Many toddlers with language delays have difficulty learning to answer questions. Common problems include:
- Repeating or the last few words of the question rather than answering
- Answering incorrectly such as shaking their heads yes when you ask them a question with 2 choices
- Giving an off-target response such as answering, “Two,” when you ask, What’s your name?
- Not responding or ignoring questions
By 30 months of age, most toddlers with typically developing language skills are consistently answering yes/no questions, choosing between 2 options (“Do you want your Dora shirt or flower shirt?”) and answering simple “What” and “Where” questions (“What do you want to eat?” or “Where did Daddy go?”).
By age 3 most children with typically developing language skills correctly answer common questions related to themselves such as, “What’s your name,” “How old are you,” and” Are you a boy or a girl?”
Listed below are the tried and true ways I recommend that parents work on answering questions with their children at home.
Children learn to answer, “What’s that?” questions to label items before they begin to answer other kinds of questions. If your child is not consistently answering this question, practice often with words you know he can say across different contexts. For example, if says, “Shoe,” ask him, “What’s that?” while pointing to his shoes, while looking at pictures of shoes in catalogs or magazines, while reading books, and while playing with a doll or toy characters.
Toddlers also begin to answer questions by making verbal choices. Offer choices for everything throughout the day. “Do you want milk or juice? Which one should we play -blocks or cars? Should we read Good Night Moon or the Elmo book? Do you want a hug or a kiss? Does the cow want to eat or sleep?” If he is not yet using words, he can respond with a gesture such as pointing, looking, or even grabbing the one he wants. When he is talking or signing, you should wait him out for a verbal response, especially for words you know he can say or sign.
One way to make sure that your toddler understands choosing is to offer a non-preferred item as a choice. This is an especially effective technique for children who only “echo” the last words they hear. For example, ask if he wants to play with bubbles or a sock. If he repeats “sock,” make him take the sock. You can also use this with favorite snacks and a not-so-desirable option. If he echoes and says the wrong item, make an effort to have him take the item he doesn’t want, even if he’s initially upset or confused. Give him a second chance by saying, “You said, ____. What do you want, ______ or _____?” Sometimes I hold the “correct” choice forward or shake it to call attention to it. I also the exaggerate the “preferred” item as I say the word and whisper the non-preferred choice.
Ask early “where” questions that she can “answer” with a point, look, or by retrieving an item. For example, hide a ball in your hand and ask her where it is. Ask her where common objects are in your home so that she can go get them. Ask her to locate family members by pointing or looking as you are seated around the table during meals. Have Dad or an older child model the correct answers as you ask your child. Practice these kinds of tasks often knowing that you are building a foundation for verbal responses.
When your child correctly “answers” with a non-verbal response, use words to describe what he did. As he’s pointing to family members when you’re asking, “Where’s _______,” say the family member’s name or a response such as, “Right there.” When he’s answering a location questions, use the correct words.? “Yes! It’s in the box.”
Work on yes/no questions by giving them as “choices.” For example, “Do you want cookies – yes or no?” Shake or nod your head to cue your child as you say the words “yes” and “no” so that he can associate those gestures with words and use them if he can’t or won’t say the words just yet.
When he’s answering “where” questions accurately without words, begin to model verbal responses by giving two choices for more complex questions. Say, “Is your hat on your head or on your feet?” “Is the ball on the couch or the floor?” “Is the dog eating or sleeping?” Again, use visual cues to help him. I use an exaggerated point to help cue the correct answer.
Higher Level Questions
For answering questions about recent experiences, use the choice method or the review method. Ask her, “What did you do at school today?”
Use the choice method to help generate an answer if she doesn’t respond to your first attempts. Try, “Did you paint or play in sand?” Again try to vary the order of your choices so she is listening for the “correct” answer. (A little foreknowledge of what she actually did is required for this to be effective!)
Practice the review method in daily routines and especially at the ends of specific play times. Narrate what you did and then ask questions. For example, “Today we played with the farm, ate Oreos, and blew whistles.” Then ask her what you did giving visual cues (pointing or holding up the objects) as she answers.
When you come in from playing outside, have her tell Dad what she did. Start with a review of activities by saying, “We played on the slide and then on the swings.” Then have Dad ask, “What did you play?” Model what she should answer if she can’t do it.
Another great time to practice is at meals. Review what she ate for dinner by saying, “You ate chicken, macaroni, and peas.” Then ask, “What did you eat for dinner?” Point to her foods as a cue of what to respond. Fade the review and pointing when she begins to answer on her own.
A very effective way to cue answers to questions is to have one adult “ask” the child questions and have another adult “whisper” the answers if he needs help. Fade the coaching as he becomes better.
For children with better language comprehension skills who understand humor, try using a ridiculous choice to entice her to respond without echoing. You might say, “Do want to eat ice cream or poop” Exaggerate the silliness of your offer so she knows you’re kidding and gets the “humor” in this question. (Beware the “poop” jokes. This may catch on and be a loooong phase at your house!)
For learning to answer the familiar name/age/gender questions, practice, practice, practice. A good way to begin working on this is to ask older children first so that your child can hear a model and it becomes a game. I also ask these questions with “yes/no” choices too. “Is your name Daddy/sibling’s name/pet name/character name?” Model an exaggerated, “Noooooo” with a big head shake and grin. Ask a couple of “no” responses, then ask the correct version.
To help children learn gender, label “boy/girl” everywhere you go. I also use children’s clothing magazines with stereotypical pictures such as girls in dresses and with long hair and boys in pants since there are lots of pictures for practice. Be sure to?”teach” this concept for a long time before you begin “testing” by asking, “Is he a boy or a girl?” You don’t want to let a child repeatedly make a mistake in answering since he then “over-learns” the incorrect response. Gender is often a difficult concept for children with language delays.
If you have any other “tricks” for teaching your child to answer questions, please feel free to share them with us by leaving a comment! Laura
Need some more help with specific activities to improve a toddler’s language skills? I can provide that for you!! My best-selling book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual is full of ideas!