As your child grows their communication skills, their ability to answer “WH questions” is important. You may be wondering what a WH question is. These are questions that start with a “wh-”: what, where, who, when, and why. How questions are often targeted in this group, as well.
A child’s ability to answer WH questions helps them express their feelings and ideas, as well as make conversation with others. When someone asks a question and we’re able to answer, that makes it easier to have a back-and-forth conversation.
So how can you help your toddler or child learn to answer WH questions? Read on for examples and tips you can use to teach your child at home.
Why is it important for kids to be able to answer questions?
Let’s look at some examples of WH questions your child may hear throughout the day, either from you or from another caregiver:
What do you want for lunch?
Where are your shoes?
When do we get in the car?
Why are you sad?
Who did you play with?
How was your day?
These questions may seem simple to us. But think about how and why these could be challenging for children who are just learning language.
To answer a question, kids need to understand what’s been said to them well enough that they can then form an appropriate answer. This requires them to have:
The receptive vocabulary to understand what was said
The expressive vocabulary to respond as needed
As mentioned above, a child’s ability to answer WH questions helps them share their thoughts and ideas, explain how they’re feeling, and make conversation with others.
The ability to answer WH questions is also important for safety. As parents and caregivers, we hope our child is never hurt or involved in an emergency. But if they are, we want them to be able to express what happened, especially when asked questions.
When are children able to answer WH questions?
At what age should a child be able to answer questions? Typically, toddlers will begin answering WH questions around the time they turn 2, sometimes earlier. Usually the questions that they’re asked most often are the ones they’ll be able to answer first. These might be questions like “What’s your name?” or “Who are you talking to on the phone?” (when it’s someone familiar like Grandma!).
How to teach your child to answer WH questions
Let’s discuss a few ways you can practice WH questions with your child at home.
One of the easiest ways to teach your child to answer these questions is by asking the question, then modeling how to answer. So maybe you say, “What are you eating for snack? Carrots! You’re eating carrots.”
You can also ask a “choice question,” where you give your child two possible answers to choose from. You might ask, “Where is your jacket? In your closet or on the couch?” See if your child can answer correctly.
Tip: Ask questions with definite answers
In order to monitor how well your child is able to answer these questions, focus on questions that have a definite answer, like the questions above about the snack and the jacket. If you ask questions like “What toy do you want?” or “Where do you want to eat?,” your child may answer easily. And their answer may be correct, but it can be hard to gauge what’s actually “correct” in these circumstances, since we can’t know what the child prefers at that exact moment.
When you’re practicing, focus on questions with clear, definite answers.
Tip: Ask your child questions that they have the words to answer
Another helpful tip is to ask your child questions that you know they have the vocabulary to answer. The goal over time is that no matter what you ask your child, they either have the vocabulary, or can find the vocabulary, to answer. But in the beginning, they may need some help. If they already have the right words to use, that’s a benefit.
So let’s say you know that your child can tell you they’re wearing their hat or drinking milk. You can ask, “What is on your head?” or “What is in your cup?” You know they can use these words in other situations, so they should be able to (or should soon be able to) answer questions that rely on these words as the answer.
Sample WH questions to use for speech therapy practice
Here are some examples of questions you can ask your toddler or child as you practice answering questions at home.
“What” questions for kids
What do we drive in? (car)
What do we wear on our feet? (socks, shoes)
What is something we can drink? (milk, water, etc.)
“Where” questions for kids
Where do birds fly? (in the sky)
Where do we eat dinner? (in the kitchen, at the table)
Where does a truck drive? (on a road)
“Who” questions for kids
Who drives a fire truck? (firefighter)
Who flies an airplane? (pilot)
Who takes care of you in the afternoons? (Grandpa)
“When” questions for kids
When do we go to the doctor? (when we’re sick)
When do we eat breakfast? (in the morning)
When do we sleep? (at night, naptime)
“Why” questions for kids
Why do we buckle up in the car? (to be safe)
Why do we brush our teeth? (to keep them clean)
Why do we mow the grass? (so it won’t grow too tall)
“How” questions for kids
How do we make a car go? (drive it, put gas in it)
How do we cut paper (using scissors)
How do you build a tower? (stacking the blocks)
What’s great about practicing speech goals is that you can practice at any time of day, or during activities your child enjoys or is interested in. Maybe your child does best when practice is “snuck in” during daily activities. You can ask WH questions at bathtime, while you’re getting ready for the day, or in the car running errands.
If your child enjoys practicing during specific activities, find toys, books, or other ways to engage them with the target questions. If you’re playing with bubbles, ask questions like “What do we dip into the bubbles?” (the wand). Or if you’re playing at the playground, you can ask, “Why do we climb up the stairs?” (to go down the slide).
What if your child has a hard time answering questions?
If your child is having difficulty answering WH questions, take a look at other expected speech and language milestones for their age:
If your child is not meeting some of their developmental milestones, it’s important to contact a speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist. They can evaluate your child and determine if their language growth is on track. Speech therapy may be recommended, both for the ability to answer questions and for other speech and language delays.
To find a speech therapist, talk with your pediatrician, ask family or friends for recommendations, or start with an old-fashioned internet search. If you’re not sure if your child is on track, it’s important to take the step of talking with a professional. You can gain insight into your child’s growth and make an educated decision on what to do next. If your child needs speech therapy, the sooner they begin, the sooner they’ll start making progress!