Questions during shared book reading with preschoolers need to be more challenging

When it comes to challenging young minds to grow language, asking how and why during shared book reading to preschoolers can be more beneficial, according to new research at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

An analysis of the questions preschool teachers asked during shared reading to their classes revealed that only 1 in 6 questions would be considered challenging. Researchers would like that number to be closer to 2 in 5, the report said. Findings appear in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

“A teachable moment is the zone when learning takes place because the child is being challenged,” said Tricia Zucker, PhD, a study coauthor and associate professor at the Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “We’d like to see more challenging, open-ended questions and fewer that can answered with a yes or no.”

When students listen to a book being read to them, they pick up new words, learn the basics of grammar and build knowledge. Teachers can enhance the learning experience by asking more complex questions that offer students a challenge.

“It is important to study what types of questions teachers are asking during shared book reading because children’s responses are driven by the kinds of questions that are asked. Questions that begin with why or how provide children with opportunities to use longer sentences, and more complex language,” said Richa Deshmukh, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow with the Children’s Learning Institute.

Ninety-six teachers in the South Central and Midwest United States agreed to participate in the study and were videotaped as they read a 25-page book titled “Kingdom of Friends” to their prekindergarten and kindergarten classes. Written by Zucker and Jill Pentimonti, PhD, the book is about two friends who argue at playtime but learn how to resolve their problems.

Afterwards, questions from teachers were sorted into seven categories based on a new measure the researchers developed that is available at CLIEngage.org.

“Sixty-three percent of the questions involved a single word response. Yet, we know that preschoolers can talk with more complex sentences,” said Zucker, the Harriet and Joe Foster Distinguished Professor at UTHealth.

For example, rather than ask the students whether the children in the book become friends again, which can be answered with a simple “yes,” the researchers favor questions such as “How did these friends solve their problems?” which can elicit a longer response, Zucker said.

According to the scientists, why and how questions are about 12 times more likely to prompt a multiword response than a single word response from children.

On the flip side, asking more complex questions means that students might get them wrong, but teachers can welcome this as an opportunity to provide support or hints that draw out more accurate thinking. “We know from other research that these sorts of back-and-forth conversations are what enhance learning,” Zucker said.

“When teachers or parents provide complex questions, the chance for an error is greater, but it shows the child that you value deeply thinking through a situation,” Zucker said.

The number of teacher questions ranged from one per class to 165 per class with an average of 55 questions per teacher. “We plan to do a follow-up study to determine the optimum number of questions to ask and the best ways to respond when children give an inaccurate response,” Zucker said.

Coauthors include Jill Pentimonti, PhD, of the American Institutes for Research; Sherine Tambyraja, PhD, and Laura Justice, PhD, of The Ohio State University; and Ryan Bowles, PhD, of Michigan State University.

The study titled “Teachers’ Use of Questions During Shared Book Reading: Relations to Child Responses” was supported by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (Grants R305E100030, R305F050124, R305A150587).

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