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  • Writer's pictureCarissa Johnson

Why Asking Toddlers Questions Might Not Help Language Development

It is natural for us, as adults, to ask babies and toddlers lots of questions. They can’t yet effectively communicate their thoughts and desires so we ask them what they need (e.g., “Do you want juice?”), check for understanding (e.g., “Are you hungry?”), and offer choices (e.g., “Do you want the red car or the black truck”). However, it is easy to come to rely upon questions when communicating with your child. Moreover, some adults bombard a child with questions in a way that actually interferes with the back-and-forth, conversational nature we want to nurture in children from the time they are babies. Below are some reasons why you should limit your questions, how you can limit them, and what types of questions to ask.

Why is it important to limit the number of questions you ask your young child?

  • It hampers natural interaction: Bombarding your child with question after question leaves little room for them to develop their own ideas

  • It adds pressure on early language learners: Babies and young toddlers are still mastering the coordination required for effective communication. Constantly questioning them can make it harder for them to express their thoughts.

  • It can discourage response: Overwhelming children with too many questions may lead them to develop a habit of not responding. Thoughtful and selective questioning allows for better consistency in their responses.

  • It may pose difficult questions: Asking questions that are too challenging for a child discourages natural and engaging exchanges.

  • It focuses on testing rather than interests: Many questions aimed at toddlers test their knowledge rather than being guided by their own interests. Children thrive when adults acknowledge and talk about what they are genuinely interested in.

Instead of asking questions, there are alternative ways to engage with your child:

  • Transform a question into a comment. Instead of asking, "Are you driving the car?" you can say, "You're driving so fast!" Instead of asking, "What's that?" try saying, "Look at that fluffy, white dog!"

  • Mirror your child's communication. Observe how your child communicates and imitate their actions. Whether it's a gesture, sound, word, or phrase, by imitating them, you validate their communication and show that you've heard them. This empowers them and makes them feel important.

  • Interpret their message. Imagine what your child would say if they could. For example, if your child grunts and reaches for the milk, say, "More milk." If they spot a cat and exclaim, "Gah!" respond with, "Ooh, there's a cat."

  • Expand on their message. If your child says "up," you can respond with, "Up. Pick me up."

  • Join in and play! If your child is playing with a toy car and saying, "car, fast," grab your own car and say, "My car is slooow."

  • Establish verbal routines. Create repetitive and predictable phrases. “Ready-set-go” and “1-2-3” are common ones but use your imagination! While taking a bath say "wash my arms!" or when swinging, say "swing uuup, swing dooown!" Eventually, you can pause and see if your child will complete the verbal routine.

To engage toddlers in conversation effectively, it's important to consider the types of questions to ask.

  • Strike a balance: Mix your questions with comments and other forms of language. Aim for a 3:1 ratio, meaning for every question you ask, make three comments. This helps create a conversational flow.

  • Utilize choice questions: Offering toddlers choices is a powerful technique to encourage language development and empower them. For example, if a toddler says "ball," you can ask, "Should we roll the ball or kick the ball?"

  • Consider age and question difficulty: Tailor your questions to the child's age and capabilities. Start with simpler question types like yes/no, what, where, who, and gradually move on to more complex ones like when, how, and why. Avoid asking questions that are beyond their current abilities or are solely meant to test their knowledge.

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