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December 9, 2013

Teaching Children to Ask (Thoughtful) Questions!

Teaching Children to Ask (Thoughtful) Questions!

Ask just about any teacher of young children, and he or she will probably agree:  teaching  children to ask good, thoughtful questions can be an incredible challenge!  Now this may seem impossible for many parents to imagine, especially if their own children spend most of the day peppering them with one question after another!  In fact, it seems that most children are absolutely FULL of questions, unless they HAVE to ask one!  If you tell a child that he or she must ask a question, you often get statements instead, such as, “I like your shirt.”  And it just goes to show you what the real problem is:  most young children don’t really know what a question is as opposed to a statement.



I have always taught children the difference between a question and a story with my song called “Is it a Question or a Story?” from the Classroom Management CD/DVD with a fair amount of success.  (You can listen to a bit of it on iTunes here.)  Yes, the song teaches kids to tell the difference between the two;  however, it does not teach them how to generate a thoughtful question.  And actually, I had never considered teaching this as a skill.  I just knew that generating questions was difficult, because my students had struggled with it as part of a Common Core based test on listening comprehension of informational texts.  (In this test, the children had to listen to a non-fiction book, answer some questions about it, and then ask a question of their own related to the text.)

And then I met a wonderful teacher named Katie Gordon and her Kindergarten class!  I had the pleasure of Skyping with Katie’s class in mid-November.  (When I used to Skype with a class, I “met” with them online via a free downloadable application called Skype.  The children and I could all see each other “live and in person,” and the children asked me questions and sang songs with me.  I usually also read one of my books to them.)  It did not take long for me to realize that there was something special about the way Katie had taught her students to think and speak!  When I asked the children if they had any questions, they took turns standing up, introduced themselves, and actually asked me some very GOOD questions!  As I recall, only one child came up with a statement such as, “I like your songs,” which is what usually happens when I ask a class if they would like to ask me a question.  Katie said something like, “Oh, that’s a statement.  Ok.”  And then went on to the next child, who actually asked me a real question!

After all of this, I had to wonder again:  Was this really Kindergarten?  Was this an average class?  I wrote Katie later and told her that her class was surely the most articulate group of five year old children I had ever met!  Katie assured me that it was, but that she teaches a lot with thinking maps, and that she had taught them to carefully ask thoughtful questions.  I was so impressed with her class that I asked her if she would write a guest blog post on how to teach children to ask questions, etc.  Katie was happy to help me out, and she even provided some wonderful pictures!  I hope you enjoy this blog post as much as I did!  Katie Gordon’s ideas are phenomenal!  You can reach her on Twitter at @MrsGordonsClass.


Creating Articulate Kindergarteners AND Getting Them to Ask Great Questions!
By Katie Gordon

My class was blessed with a Skype visit from Miss Heidi, and after the visit Heidi asked me to share some tips for getting kindergarteners to become more articulate and great questioners!

After ten years of teaching kindergarten, I had learned to dread 5 little words, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’; which as we all know is most always followed by an array of random statements and teachers constantly saying  ‘A question needs an answer’!  But that all changed this year when I found the power in teaching students how to wonder and ask great questions!  You are probably wondering, can this be a possibility in my classroom?  And the answer is an astounding YES!  In fact, in can happen with just a few easy steps!


Step 1: Understanding How We Learn

The brain and how it works has always been a passion of mine.  In fact, there is new research that proves it is important for kids to understand how the brain processes as well!  (For more info on this watch this We begin by talking about the brain and how it grows ‘bigger’ every time we learn something new, growing even more if we have to try real hard at learning something. (Rocket Writes a Story and Dex the Heart of a Hero are great books for this!)  Once the students are encouraged about their brain-learning capacity, we talk more specifically about how we can help our brain grow.


Step 2: Teaching Others

We all know that you learn more when you teach others, so we start by learning to become teachers.  Everyone in the room has a teaching partner (typically whoever sits next to them at the meeting place).  We begin the year by ‘teaching’ our partner simple things that mostly involve repeating what I have just said/taught to them.  For example, I say, “The number 1 looks like a straight line down.  Turn and teach your partner what the number 1 looks like.”  As the year progress, what we teach to our partners becomes more challenging and independent.  We teach to our partner many, many times during the day.  Not only is this reinforcing what we are learning, but it is also giving students time to practice speaking in complete sentences as well as allowing them to translate their learning into something that is more meaningful to them.  Once the students know how to teach, they must know how to ask.


 This is Katie's class doing "Partner Sharing" as they practice asking each other questions and teaching each other.
This is Katie’s class doing “Partner Sharing” as they practice asking each other questions and teaching each other.

Step 3: Asking Questions

We begin by investigating why we ask questions.  We create a Circle Map about questions (This is a brainstorming web, but EVEN better.  Watch this video on YouTube about  Thinking Maps for more information.



We include why we ask questions: to learn something new, to understand, to learn more deeply about something, as well as examples of questions.  We also practice asking questions.  We use our teaching partners to repeat questions that I have asked them.


This is a Circle Map of Clues. Can you guess what character the teacher was describing????

Once they are able to repeat the questions, we practice asking questions to each other.  For example, ask your partner about their favorite color, cartoon, and so on.  We then move onto topics.  For example, ask your partner a question about school, bats, holidays, etc.  Once the students understand what a question is and why we use them, we learn to apply this in our learning.


This is a Circle Map Katie’s class used to help the children brainstorm thoughtful questions to ask me before we met via Skype.

Step 4: Think Time

Throughout this entire process, we talk a lot about think time and how our brain needs time to think about what we are learning in order to grow.  Before I ask the students difficult questions, I tell them to get in their thinking positions.  For many this includes closing their eyes and putting their hands on their heads.  I then teach the students to give me a thumbs up when they are ready to answer a question.  We use this same format when we want to ask questions. This gives them the opportunity to really think about what is being asked of them.


This is a picture of the children in Katie Gordon’s class, sitting in their “Thinking Positions.”

If you try these steps, I am sure that articulate kindergarteners can be a possibility in your classroom too.  Above all, as with everything we teach, it takes lots of modeling and practice!



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