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June 12, 2009

Why Not What or How but When to use Which

Kids-bq-question  Recently I have been thinking a lot about how I ask my students questions in my classroom. I just received a comment on a post from last Fall from Tammera, who said, "I believe you should not ask "what" from a preschooler, but "how" to actively open their minds." In some ways I totally agree with Tammera, but making generalizations like this can sometimes get us into trouble-- especially when it comes to research about preschool and how it applies to teachers. I totally agree that we want to get kids thinking about "how" and "why" we do and say things. At the same time, in my experience with my Head Start students, if I ask them, "Why did you ____?" I get a blank stare. However, my own son, also a four year old, could give me an elaborate answer. Whether the answer is true or entirely made up is the subject of another blog post.

I have recently been asked to implement dialogical reading strategies in my classroom. The brief training and supplementary reading I did technically suggests the exact opposite of what Tammera suggests and what I would normally want to do when reading a story to preschoolers. In dialogical reading, the teacher asks, "What" questions about a story. The story is read to a small group of children multiple times with the complexity of the "What" questions building over time. So, in the first reading students are asked, "What is that?", "What is going to happen?" "What is going on here?" Over time, the complexity increases and students are asked, "What is going to happen?, Has that ever happened to you?", "What is the ______ thinking?", "What do you want to remember about this story?"

The form of the question is not limited by the structural use of the word "What." I think what Tammera is saying, and most people think when they ask "What" questions, is that when the teacher or parent already knows the answer to the question when they ask it they aren't developing their children's thinking skills. "What color is that?" does not require much thinking, just recall. Even though we don't want to stop with these questions, they provide the necessary foundational language for further discussion down the road.

I also recently read in a book about managing students with ADD/ADHD. The book suggested that many times kids with the symptoms of ADD/ADHD are not able to process "How" and "Why" questions because it requires them to mentally make a temporal leap from the present to the past, which they have difficulty doing. By asking the student "What" questions, the child is able to bring the process into the present and talk about their thoughts or actions as if they were in the present moment. "What were you doing?" replaces, "Why did you do that?"

These experiences have changed how I think about interacting with my students. Thanks for your comment, Tammera--you inspired some deep thinking.


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