In previous blogs on the CASS guided reading project, we have introduced our investigation into one of the most prevalent techniques recommended to engage children in discussion: strategic questioning. We can now reveal our key findings, which focus on the effectiveness of wh-word questioning techniques on children’s responses.
Guidelines encourage teachers to ask ‘high challenge’ or ‘open-ended’ questions. However, these are often considered too vague for teachers to implement.
How did we examine teacher questions? One way to specify detail about the nature of the questions is to label questions by their typical syntactic forms. There are 2 main question categories:
- Wh-word questions (high challenge) pose few answering constraints. e.g., ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘which’, ‘what’, ‘who’?
- Confirmative questions (low challenge) presuppose more information so pose greater constraints. e.g.: ‘Does Mary prefer chocolate or fruit?’
Also, wh-word questions can be split into subcategories:
- Wh-adverbs (high challenge: ‘how’, ‘why’)
- Wh-determiners/pronouns (low challenge: ‘what’)
How did we measure children’s response quality? We used 3 indicators:
- Grammatical complexity. We calculated the proportion of the content vs. function vs. words. Content words carry real meaning, and include nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Function words do not carry real meaning and instead offer grammatical information (e.g., auxiliary ‘be’ verbs: ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’). A higher proportion of content words is an indicator of greater grammatical complexity.
- MLU. Mean length of utterance in words is the most common indicator of syntactic complexity in children’s speech.
- Causal language (e.g., ‘because’, ‘so’).
What questions did teachers ask? Teachers are paying attention to recommended guidelines to ask a lot of wh-word questions: these typically take up around 20% of the total questions being asked in normal adult conversation, but took up 40% of the total questions asked by teachers in our spoken classroom interactions.
How did questions influence children’s response quality?
We first demonstrated that wh-word questions typically increased response quality; whereas confirmative questions typically decreased response quality. However, in an examination of the subcategories of wh-word questions, we found that the positive influence of wh-word questions on children’s language was driven by wh-word adverbs (predominantly ‘why’ and ‘how’), and was not attributed to wh-word determiners and pronouns (predominantly ‘what’). These findings applied across the wide age and ability range of the study, indicating that even teachers of beginner readers target inferential-level skills through guided reading discussion.
Our findings are informative about what it means to ask ‘high quality’, ‘high challenge’, and/or ‘open-ended’ questions. Specifically, teachers and teacher trainers should be made aware of the effect of various syntactic forms of questions, particularly the nuances of wh-word questions: our findings indicate that ‘why’ and ‘how’ wh-word questions are most effective in fostering complex language production in children.
What’s next for Liam?
I am now working as a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Alberta, Canada! My new work examines children’s understanding of sentences containing pronouns. Children who take part in our study will wear glasses that monitor eye-movement patterns whilst they are narrated a picture book. It has been a pleasure to work on the CASS guided reading project and we are going to continue using the corpus for new investigations into classroom interactions!