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Ngā whakawhitiwhiti, ngā pātai

Conversations and questions

Asking a tamaiti the right question at the right time can extend a conversation, starting up a whole new cycle of Serve and return.

Questions are valuable for encouraging tamariki to put their thoughts into words and to give voice to their experiences. They also support tamariki to make sense of their environments by generating and refining working theories (Te Whāriki, pages 12-15).

However, too many questions or the wrong kind of question (a closed or test question), can quickly close down a conversation with a tamaiti. For this reason, it’s best to use open-ended questions whenever possible and to balance your use of questions with your commenting and interpreting talk. See Descriptive language strategies.

A kaiako talks with a tamariki about the pictures collected that start with J

Open-ended questions

Questions are described as being:

  • closed questions which have a limited set of possible answers, including yes or no
  • open questions which allow someone to give a wider range of responses.

The thoughtful use of open-ended questions is helpful for starting conversations that encourage children to express their own views. Use a serve and return interaction to keep these conversations going.

Remember to:

  • sometimes add your own comments before asking questions – to share yourself with the child and keep it conversational
  • give tamariki time to respond through pausing for several seconds after each question.

Open-ended questions are not all equal. Some ask for factual information while others are more searching, encouraging tamariki to evaluate, critique, and speculate. As tamariki grow older, increase the range of open-ended questions to include these.

Closed questions with open-ended alternatives

Below are examples of how you can turn a closed question into open-ended alternatives.


Closed questions

Open ended alternatives

Do you like the colour red?

What do you like about that colour?

The colour red makes me think about fire engines. What does red make you think about?

What ideas do others have?

Did you go to the beach this weekend?

What happened at the beach this weekend?

I love the beach! Who else went to the beach with you?

Can you see the ladybird?

What is the ladybird doing now?

I think that's a ladybird. Where is the ladybird going?

Imagine you are that ladybird. What would you be thinking or doing next?

Did you build a tower?

That's a tall tower! How did you make it balance?

How did you build your tower?

What do you like about your tower?

Are there any blue crayons in the box?

I really like blue crayons. What are your favourite colours?

Do you like your new shoes?

Tell me about your new shoes.

I like the orange stripes on the back of the shoes. What do you like about your shoes?

Can you tidy up the blocks now?

It looks like you've finished playing now. How many blocks can you carry over to the shelf?

Is it nice to treat Jamie that way?

Tell me what happened first ... and then?

What words could you say to Jamie instead?

Did you like that story?

What did you like about that story?

What was the funniest part?

If you wrote that story again how would you change it or make it better?

Table created by Professor Elaine Reese and Jimmy McLauchlan.

Cultural perspectives

Consider cultural perspectives in kaiako use of questions to foster oral language. From a Māori cultural perspective, sometimes a statement is framed as a type of question. This practice is often used to affirm and uplift a tamaiti who might not fully know the answer (be unsure). For example, "That’s a red ball, eh?” The tamaiti would reply “Yes” or nod – an indication the tamaiti understands.

Story of practice: The use of video coaching to evaluate kaiako interactions

In an early learning service, kaiako use video coaching – videoing small snippets of their practice for self and peer critical reflection. At one point they chose to look at the impact of their talk on children’s motivation to respond. For one kaiako, this professional learning process showed that a high proportion of his interactions were questions. Often the questioning drew little or no response from tamariki and didn't encourage tamariki to talk to each other.

Alternative strategies suggested during the coaching sessions included:

  • using commenting alongside tamariki
  • extending wait time for responses
  • using sentence starters such as: “I heard you say ... ”; “When I was ... ”; ”I am thinking about ... "
  • encouraging children to speak to each other.

Trying these strategies out, his interactions were more conversational. There was more turn taking with tamariki sharing their thoughts and ideas in response to his. Interactions felt easier and more natural.

Asking fewer closed questions, making more comments, and consciously allowing time for tamariki to respond is a work in progress. Video coaching sessions continue to be used to help evaluation.

Further strategies

For further strategies see: