George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Communication Skills

Teaching Kids to Move Beyond One-Word Questions

If you’re tired of why, use this framework to help your kindergarten students ask specific questions that yield better answers.

“Does anyone have any questions?” It’s the dreaded question of early childhood educators everywhere. This can-of-worms question often leads to non sequitur statements that range from “I like your pants” to long-winded stories that start with “Once my grandma gave me a . . .” These responses often resemble anything but a question.

To avoid these tangents, teachers can turn the question “Does anyone have any questions?” into a match that, once struck, will ignite purposeful inquiries and investigations. Start by asking, “Does anyone have any dollar questions?” instead.

What’s a Dollar Question?

According to an anecdote from my parents, as a young child I would always ask, “Why?” or “What?” or “When?” Frustrated by the endless stream of questions, my parents came up with a solution: They encouraged me to ask a different type of question. “Single-word questions are penny questions,” they said. “They’re not worth much and don’t get you very far. Ask dollar questions.”

I shared this personal story with my kindergarten students, who were eager to learn how to ask dollar questions themselves. Having a relatable framework to work within (who can’t relate to money?), my students develop and hone their questions as they strive to ask dollar questions. But what is a dollar question, and why should we teach our youngest students to ask them?

Dollar questions have four main features. They investigate a topic, require processing time, include details, and yield better answers. Penny questions have none of these features. In fact, just as 100 pennies make up a dollar, it would take several penny questions to have the same impact as a dollar question. In essence, a dollar question is complete sentence while a penny question is a fragment.

Penny questions can, however, be changed into dollar questions. For example, you could take the simple penny question “What is that?” and transform it into the dollar question “What is that blue pipe sticking up from the grass?” After a child spends a little more time developing it, the penny question now investigates, contains details, and will ultimately get a more precise, more satisfying answer.

In my kindergarten class, we begin practicing with dollar questions during Feature Creature, an activity where students hone their question-asking skills while working to uncover the identity of a mystery animal. I begin by displaying an image of an animal without its name and remind my students that we want to learn more information about this creature, even if they already know what it is called. As a class, we revisit the qualities of a dollar question before students start asking questions.

Students’ questions usually begin with rapid-fire versions of “What is it?” But in time, they become progressively more complex. Examples include: “Is this Feature Creature a mammal?” and “Is this Feature Creature an endangered animal, and if so, why?” Within the dollar-question framework, my students learn to restructure their thoughts and to formulate better questions quickly.

Gradually, the question-asking skills my students learn during Feature Creature become standard practice in the classroom. I provide writing prompts that are examples of dollar questions like “Why do leaves change color in the fall?” instead of “Leaves change color in the fall because . . .?” And student-generated dollar questions dictate the direction of inquiry and play. For example, a student’s questions about the construction of tall buildings quickly transformed the block area in our classroom into a place to investigate and test the children’s theories about building skyscrapers. I make it a practice to answer questions with more questions to encourage students to explore their curiosity.

Learning the collaborative and diligent practice of asking good questions also contributes to a child’s growth and development. By asking dollar questions, students develop clear communication skills and are encouraged to strive for deeper comprehension. Students also realize that by asking dollar questions, they are in charge of the direction of their learning, and thereby feel greater ownership of, and pride in, their education. Above all, the concept of failure is removed: There can be no bad or wrong question, just a better way of asking a question.

Dollar questions can even make their way home with students. In addition to asking dollar questions of their family members, students can start teaching their family the power of asking better questions too. One mother shared with me that when she asked her son to make his bed, he responded, “Mom, I can’t do that—you didn’t ask me a dollar question.” In time, students will begin to assess the strength of their questions, build upon one another’s ideas, and ultimately create more pointed and meaningful dollar questions.

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Christie Squires's picture

I like the idea of comparing the students sentences to money. I think that it will make them want to expand to make their sentences worth more than just a dollar.

Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

Thank you, Jessie. Guiding and coaching students to generate questions is an important cognitive process and lifelong learning skill. And especially with kindergartners, one of the best strategies is to model the authentic act of thinking.

It is natural that we think as we read, but when we are able to name our thinking with a common language and shared understandings, we are empowered to become intentional about developing and exercising our thinking skills as a habit of mind.

There are ten types of cognitive processes that we may refer to as the ABCs of critical reasoning - GENERATING QUESTIONS is one of them. We use them to understand complex situations, generate solutions to problems, and nurture new insight.

These cognitive processes become even more powerful when we reflect upon how we have used them, aiming to self-evaluate and improve our cognitive processes. We refer to this as meta-cognition (thinking about thinking).

Meta-cognition involves three types of knowledge:

> knowledge of cognitive process
> knowledge of strategies and tasks (applying the cognitive processes)
> knowledge of self

1. Connect Background Knowledge

Make connections to what is being read with prior knowledge and personal experiences.

2. Generate Questions

Ask open-ended questions to propel reading forward. Ask why a character behaves or feels a certain way. Ask what are the implications of specific events or choices.

3. Visualize

Form mental sensory and emotional images to make meaning and deepen understanding. Read, think, and create movies in the mind.

4. Infer

Think about what is implied. Read between the lines and put two and two together. Make predictions and come to conclusions supported by evidence.

5. Gain Perspective and Empathy

See through the eyes of the character (perspective) and feel the character's emotions (empathy). Walk in the shoes of the character.

6. Compare and Contrast

Identify and think about similarities and differences between people, places, objects, and events - within the text and between the text and the real world.

7. Identify Cause and Effect

Determine why an event happened and the impact it has on a character or situation. Think, "because this happened, that happened."

8. Analyze and Synthesize

Understand by taking apart the constitution or structure of a person, place, object, or event (analyze). Understand by putting knowledge and ideas together to solve problems and create solutions (synthesize).

9. Determine Importance

Decide what ideas and details matter most to make meaning, to make decisions, and to solve problems.

10. Monitor Comprehension

Recognize when understanding breaks down. Ask questions and reread to make meaning and clarify understanding.

Whether you are a teacher or parent, model thinking aloud these critical thinking skills as often as possible and they will soon become a habit of mind for you and your learners!

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