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Teaching How to Answer ‘Wh Questions’

How many times 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. A typical child should be able to answer “where” and “what’s that” questions by age 2; “who” and “what do you do…” questions by age 3; and “why” and “when” questions by age 4.  By 2-3 years, they are likely asking their own who, what, and where questions to seek information.  Click here for a more detailed description of the developmental norms.

Why is this so difficult?

Discriminating SD’s

Many of our students have difficulty discriminating one verbal instruction from another.  Therefore, a common mistake seen is when you show them a picture of a car and ask “What do you do with it?” and they answer “car” (instead of drive).  As Behaviour Analysts, we do a great job using visuals to teach tacting, sorting, receptive identification, etc.  When we train them to label what they see, even when we say “What is it?”, the controlling variable is usually the present of the item or the card (not always the verbal SD).  Our students get used to tacting the visual stimulus.  They get lost when the visual stimulus is removed or when there are multiple responses for the same visual stimulus with different verbal sd’s.

This can be corrected by using a verbal behaviour approach and interspersing trials at a fast pace.  There is a fabulous presentation by Francesca degli Espinosa that discusses how to teach verbal conditioning discrimination. We use this approach a lot in our programs to teach our students to discriminate questions (eg: With a picture of a cow, “What is it?” vs. “What does it say?”).

Discriminating Wh Questions

However, teaching students to discriminate verbal questions does not always ensure that they will be able to answer ‘wh questions’. How do we teach using visuals while still teaching them to respond to the appropriate question?

When answering ‘wh questions”, the student has to:

  1. Know the answer – do they have the vocabulary and the labels for rooms, locations, people, time of day, etc.
  2. Discriminate the question – are they able to answer each question when presented in a non-random presentation (eg: answer “who” questions for “community helpers” program)?
  3. If there’s not visual present, this adds another step where they have to pull up the right response

How to Teach?

When teaching ‘wh questions’, use the visual stimulus as a prompt for the verbal. Don’t take for granted that just because a student may be able to answer “where” questions during the “rooms” program, does not mean that the child knows what the word “where” means.  They could just be giving an answer (eg: “bedroom”) that has been previously reinforced in the presence of that stimulus (eg: “where do you sleep?”).

Teaching Steps:

  • Match visuals to the template. In the sorting step, they see that:
  • “Where” is a PLACE
  • “Who” is a PERSON
  • “What doing” is an ACTION
  • Receptively identifying the piles – “Point to the who/what/where”
  • Expressive component – while asking the question, prompt the student by pointing to the correct visual as you ask the question

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

Once they’ve sorted the visuals, we follow up with receptive and expressive trials, with the visuals in front of them.  The sorting step gets faded once mastered but the errorless teaching remains.  When the student is looking at the visuals (eg: The boy is playing at school), point to the correct answer (eg: playing) while asking the question (eg: “What is the boy doing?”).  Slowly fade the prompt until they are able to answer the correct ‘wh question’ with the visual.  Then, work on generalizing this to text, auditory and novel stimuli.

For a complete guide to ‘wh questions’ including procedure, steps, graph, and visual materials, check out our ebook:


Also watch our YouTube Video on Asking and Answering Wh Questions with a Fun Wh Cube!

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