is important that they are offered a less fixed view of the world, one where curiosity and wonder, rather than correct solutions and consensus building, fuel their investigations.

Unsettling results

The recent Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years project analysed and reviewed a random sample of questions observed in settings (see Further reading). The sample was extracted from more than 400 hours of observations involving 28 Foundation Stage pedagogues in 14 early years settings, identified as moderately good to effective and representing all types of group providers. A total of 1,967 questions were analysed and the results were quite unsettling.

Of the questions analysed, 34.1 per cent were closed - that is they were questions that have one correct response, often known by the person posing the question, such as, 'What colour is this piece of paper?'

While such questions do serve an important purpose, including checking children's knowledge and maintaining their attention, their over-representation in early years settings is a cause for concern.

Such closed questions generally reduce children's communicative role to short, often one-word, responses, and rely only on a child's capacity to recall information, so diminishing their opportunity for thinking, reflecting and/or speculating.

In contrast, open questions - which, evidence shows, encourage speculation and promote SST - made up a mere 5.1 per cent of questions analysed, that is only 101 out of 1,967 adult questions.

Open questions normally have more than one possible answer and can promote speculation, for example, 'I don't know. What do you think?' Studies have found such questions to be associated with better cognitive achievement, as they offer children the opportunity to grapple verbally with ideas and concepts still forming in their minds.

Adult follow-up However, it would be wrong and overly simplistic to assume that open questions are 'good' and closed questions are 'bad', or that quality verbal interactions will naturally follow from a list of perfectly-worded questions. Evidence suggests that at their most successful, good questions rely on good follow-up by the participating adults.

If the adult is interested only in arriving at a 'correct answer', then there is little room for children to wrestle with ideas and misconceptions.

However, if the practitioner is interested in promoting a child's gradual process of discovery, their questioning will be only one part of a larger approach to extending children's meaning making.

So, while open questions offer more opportunity for higher-order thinking, without an adult's encouragement and patience, even the most open-ended questions can be reduced to one-word answers.

Learning how to ask children questions, to sustain shared thinking and to promote reflection and speculation relies on opportunity and good practice (see box). NW Iram Siraj-Blatchford is a professor, and Laura Manni is a researcher, Institute of Education, University of London

Further reading

* Siraj-Blatchford, I, Sylva, K, Taggart, B, Sammons, P and Melhuish, E The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education. (Order online from: http:// k1.ioe.ac.uk/schools/ecpe/eppe/eppe/eppepubs.htm, priced 11).

* Siraj-Blatchford, I, Sylva, K, Muttock, S, Gilden, R and Bell, D Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years, Institute of Education, University of London. http:/k1.ioe.ac.uk/schools/ecpe/eppe/index/htm.

Effective questioning

In early years settings, questions have two overall functions:

* language development

* thought development.

Enquiry questions

Try these questions to encourage children to reflect and to extend and sustain their thinking:

* How could you find out?

* What do you think? And do you think everyone else would think the same?

* What do you think is happening?

* I don't know, what do you think?

* Can you tell me more about that?

* How can you make/build this?

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