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Interactive Language & Open-Ended Questions

Dear Elizabeth,
I keep hearing about the importance of using open-ended questions. What are they, and how will they help my 3-year-old?
Lauren Bates
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Respond promptly & with interest
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Listen & follow-up
Expert Advice
Lisa Wilkin, M.Ed.
Lisa Wilkin, M.Ed.
Child Development Specialist
Language is one of the most powerful tools for learning. We can use language to stretch children’s curiosity, reasoning ability, creativity, and independence. One effective way to do this is by asking open-ended questions -- those with no single right or wrong answer. Instead of predictable answers, open-ended questions elicit fresh and sometimes even startling insights and ideas, opening minds and enabling adults and children to build knowledge together. For instance, you can ask questions such as:

  • Tell me about your picture.
  • What else can you do with the play dough?
  • Why do you think this happened?
  • What do you think would happen if. . . ?
  • Is there another way to . . . ?
Open-Ended Questions Encourage Learning
Open-ended questions offer children the opportunity to freely express feelings, motives and ideas. A question like "What color is that block?" evokes a one-word answer. But an open-ended question, "Tell me about the blocks you are using," encourages a child to describe the blocks or explain what he or she is doing. There is no right or wrong answer. Asking open-ended questions give children opportunities to use an expanded vocabulary. An answer to an open-ended question gives us a window into what the child is thinking and feeling. The response is sometimes wonderfully creative. In explaining or describing, children also use language more fully.

Listen Attentively & Respond
When you listen attentively to their responses, you are showing them that what they are saying is important … a sign of respect. The adult can comment on a child’s response or asks another question to extend the conversation – it is reflecting the value that the adult places on the interaction. It shows that the adult wants to know what a child is thinking or feeling. When parents and other adults become more of a "partner" and less of a "boss" during conversations, children enjoy the time more and stay interacting longer. Listening attentively also helps adults determine when the child is tiring of the conversation and wants to talk about something else or nothing else. Adults can look for clues regarding the direction that the conversation should take.

How to Encourage Conversations
If children only provide one-word responses to your open-ended questions, there are still ways you can encourage children to communicate more interactively. In general, start questions with "how," "what," "where," "why" or "when." Talk with children about what interests them. Create opportunities for children to ask each other questions. Use "wait time:" briefly staying quiet and listening until the child makes a response to your comment or question. Five seconds is long enough. (Young children who are just developing oral language skills often need extra time to decide what to say and how to say it.)

Look at it as conducting a conversation with the child and not just gathering information. Communicate more for enjoyable social contact than to get something done. The most interesting conversations that people have are many times the result of a series of open ended questions that move the discussion in ways that you can’t predict at the start. Closed questions are appropriate in certain situations and the adult needs to assess when to use each type of question. Conversations are usually a mix of open-ended and closed questions.

It is difficult to change the closed-end question habit. But when we ask open-ended questions, children reap great benefits as they think through their responses to express what they want to say. And with their answers, we find out more about what they think and feel.
Child Care Provider Comments
Mechellet Bickerstaff
Mechellet Bickerstaff
Mother of two
I ask Remington open-ended questions on a daily basis. She likes playing with her doll's hair so I ask her how she is going to style it. She talks about it and she goes on and on. She’s often in the shop with me so she sees what I do as a hairstylist. Remington’s answers often give me more info than I really need, but I like asking her questions because I like being engaged by my children.
Joaquin Gurrola
Joaquin Gurrola
Cares for his nieces and nephews
I spend a lot of time with my nieces and nephews and I basically listen to every single little detail they say. I feel that interacting with my nieces and nephews will help them to better develop their language skills. They can make better friends with good language skills. It makes it easier for them to talk to others. It also makes them feel important when they see me listening to them. Their self- esteem goes up.
Rachelle Vargas
Rachelle Vargas
Child care provider for 17 years
One of the ways I incorporate interactive language into our daily curriculum is by reading stories with them. I ask them questions as I am reading the book to them. If one of the characters in the book is sad, I will ask the children, “Why do you think he’s sad?” I often have them guess the ending of the stories or I will ask them how they would end the book. The children are able to run with their imaginations.

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Topic: Early Learning Areas
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