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‘Wh Questions’ in ABA: A Comprehensive Guide

wh questions

‘Wh questions’ – who, what, where, when, why, and how – are the building blocks of conversation. How often have we asked a student, “Where do you go to sleep?” and they answer “At night”? Or “When do you go swimming?” and they answer, “in the pool”? Answering ‘wh questions’ is a difficult skill for many of our students.

In ABA, teaching students how to answer these questions is crucial for developing their communication and comprehension skills. While many learners grasp these questions effortlessly, some students face challenges comprehending and responding to ‘Wh questions.’

In this post, we’ll explore the reasons behind these difficulties and explore practical strategies and activities to empower ABA professionals in teaching and facilitating practical communication skills.

Understanding the Challenge with ‘Wh Questions’

‘Wh questions’ can be tough for some learners. Questions starting with ‘What, ‘Who,’ ‘Where,’ ‘When,’’ ‘Why,’ and ‘How’ The challenge comes from understanding all the different parts of each question. This can be especially hard for those who have trouble with language.

Factors such as limited vocabulary, cognitive deficits, or challenges in understanding abstract concepts can make it even harder to understand and answer these questions correctly.

For instance, if you ask a student, “Where are you going?” they might answer, “Monday” because they didn’t fully understand the question. Without an understanding of ‘Wh questions,’ learners can struggle with advancing their communication skills.

Ready to teach answering “Wh questions” with your learners? Our ebook will show you the step-by-step lesson plan to get your students answering ‘wh questions’. Check it out here!

Why Are ‘Wh Questions’ Difficult?

The ability to answer ‘Wh questions’ is a critical skill in language and communication. However, for many learners, particularly those with different learning styles or cognitive abilities, these types of questions can present significant challenges.

The complexities of language structure, abstract thinking demands, and working memory constraints all contribute to making these questions difficult to grasp and respond to. Let’s dive deeper into each of these factors to better understand the hurdles learners may face.

Language Complexity

‘Wh questions’ involve a combination of grammatical structures, vocabulary, and contextual understanding. For some learners, processing these components simultaneously can be challenging.

Abstract Thinking

Questions like ‘Why’ and ‘How’ often require abstract thinking and the ability to infer cause-and-effect relationships, posing difficulties for individuals with concrete thinking styles.

Working Memory Constraints

The processing demands of ‘Wh questions’ may exceed the working memory capacity of some learners, making it difficult for them to retain and process information effectively. In plain English, this means that learners may not be able to hold all of that information in their heads and process it, especially when there are no visual clues present.

Discriminating ‘Wh Questions’

Teaching students to tell the difference between verbal questions is a crucial, but challenging, part of learning ‘Wh questions.’ Simply understanding information doesn’t mean they’ll answer randomly presented questions correctly. Ultimately, students need to learn how to give the right answers, even when they don’t have visuals or other accommodations.

Answering these questions requires students to understand the vocabulary associated with the question(s). Particularly, students need to learn the labels for rooms, locations, people, time of day, etc. They must also be able to discriminate the question, which means responding correctly to each question when presented non-randomly (e.g., answering “who” questions for a “community helpers” program).

When visual aids aren’t present, an additional layer of complexity is added. Students must be able to access the correct response from memory – a task that can be daunting for some. This underscores the importance of using a variety of teaching strategies, including visual supports, structured practice, and contextual learning, to assist students in this process.

Teaching Strategies for ‘Wh Questions’

While mastering the art of answering ‘Wh questions’ can be daunting for many learners, it becomes significantly more manageable with the right teaching strategies.

Let’s outline various approaches, including increasing vocabulary and teaching understanding before discrimination.

Follow along in the video below:

Vocabulary Building

When answering ‘wh questions”, the student has to understand the vocabulary. For instance, when answering, “What are you doing” questions, the student has to first have an understanding of basic actions. When answering a “where” question, a student has to understand prepositions and/or locations (rooms/places).

Therefore, before expecting your students to discriminate between various wh-questions, build their vocabulary with nouns, verbs, prepositions, and locations. In other words, teach ‘What’ (nouns), ‘What doing’ (verbs), ‘Who’ (family members, teachers, peers, community helpers), and ‘Where’ questions separately at first.

Visual Supports

Use visual supports such as pictures, text cues, calendars, and charts to provide learners with a visual reference for understanding and answering ‘Wh questions.’

Visual supports provide a clear, tangible reference that students can use to understand and respond to questions. For example, using flashcards with images and corresponding ‘Wh questions’ can help students connect the visual cue with the appropriate response.

Structured Practice

Incorporate structured practice sessions, like discrete trial teaching (DTT), where learners engage in repetitive and targeted activities to reinforce the understanding of ‘Wh questions.’

Start with Matching and Errorless Teaching

Our 4-step teaching program involves:

  1. Matching: Have students match visuals of people to ‘who,’ actions to ‘what doing,’ and places/locations to ‘where’
  2. Receptive Identification: Teach learners to “Show me WHAT is the boy DOING” with visual support
  3. Expressive component: While asking a wh-question, use errorless teaching to prompt the student by pointing to the correct visual as you ask the question
  4. Fade visuals over time

For example, I may have the student sort pictures of “boy”, “playing,” and “school” to the correct templates. Then, I would follow up with “Point to ‘who.’” Then, while pointing to the picture of the school, ask, “Where is the boy?” and the child answers, “school.” We then systematically fade the point and prompt until the child can answer questions about pictures, text, auditory, and novel stimuli.

Contextualize Learning

Use role-playing scenarios, real-life situations, and interactive games to make learning enjoyable. Include ‘Wh questions’ in activities that make sense and are related to everyday life. This helps learners understand the questions better and remember them because they can link them to real-life situations.

Activities for Teaching ‘Wh Questions’:

Learning ‘Wh Questions’ can be made more engaging and enjoyable through interactive activities. The following activities will include a range of fun and educational exercises designed to help learners grasp ‘Wh questions.’

Scavenger Hunt

Create a scavenger hunt where learners answer ‘What’ and ‘Where’ questions by finding specific items in their environment.

Story Time

Use storytelling to introduce ‘Who,’ ‘What,’ and ‘Where’ questions. Pause during the story to ask questions and encourage active participation.

Problem-Solving Scenarios

Present real-life scenarios that require learners to answer ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions, promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills.


Engage in role-playing activities that simulate various social situations, prompting learners to respond to different ‘Wh questions.’

Master teaching Wh Questions with your learners with our 10-step program. Get the ebook here!

wh questions

Mastering ‘Wh questions’ is a crucial milestone in language development for individuals undergoing ABA interventions. By understanding the challenges, employing effective teaching strategies, and incorporating engaging activities, you can play a vital role as an ABA professional by enhancing the communication skills of your learners.

The journey to answering ‘Wh questions’ is a step-by-step process. ABA learners can successfully improve language comprehension and expression with patience, tailored interventions, and creative activities.

6 thoughts on “‘Wh Questions’ in ABA: A Comprehensive Guide”

  1. Hi! I’m an aspiring SLP and I’m considering using these steps with one of my clients. Is there any research proving that these methods are effective?
    Thanks 🙂

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