The role of questions in stimulating children’s language development

As parents, one of the most important aspects of our child’s development is the emergence of language and communication skills.

What a significant moment the child’s first word is! It appears to be a miracle and we are so gratified when we hear it! And when the child is able to talk in sentences, his/her personality can really shine through and we can get to know him/her on a whole new level. These are wonderful moments in parenthood that are greatly treasured and anticipated. However, sometimes in our eagerness and anxiety for our child to excel in language development, we accidently suppress their communication by smothering them with questions.
Communication is vital to everything humans do – expressing opinions, negotiating, making our needs known, interacting with those around us and forming relationships. We learn to communicate because there is a need to communicate – whether it is a need to feel socially included or a need to get our next meal. When stimulating children’s language development, it is important not to forget this, as the motivation to communicate is key to the successful development of language skills. Have you ever had the feeling that the more you ask, the less your child responds? Have you ever had the feeling that your child does not want to talk with you? Sometimes questions are not the best way to stimulate your child’s language and communication skills.
Parents often ask children questions to which the parent knows the answer. This type of question has very little value for the child e.g. if you ask ‘what colour is it?’ and your child knows that you know what colour it is, he may see little point in answering the question. In relation to this, the type of question you ask is also very important when it comes to your child’s motivation; if a child is constantly being asked to name the things around him, he may become bored and loose motivation.
Hand in hand with motivation comes self-esteem. When we bombard our children with questions, they can start to feel unsure of themselves and can become reluctant to answer. They may feel pressure to ‘perform’ or feel like they are being tested. How many times has it occurred that an infant has said a new word, but when asked to repeat it for Granny to hear, his mouth becomes clamped firmly shut and he hides behind Mummy’s skirt? When children’s self-esteem around language comes into question, so too does their desire to communicate. Think about who is getting the most out of the questions, is your child really interested and engaged or are you satisfying yourself that you have ‘stimulated’ your child’s language? Are you really helping your child or are you doing it to prove to others how clever he is?
Only asking your child questions can also limit the opportunities for him/her to develop language skills. There are plenty of other ways of encouraging your child’s language development:
Commenting: You can start a conversation with your child by making a simple comment about something they are looking at. This lets her know you are interested and allows you to tell her new and interesting things. Your child may surprise you with her comments as she will be free to say whatever she wants, rather than having to give a specific answer to a question.
Expand what your child has said: You can build on the words your child already knows by adding new words and ideas. For example, if your child says ‘car’, you can add a word and say ‘red car’. There are many ways you can expand on what your child has said – you can talk about feelings (you like cars), describe what’s happening (the car is going fast), suggest what might happen (the car is going to crash) and give explanations (the car won’t go because the wheel has fallen off).
Asking the right kind of questions: By asking questions that you genuinely do not know the answer to, you can let your child know you are interested and you can encourage him to think and keep the conversation going. For example when playing with dolly, instead of asking ‘what’s this?’ or ‘what colour is her dress?’ you could ask ‘what´s dolly going to do now?’ Also asking open ended questions will give your child more opportunities to express himself e.g. what did you do at Grandma’s? Rather than ‘did you go to Grandma’s?’ (This is a closed question because it elicits just a yes or a no).
The developmental hierarchy of questions: When we ask a child a question, it is important to be aware of the skills the child will need in order to be able to provide an answer. Does the question require them to say one word in response? Does the question require them to make a choice from two things you have said? Does the question require them to solve a complex abstract problem and verbalise it? Sometimes parents fail to connect with their children because they are asking them questions that are beyond their child’s level of ability. The easiest types of question to ask are where? and what? By the age of two, most children can show you where something is, usually by pointing and saying there or describing the place e.g. on the sofa. Given that two year olds have an average vocabulary of at least 50 words, most children will be able to provide a verbal answer to the question what’s that? Understanding the question word who? is a little more complex and children who cannot yet answer what and where questions will find this difficult. Following comprehension of the word who children then learn to answer questions involving which?e.g. which bike does Granny ride? By the age of 5 most children will be able to answer questions that require them to make simple predictions e.g. what is going to happen next? They will also be able to answer why? and how? questions e.g. why is the cup broken? How do we know the girl is happy?
Questions are fundamental components of communication and it is crucial that children learn to ask and answer questions, but when parent-child interaction occurs solely through questions, both parties miss out on the ability to practise and experience other ways of communicating that will enhance not only the child’s language skills but also his relationship with his parents, his self-esteem and motivation. With these building blocks in place, your child will have a greater chance of becoming a successful communicator.


  • Blank, Rose and Berlin (1978) The Language of Learning: The pre-school Years. New York: Grune and Stratton Inc.
  • Elks, L and McLachlan, H (2008) Language Builders: Advice and activities to encourage children’s communication skills. Cornwall: Elklan.

Take a look at the Education section of our blog to find more information on language and language development.