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Has this ever happened to you… You are screening a student and ask them a question only to get some answer that leaves you mystified.  You wrack your brain as to where this answer could have possibly come from. What obscure connection did they make to get to that answer? No matter how you think about it, it just doesn’t add up.  Yup, I’ve been there.. a lot.  Answering questions is a major area targeted by SLPs, especially those working with students in the schools.  It can also be an area that takes a long time for kids to develop, especially if we are not approaching it the right way. Some reasons Why Your Kids Aren’t Getting ‘WH’ Questions, Kids And ‘WH’ Questions and how to fix it.

Kids And The 'WH' Questions

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You are working on answering WHO questions.  You tell your student that WHO means a person and begin to help them make connections between jobs and the people who perform them. A pilot flies a plane. Who flies a plane? A pilot! A dentist fixes your teeth. Who fixes your teeth? etc  All is going well. They are starting to nail them, one after another. Then you read them a short paragraph story about Bob at the circus. It even has a nicely illustrated picture to go with it.  After you read the story, you ask the student, ” Who went to the circus?”.  They either A) stare at you blankly or B) give you every other answer than Bob.  This is when we hit the wall.  What went wrong?! They were doing so great! How in the world did they not get ‘Bob’?!

If that sounded familiar you are not alone, not at all.  We had been taught in the past to simply help them understand that a certain question needed a certain answer, but the pitfall was we ended up focusing so much on the answer! We were never taught that the student needed to understand the question first. I mean really understand it. Sure, we would briefly introduce that WHO questions needed people as answers, but that was about it as far as things went.  Our first mistake ( if continue to use WHO questions as our example here ) is assuming that our students understood the difference between the person and ‘not a person.  It may seem silly, I know, but you might be surprised how many students have trouble with this.

Kids And The 'WH' Questions

Kids And ‘WH’ Questions: What To Do About It

Go back to basics. We tend to assume a lot when we start working with students, but really, if our students had the background knowledge of the language concepts we were focusing on, they probably wouldn’t need us.

We need to focus on the question first before we get to the answer.  You have to crawl before you can walk after all.  Dedicate a good chunk of time to teaching what these question words really mean.  What information are these words attached to?  Do they understand the difference between A Person and Not a Person? Can they separate An Object from An Action when talking about WHAT questions?  Yes, I really meant basic when I said it.

Kids And The 'WH' Questions

After you have spent time making sure they understand what the question word is looking for, it’s time to scaffold up and see if they can pick out that information.  You know your students, so you can decide if starting from a visual field of two or three is best. Personally, I like two, then work to three.  I feel it sets my students up for success and helps to build their confidence  ( which we know is a huge factor ) while allowing me to take data on their skill-building.

Kids And The 'WH' Questions

Once they can identify their question meanings when given visual options, it’s to take another step up the challenge ladder.  Toss in some more text with those visuals. Start with an adapted book or a two-to-three sentence story with visual answers.   Students may have or have had some difficulty decoding text or recalling information from text. This can make them a bit skittish right off the bat when the text gets brought in.  It is important to always review the question meanings and reinforce how well they did with the previous activities.  Building confidence can help build language.  

Kids And The 'WH' Questions   Kids And The 'WH' Questions

Kids And ‘WH’ Questions: Moving Forward

After they have nailed the short story with visuals, start to fade those out and use a word bank instead ( if your students are readers ).  Again, always reiterate the question meaning and even keep some reference visuals around for them to access. Once they have done a great job with using a word bank, start integrating books. Leave Harry Potter on the shelf for a bit here and reach for something a little less intimidating than Voldemort. Picture books are fabulous for this shift in focus. No text and lovely illustrations, a perfect bridge to use into the crossover from super structured therapy to more of an academic approach.  Then gradually increase from there.


Make sure you are giving each phase adequate time.  It can be tempting to want to move forward after two sessions because we know our students have lots of other things to work on and no one is adding more hours to your day, but fight the urge!  Giving adequate time to address these goals is key to their success.  Make sure they have successfully met each criteria for your phases/levels before moving forward.  I talk about this in the WH-Manuals of my WH-Curriculums, so if this is a sticky area for you, check them out. Also, if you see they are struggling a bit too much with your next step, don’t be afraid to go back to the previous one for a refresher and try again.

Kids And The 'WH' Questions


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Meet Maureen

Hey there! I’m Maureen Wilson, a school-base SLP who is data driven and caffeine powered. My passion is supporting other pediatric SLPs by teaching them how to harness the power of literacy and data to help their students achieve their goals…without sacrificing time they don’t have.

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9 Responses

  1. I love this but can you create one with real images ? I work with life skills students at the high school level and the images are too inappropriate for them but the concept is just what they need!!

    1. I’m so happy you like the set up of the curriculum! Right now I do not have the availability to re-create the entire curriculum with real images however you can use the same framework with real pictures you may already have.

  2. Do you have any suggestions on how to explain what a “time” or “event” is to a younger child?

    1. I use the WHEN curriculum for this since it breaks everything down for them. We talk about time as being what a calendar or clock tells us and event as something that happens or that you do.

      1. That’s a great way to explain things. I stepped down the activity to just discussed with the child what an event is, give examples and explore them in more detail (e.g., Birthday party – we talked about what things you see and what activities you do). Thank you!

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