Asking Questions

I’ve written several articles on teaching toddlers to answer questions, and now here’s the low down on how and when toddlers begin to ask questions –“What’s that” usually emerges first, followed by any version of “Where (did it/person) go,” followed by “Why?” In typically developing language, an approximation of “What’s that?” occurs around 15 – 18 months. Asking “Where” and “Who” questions as well is more complex “What” questions emerge around between ages 2 1/2 to 3.? Asking “Who and “Why” questions begin at 3. “How and When” questions usually emerge between 3 and 3 1/2.

Toddlers also begin to ask questions just by using a rising intonation at the ends of their words or phrases such as,”Daddy?” for “Where did Daddy go?” or “Cookie?” for “May I have another cookie?”or “Dat?” for “What’s that?” The true question words (what, where, etc…) usually don’t emerge until a child has begun to ask questions in this way first.

For toddlers with language delays, they may not begin to ask questions until much later than these age ranges and without some effort on your part.

Let me add, if you thought teaching answering questions was hard, wait until you try to start to teach asking! Many children begin to ask, “What’s that?” simply because they’ve heard us ask them that question 1000 times a day! Keep modeling this question for them in daily routines. One author suggests using a puppet or another character to model this question as you hide an object under a blanket. Feel the item using the puppet or character’s hand and ask, “What’s that?”

One other way to target this question is by introducing something he’s never seen before, something that may even be a little strange, or out of the ordinary that will peak his curiosity. Make a big deal about presenting the item by building anticipation and maybe even saying, “WOW!” Point to the item, and make other novel comments such as, “Oooh, ” and “Ahhhhh,” but don’t use many real words. Your lack of explanation may prompt some version of the question, “What’s that?”

If he doesn’t begin to ask questions, continue to ask him, “What’s that?” and “Where’s ____________?” using huge arm gestures, a confused facial expression, and an exaggerated tone of voice. Funny toddlers will totally get into this. Many times toddlers begin to imitate the gesture before they actually imitate the question.

My favorite way to teach “Where” questions is by playing hide and seek. Either use a character or doll to hide in various places, or for more fun, enlist Dad or siblings and teach this classic children’s game. Make a big deal about hiding, counting, and then asking, “Where’s _________?” Ask, “Is he behind the couch ” then say a loud, “Noooooooooo!.” Model again, “Where’s _______?” Ask again, “Is he under the chair?” “Nooooooo!” Really exaggerate these statements and questions as you model. Try to hold out for 3 or 4 empty places before finding your lost family member to build anticipation and target the question since this should be this a focus of your game – in addition to having lots of fun!

Another way I teach “Where” is by singing a little song I learned a while ago on a children’s show. (I think it was from Disney’s Bear in the Big Blue House, but I’m not 100% sure!) I again use the hand motion with my arms extended and move them up and down to the music. It goes like this –

“Where, oh where, oh where is ___________?

Where, oh where, oh where is _________?

Where, oh where, oh where is ___________?

Where can _____________ be?”

Or try other songs with questions such as, “Where is Thumbkin?”

Again, many children on my caseload imitate the hand motions long before they try to say the word, “Where?” I use this gesture as the sign for where rather than the ASL version since it’s a naturally occuring gesture that most people understand.

For older toddlers learning to ask more advanced What questions such as, “What do you want?” model this using dolls or characters in play. Tell your child that the doll doesn’t know what he wants to eat (or play with) and he has to “ask” the doll. Model, “What do you want?” several times before switching roles so your child can ask.

For teaching, “Who’s there/that?” use characters and let them knock on a door to a doll house or your real door. Model asking, “Who’s there” several times before changing roles with your child and having him “ask” the question.

By the time children are really talking, they do usually pick up the ever – endearing “Why? Why? Why?” I sometimes work on this specifically, but nearly every time I do, parents wish I hadn’t!

Sometimes silence alone may prompt your child to ask a question. Present a new item and simply wait. Say nothing. This may be hard for a chatty mom (and SLP), but it’s worth a shot!

I’d like to hear your feedback! Tell me what’s worked for you! Laura


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  1. Ashi on July 10, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Dear laura, your website is great, and i tried some techniques on my 5 yrs old bilingual son, who is also have mild autism. It worked wonder(i thinks so!!!), Just one week i tried this approach of talking just one language i.e english with him, and I think it worked. He started asking and answering simple questions like what, where and how many? Is that a —-? and say I want this or that…
    But do not say I do not want ——–instead he would say i want no milk, and answers of where questions would be like same..i.e where is daddy;s big car,,, he would say in the garage, where is daddy… he would say ” in the sleeping, like that..
    I want some advise how to go ahead with that, as he is learning but i am anxious and worried how long will it take him to talk properly like us. sometime i think wheather he would be able to talk normally or not, I am really devastated, pls help me. can his speech would eventually come to normal, i am worried as he is diagonosed as having mild autism. pls advise me.

  2. Laura on July 11, 2008 at 7:51 am

    Ashi – Congratulations on your son’s progress in just one week! No one can tell you if or how quickly he’s going to catch up because we don’t have “crystal ball.” But you know that if he’s made good progress in just one week of you focusing on his language, he will likely continue to get better. Don’t give up! One thing I would do is “model” for him how to ask/answer questions using correct grammar and a more adult-like sentence structure after he says something incorrectly. For example, when he says “I want no milk,” you should say to him, “I don’t want milk,” and encourage him to repeat it that way. I will caution you not to over-correct his speech right now though, so he doesn’t become discouraged or negative. Nothing is worse for a new talker than to constantly be corrected by an over-judgmental mommy! I’m so glad he’s improving! Keep up the good work! Laura

  3. Ashi on July 11, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks Laura, I just need to ask how to make him say “I, You and we as he still use his name instead of i and mamma, and dada instead of you. pls advise me, as i am trying to teach him at home.

  4. Rachel Sullivan on October 3, 2008 at 8:13 am

    I wanted to say thanks for such an informative site. My son is 41/2 and I think has mild autism(in the process of being evaluated) He has been getting speech therapy three times a week but I am really trying to work with him at home a lot. His biggest problems are echolalia, mostly when he is nervous now and pronoun reversal. I am trying to teach him questions. He has never ever asked me why, where, who when ques. He is able to understand when I ask him things and answer but doesn’t get the asking part. I am trying the things you have suggested but for example every time I ask him to ask his stuffed animal a ques or try to get him to ask the ques he just gives me the answer, its frustrating! The only thing he is able to communicate is what he wants, so he says “you want….” a lot, (you meaning himself)
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks again for a great site!

  5. Laura on October 3, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Rachel – Echolalia is soooooo hard to treat! As an SLP, I find it challenging too, so I understand your frustration. I hope that you’ve read the articles on echolalia and implemented those suggestions. Keep trying them, even when you feel like you’re making a mess of it, and/or your son’s still not getting it.

    The best way I’ve found to work on asking questions with a child who is echolalic is to have another person with you so that your son can ask the other adult the question and you can “whisper coach” him with how to ask. You’ll need to work hard to set up the situations so that your son HAS to ask the adult the question in order to get information or an activity.

    MODEL MODEL MODEL these questions as you play. You will likely need to increase your energy level and playfulness to make this new and exciting. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, check out the DVD for more specific “how to” instructions and examples.

    Also look at the age milestones for these questions to emerge listed in the above article. If his language age isn’t there yet, teaching these “ahead of schedule” may be too frustrating, for him and for you.

    Last, but not least, how does your SLP tell you to work on these things? I hope you’re getting to participate in the sessions so that you’re seeing what works and what doesn’t. Ask her for very specific feedback and make her “coach” you while you play with your son so that you’re sure you’re understanding what you should be doing. This very specific feedback is uncomfortable for some SLPs to give and some parents to receive, but it really does make the difference in some cases.

    Thanks so much for your questions, and I’m glad you’ve found the site helpful! Laura

  6. siba on March 8, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    hi laura, i have a 30 month old son. He has got a vocab of 50 – 60 words. He has not yet started using sentences. There are a few things like water, tea, chocolate which he asks if he needs them… But many times he cannot verbally communicate what he wants. He will pull me and point towards things he needs or wants us to do . At times it is really frustrating for both of us as i cant understand what and how he wants things. But when i point to objects he answers what it is, similarly he can name family members… Like grandpa, grandma.. Also he will ask ‘daddy?’ if he does not see him, similarly ‘baby?, mama?’ . Laura i would like to know where the problem is? Please help

  7. Laura on March 9, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Siba – Since I can’t see him, I don’t know where the problem is, but let me suggest a couple of things. He just now has a large enough vocabulary to support using two-word phrases, so start targeting simple ones like “Bye bye Daddy,” “more please,” “eat cookie,” etc…. There are several articles here on the website in the expressive language section about learning to use phrases, so take a look at those for more specific ideas.

    I’d also suggest that you start to help him learn to request more items by playfully withholding them until he asks for them. You can see examples of how to do this and cue him in my DVD Teach Me To Talk. Check out the clips in the order DVD section of the webiste.

    Secondly, I’d suggest that you have his speech-language skills evaluated by a speech-language pathologist since he likely would qualify for therapy. She can identify any problem he’s having and will teach you ways to help him learn to communicate so that you and he aren’t as frustrated.

    Hope these ideas help! Laura

  8. DIANA on May 25, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Laura,
    My 4.5 year old son does not ask ‘why’ and ‘how’! He however, does use ‘how’ when he wants me to “teach him ‘how’ to colour/write/sing”. He has not used ‘why’ ever! He repeats the same questions with certain persons. For example,when his grandpa injured his leg, my son would repeatedly ask him how he waa feeling…each time he saw his grandpa,he had the same question. I feel he is trying to make a conversation, and doesn’t know a better way to start. He asks all hus friends about their dads everyday when he meets them. He is almost zilch at keeping a conversation going. He strikes a conversation and talks about what interests him,often oblivious to what the other person is saying to him. I got him checked by a pshyciatrist, she ruled out Autism merely by looking at him…his body language and eye contact. Please guide me on how do i teach him why and how. Thanks

    • Laura on May 26, 2015 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Diana. I’m glad you followed up and had him assessed. I wish the psychiatrist would have referred you on to a speech-language pathologist so that you can have his language assessed. He is likely having some underlying difficulty understanding how language is used – especially those tricky question words – in addition to some expressive language difficulty since he has trouble keeping a conversation going. I love that he’s trying though!! What I would recommend that you do when you see him struggling is “whisper coach” him – or give him an example of what else he could say to the person he’s trying to talk to. Parents usually do this instinctively with young children and it’s a fabulous strategy because you’re “in the moment” and helping him learn using a real life situation. It’s fine to practice ahead of time too with new questions he could ask his friends or grandpa, but nothing beats that real life experience! What I’d recommend for “why” and “how” is to model those questions often all day long with him. When you’re about to leave your house and he’s getting his shoes on, say, “Why do you wear shoes?” When he’s about to eat a meal ask him, “Why are you eating?” You may have to cue and model and help him come up with those answers, but you will be working toward helping him learn to ask that question and others like that. It’s often a challenge to teach a child to ask questions, but he WANTS to learn how to do this because he’s trying, but not quite hitting the mark. Coach him through these situations. And I really would pursue a speech-language assessment for him, especially so the SLP can teach YOU how to work on these things with him at home. Thanks Diana! That was a great question!! Good luck to you!! Laura

      • DIANA on June 3, 2015 at 12:14 am

        Thank you so much,Laura! I am already following the ‘whisper coach’ approach that you mentioned and he is quick in learning whatever I tell him. I see that he is making a very sincere effort to talk well and as he is growing his vocabulary and contextual usage of words is improving. He frames long sentences correctly too. My phsychiatrist did suggest speech therapy for an expressive language delay,but i was not happy with the way the therapist was dealing with my son. He would cry during the sessions and she was unable to keep him interested. I am going to another speech therapist today. Hoping this time i may find the right person to help my son. Thank u very much for ur help! God bless u for the wonderful work that you do by helping parents like me:-)

        • Laura on June 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm

          Diana – Thanks for the update and good for you on your success and for being courageous enough to find an SLP who is a better fit for the both of you! Laura

  9. Tiffani on August 3, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Hello Laura. My 21 month old daughter is delayed in expressive and receptive speech. She seldom initiates conversation of course but sings a number of songs very clearly and the words she knows are well understood. When thinking of the number of words that she uses without imitation I wanted to know if I should consider the many nursery rhymes she sings as she recognizes the nouns (some verbs) from the songs: (Wheels on the Bus, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Johnny Johnny, Humpty Dumpty, If You’re Happy, 5 Little Monkeys, A Sailor Went to Sea, Head, Shoulders, to name a few). She knows and visually recognizes all upper/lower case alphabet and numbers 1-10 and counts to 14. She is withdrawn in communication. She is scheduled to test for autism but we find that her eye contact is getting much stronger than it used to be. Without including the words from the songs it doesn’t seem she says many words without repeating or prompting. The remainder is jargon all day. Is it reasonable to include the words from songs and the words of questions or prompts?

  10. Cole on April 30, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Thanks for uploading this information. I myself just about had it with people/professionals telling me my child had a speech impediment, or delay. While everything else concerning his development was in the higher percentile, speech
    seemed delayed to just about anyone who was not around consistently. Nothing wrong with a child being reserved, usually signals towards a later respectful member of society lol.

    Some would say “Don’t ask questions”…”Limit your engagement”…”Possible your child is somewhere along the spectrum of Autism”…You name it they said it.

    Thanks Ill definitely let anyone know if they find the same road!

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