Language is one of the most powerful tools for learning. We can use language to stretch children's curiosity, reasoning ability, creativity and independence.

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.

Ask questions such as:
Tell me about your picture. What else can you do with 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 such as, "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 and respond
When you listen attentively to kids' responses, you are showing them that what they are saying is important ... it's a sign of respect. The adult can comment on a child's response or ask 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 interact 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 them to communicate more interactively. 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 listen until the child responds 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 a child and not just gathering information. Communicate more for enjoyable social contact than to get something done. The most interesting conversations 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.

Reprinted with permission from A Place of Our Own (