Headstart for Life

Promoting Language through Conversation: Asking the right questions

“In life, it is more important to ask the right questions than to find the right answers.”

Welcome back to Headstart For Life’s Blog, Beyond Therapy!

An important mentor in my life shared the above quote with me. This is a principle that we can all apply to our conversations not just with adults, but also with children.

generate questions

Imagine the following. You sit down with your child at the dining table during dinner. You know that he has had outdoor activities earlier in school today, so you ask him, “Did you go to the playground this morning?” He replies you with a one-word response, “Yes.” You then follow up with another question, “What did you do at the playground?” Your boy replies, “Play slide.” You try to keep the conversation going and ask him, “Was it fun?” Once again, you receive another one-word response, “Yes.” You are left not just feeling frustrated and disappointed, but also disconnected with your child.


bored adult and kid

When we ask multiple close-ended questions in a row, most of the children may end up feeling interrogated and thus shut down to the conversations. They feel as though you are testing them about what they have learnt or done in school. This is the opposite of the engagement and connection that you want to experience through the conversations you have with your children.

There are two main types of questions that we can ask in conversations: close-ended and opened-ended.

1. Close-ended Questions

Closed-ended questions invite a short, focused answer. They usually elicit a one to two-word answer. They are questions that often have a right or wrong, either-or response.

  • They simply require a “Yes” or “No” answer. For example, “Do you want the cookie?”, “Do you like the toy?”
  • A choice is made from a list of possible options. For example, “Do you want to eat rice or noodles today?”
  • They can be used to obtain factual information, and there is usually a limited set of answers. For example, “What is your name?”, “How old are you?”, “Where is your daddy?”, “Which ice-cream flavour do you like the best?”


2. Open-ended questions

  • Open-ended questions do not have one correct answer. They often allow for many answers. They are questions that can be used to spark a conversation.
  • An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the person’s own knowledge and/or feelings.
  • The following list is not exhaustive, but it can give you a rough guide on how you can structure or phrase your questions so as to keep them more open-ended.
    • “What happened in school today?”
    • “Tell me about a time when you were really angry.”
    • “How can we fix the toy?”
    • “I wonder why you like this subject the most.”
    • “Why did you decide to draw a dragon?”
    • “Can you describe your the birthday present you received from grandpa?”

open ended questions

The Benefits of Open-ended Questions

  • Require an answer with depth and a lengthier response, and hence invite more than a one-word response
  • Give room for a more open discussion instead of the adults projecting their assumptions
  • Stimulate creativity, as well as encourage the child to think more thoughtfully and deeply
  • Give control of the conversation to the person responding
  • Affirm the child’s ideas, increase their confidence and self-esteem

Children are particularly susceptible to leading questions. Their responses are influenced by the way the adult structures or phrases the questions. By asking the child, “Did you have a good day in school?”, it directs the child to think about the good things that have happened in school. On the contrary, by asking, “How was school today?”,  you are not asking for any judgement on how good or bad the day has been. This will result in a more balanced and accurate answer.

The way we ask the first question can shape the rest of the conversation. The next question may be, “What did you do in school?” The child’s answer to your next question may vary depending on the first question that you asked. The earlier question may lead to your child sharing mainly about the good things that have happened in school, while the latter question may give room for a more open discussion on how your child really feels and thinks about school that day. When an adult engages a child in conversation using open-ended questions, it shows that you are genuinely interested about what they are doing, as well as how they think and feel.


Although open-ended questions are useful for inspiring further conversation with your child, close-ended questions do have their place too. There are times that we need facts or quick answers. For example, you may need to know if your child has eaten dinner, or which song they would like you to sing to them before bedtime. In addition, being able to answer open-ended questions requires the child to have a particular level of verbal skills. For a very young child, or one whose language is still developing, closed-ended questions can be used to encourage participation.

An article (Science Daily, 2009) highlighted that while providing good language input to a young child is important, a one-sided running commentary is not necessarily beneficial for a child’s language development. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found that adult monologuing (one-sided conversation), such as reading a book to a child without the child’s participation, was more weakly linked to language development than back-and-forth conversation. The latter contributed more to the child’s future language score.

These results highlight the need to engage children in back-and-forth conversations. Adult speech alone, such as talking to a child without encouraging the child to participate in the conversation, may not be as helpful for his/her language development. The key to promoting children’s language competence is by encouraging them to engage in conversations.


Expect the unexpected, start having interesting conversations with your children today!

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for our next post at Beyond Therapy!



University of California – Los Angeles. “Conversing Helps Language Development More Than Reading Alone.” Science Daily 17 July 2009.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Danica

Danica believes that working together with parents and professionals will uncover the full potential that every child possesses. She is thankful for the opportunities to work together with each child and their families, and feels privileged for being able to witness and celebrate every step of progress that the child makes along the way.

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