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The importance of questions during story time

Children benefit from answering sophisticated questions as well as easy ones, so let's see how educators and parents can incorporate different kinds of questions during story time to better challenge young brains.

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‘Why?’ is a perfectly good question for a child to ask an adult, but when the tables are turned, simple isn’t always best.

Children benefit from answering sophisticated questions as well as easy ones, so let’s see how educators and parents can incorporate different kinds of questions during story time to better challenge young brains.

Why are harder questions good for children?

Laura Justice is a Professor of Educational Psychology at Ohio State University and she says although, ‘We don’t want to ask all difficult questions … we should be coaxing children along cognitively and linguistically by occasionally offering challenging questions.’

This is because answering more complex questions helps children:

  • Develop stronger language and reading skills
  • Stretch their thinking abilities
  • Learn new concepts that push their development forward

What research has been done into child-directed questions?

Despite the benefits described above, research has shown that educators and parents aren’t asking their children enough questions, or hard enough questions, and this thinking is supported by Professor Justice’s study of American preschools.

To get a sense of how many questions children are asked in the early learning environment, Professor Justice and her co-authors observed 96 preschool and kindergarten teachers and analysed the questions being asked during story time.

After recording 5,207 questions asked by educators and 3,469 responses from children, the Ohio State University researchers found that the teachers were asking too few questions, and those they did ask, were usually too simple.

When they weren’t reading the book text, only 24 per cent of what teachers said was a question; and when they did ask something, the children answered correctly 85 per cent of the time.

Professor Justice says this points to the questions being too easy and has called for educators to ask more advanced and difficult questions. Instead of always asking questions that encouraged a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer, she suggests ‘How-procedural’ questions, like ‘How did they become friends again?’

She explains, ‘When the teachers asked these more sophisticated how-procedural questions, the children would give more elaborate and complex answers. Those are the kind of questions we need more of.’

Although children may give incorrect or unusual answers, this isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it creates teachable moments where educators can help children learn something new and promote their development.

How can parents use this approach at home?

Although the American study focused on educators, Professor Justice says that parents should also ask their children more questions, including those that are sophisticated and open-ended, for example, ‘How do you think this book will end?’

As a guide, some experts recommend 60 to 70 per cent of shared reading conversations should be easy, with the remaining 30 to 40 per cent of interactions involving challenging new concepts.

How does story time promote literacy and numeracy skills?

When it comes to parent-child interactions, another study has found that a rich home learning environment in their early years can boost a child’s academic performance into adolescence.

Researchers at the University of Bamberg worked with 229 German children and tested their literacy and numeracy skills from the age of three to five, then again when they were 12 or 13.

They found that children who lived in homes where parents regularly read and discussed books with them, scored better in their Reading and Maths tests in early adolescence.

Dr Simone Lehrl, who led the study, says, ‘Our results underline the great importance of exposing children to books for development, not just in literacy, but numeracy too: Early language skills not only improve a child’s reading, but also boost mathematical ability.’

As well as asking questions about a book’s characters, plot and language, parents are also encouraged to talk about numbers and counting to promote their children’s reading and mathematical abilities later on.

So, next time you’re reading to your child, take the time to pause, reflect, and pose an interesting question before turning the page.

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