George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

How to Ask Questions That Engage Young Students

Questioning techniques that prompt all students to come up with a response can raise their spirits and make learning more joyful.

December 6, 2021
Elementary student holds up two fingers during circle time
miodrag ignjatovic / iStock

As I work in classrooms across the states as a consultant who specializes in the areas of instruction, student engagement, second-language learning, and instructional technology, I see fewer and fewer students eager to engage in the thinking and sharing. Could part of that lack of enthusiasm come simply from the way we ask students questions? After being in 500+ pre-K to high school classrooms so far this school year, I see a pattern that stirs a desire to improve the questioning process. And the time to start is in the very early grades.

Let me explain what the majority of classroom questioning looks and sounds like. Teachers pose a literal/basic recall question, the same five or six students raise their hands, and the rest of the class tunes out. High school students look down at their phone or doodle as the student recites the answer. In the primary and elementary classrooms, students dig in their backpacks or desks, talk to their friends, or ask to go to the bathroom. It’s a pattern I see over and over.

When the questioning process engages all students, it’s magical. The room is alive and full of energy. There’s active thinking taking place and a feeling of high expectations and a belief that all students can learn.

Here are three ways to engage pre-K to second-grade students in the questioning process.

Ask, Pause, Process, Share 

  1. Ask students not to raise their hand as you ask questions. (Help students understand that it’s the thinking we want, not the answer.)
  2. After asking a question, literal or inferential, give students real think time (silently count to five).
  3. Have students whisper-share their answer with their elbow partner.
  4. Randomly select a student using frozen-pop sticks with the names of the students on them, or use Wheel of Names to call on a student to share their thinking.
  5. When you call on the specific student, be sure to phrase the question like this: “What did you and your elbow partner come up with as your answer” or “What were you both thinking?”
  6. If you get an answer that’s incorrect or lacks enough detail, validate the first person you ask, and then call on other individuals to continue the thinking process.

Because everyone is involved in the thinking, the processing, and the possibility of being called on to share, there’s a reason for the students to pay attention and engage in the thinking, to build their understanding of the content you’re teaching.

Fist to Three

After you’ve taught a concept, ask students to put their fist at their chest level and face you. (This activity could work with very young learners.) Tell the students that this is to help you, the teacher, know who needs more support in learning the concepts and who’s ready to work independently.

Ask your question—e.g., “How are you feeling about naming the four stages of a butterfly?” or “Can you show me the sum of 4 + 5 = ?” or “What is the difference between a city, state, and country?”

  • When a student shows you a fist, it means “I don’t understand any of the concepts you taught and I need to be retaught.”
  • When a student shows one finger: ”I am beginning to get the concept you’re teaching.”
  • When a student shows two fingers: “I understand most of what you taught today, so I can work independently on my assignment and I need little to no support.”
  • When a student shows you three fingers: “I’m ready to teach others the concepts of today’s lesson.”

Eager Professor and Eager Student

If 90 percent retention takes place when students teach one another, we need to have schoolchildren teach and share with one another more often. This strategy, best for second grade and up, involves two students. One is the eager professor who is animated and excited to teach, and the other is the eager student who is just as motivated to learn.

After you teach a concept, have the students pair up. (Use the random team generator or peanut butter and jelly partner.) The eager professor reteaches the vocabulary, big ideas, etc., that the teacher just taught. The eager student asks clarifying questions and engages in the learning. This provides an opportunity to get clarity around new learning, review skills, or reinforce concepts. It’s a fun and interactive way to engage students in the thinking, questioning, and learning.

Questioning and learning should be fun, and we want to engage as many students in the thinking as possible. Adding to Jen York-Barr’s quote, the person doing the talking is doing the thinking and learning. So, let’s keep the thinking and learning lively and joyous.

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  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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