Not enough tricky questions when US educators read to preschoolers, study finds

Not enough tricky questions when US educators read to preschoolers, study finds

by Freya Lucas

July 26, 2019

When early childhood education and care (ECEC) educators enjoy a shared reading experience with a child, or group of children, it can present an ideal opportunity to expand children’s knowledge well beyond what’s on the page. 

 

Shared reading can introduce new topics, make connections and inferences between the child’s lived experience and that of the characters in the book, or give children an opportunity to learn new words, phrases or ideas. 

 

This opportunity, however, is being wasted in the United States, researchers from The Ohio State University have found, with a new study showing that US educators asked few questions during shared reading, and the questions they did ask were “usually too simple” 

 

Only 24 percent of what educators said outside of reading the text were questions, the results found. Children who were being read to were able to correctly answer the questions being posed 85 per cent of the time.

 

“When children get 85 per cent of the questions right, that means the questions the educator is asking are too easy,” Professor Laura Justice said. 

 

She emphasised that not all questions should be difficult, as this would lessen the enjoyment of the reading experience, “but we should be coaxing children along cognitively and linguistically by occasionally offering challenging questions.”

 

The educator research mirrors previous studies which have explored the shared reading experience between parents and children, finding similar results. 

 

During the study, 96 teachers working with children in the years before school were observed working with their classes. The teachers were videotaped in one class while reading the 25-page book Kingdom of Friends to their students. The book is about two friends who argue at playtime but learn how to resolve their problems.

 

Researchers transcribed all talk during the reading session, including both teachers and children. The researchers recorded 5,207 questions asked by teachers and 3,469 child responses.

About 52 per cent of the questions asked by teachers were yes-no type questions, such as “Does he look happy?” As expected, most of them resulted in one-word answers from children.

The other 48 per cent of questions included “what” and “why” questions like “What did he do?” and “Why do you say ‘friends’?”

 

This also included what the researchers called “how-procedural” questions, like “How did they become friends again?” The “how-procedural” questions were the most sophisticated, and gave the opportunity for children to give more elaborate and complex answers, Professor Justice said. 

 

“Those are the kind of questions we need more of.”

 

Asking these more sophisticated and difficult questions means that children are more likely to give wrong or inappropriate answers, she added, emphasising the importance of ‘wrong’ answers as providing an opportunity to work through the answers together and scaffold learning. 

 

“There should be teachable moments where educators can help children learn something new. You have a conversation that is conceptually challenging for the child, because that is going to push their development forward,” Professor Justice said.

 

Some experts recommend that 60 to 70 per cent of shared reading conversations should be easy, but 30 to 40 per cent should challenge children to learn new concepts.

 

The fact that 85 per cent of children’s responses in this study were correct suggests that they are not being challenged enough, Professor Justice said.

 

Story time should include lots of questions, including ones that allow children to stretch their language and thinking abilities, she said. 

 

For example, when educators are reading a new book they could ask the child “How do you think this book will end?”

 

“You can see how a question like that is going to evoke a complex response,” she said.

 

“With some practice and reflection, we can change how we talk with children during shared reading and help them develop stronger language and reading skills.”

 

The study appears online in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly and will be published in a future print edition.

 

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