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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