The Right Questions

Early Years and literacy specialists Rose Carr and Mary Meadway explain how to develop early literacy through effective questioning

How can we enable effective questioning in the Early Years setting and how can parents do this at home? That’s what EYFS and literacy specialists Rose Carr and Mary Meadway, who have extensive teaching and training experience in the UK, Switzerland, New Zealand, the Middle East, USA and Kenya, set out to answer during a recent presentation at GEMS Wellington Primary School in Dubai. “Early questioning enables early effective learning,” says Rose. “And it’s really important that children aren’t spoon-fed, because the best type of development for a child is to have that questioning developed so their learning becomes their own.”

Rose underlines the importance of literacy by explaining that the seven areas in the Early Years – communication and language; physical development; personal, social and emotional development; literacy; mathematics; understanding the world; and expressive arts and design – are all linked to literacy. She also points to three key aspects of effective learning: “First, there’s playing and exploring – so when you see children playing, they’re actually learning. It’s not always good for children to just be sitting at a table, writing all the time; they need to learn through play, and research has shown that that’s the best way forward for children to learn. And then there’s also active learning through motivation as well as creating and thinking critically.”

But how do we enable effective learning? While teachers and learning assistants generally encourage children to describe what they are doing, parents must also be actively involved in their children’s imaginative play, so they can help them develop their language skills and use numbers and writing in their play, explains Rose.

“If you are modelling good behaviours, it’s a really good way for children to learn in their own home setting,” she says. “If effective learning is to take place, you need to enable an effective learning environment and we always stress an effective partnership between parents and teachers. And it’s always good to have resources relevant to all children’s cultures and communities.”

Bloom’s taxonomy                         

Parents reading books with their children is hugely important according to Rose and Mary, especially when accompanied by effective questioning, which provides opportunities for children to develop speaking and listening skills and challenges children to deepen their thinking. “That’s not done through a pencil and book; it’s done orally,” says Rose. “We call this Bloom’s taxonomy, which can be used for effective questioning through six levels:

  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Speculation
  • Evaluation

“Usually, we don’t go beyond the first level, which involves literal questions such as ‘what or where is’, but we want to get below that to the ‘why’ questions,” explains Mary. “Often, it’s picture books with the least words that have lots of comprehension for children. Where an answer isn’t in the book, we’re taking children to the next level, when it’s up to them to put together their knowledge of other books – that makes a good reader.”

Mary suggests parents start encouraging children to use their emotional intelligence by getting them to think about feelings. Just as important when reading a story, even with very young children, is to begin to explore narrative structure and use related language. “Even if they’re three years old, ask ‘Who are the characters? What’s the setting?’ If you start using this vocabulary, it will sink in and children will be able to retell the story because they’ll know there is a recipe that they can follow.”

Rhyme is just as important, according to Mary.

“Rhymes give us opportunities for listening and speaking. Even with a simple rhyme like Humpty Dumpty you can start talking about characters, problems, solutions and setting.”

Even before parents begin reading, it’s a good idea to look closely at the pictures. Mary explains: “If you’re short of time, you might just dive straight into reading, but visual literacy is the way in. Even when the child is in secondary school, visual literacy is important with diagrams and maps. They need to know pictures help learning and advance meaning.”

School vs. nursery

When it comes to deciding whether to send your little one to nursery or an Early Years setting as part of so-called ‘big school’, Rose points to several factors that differentiate the two. “An Early Years setting within a school sets a child apart because the teachers are involved in making sure the child is using what they’ve learnt,” she says. “They are modelling very good thinking; they are not just sitting there watching the children play. It’s what we call directing their play, which is how children learn though play, although they don’t, of course, realise that that’s what’s happening.”

Later, with regard to preparing children for the transition to ‘big school’, both Rose and Mary believe oral literacy is paramount. “Oral literacy is the foundation for everything that is learned through reading and writing, so it’s really important,” says Rose. “We say that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing. The quality and variety of language that students hear and speak are vital for developing their vocabulary, grammar and understanding. Teachers should therefore ensure the continual development of pupils’ confidence in spoken language and listening skills.”

This ‘Early Literacy Set’ is what the child then brings to school. And in a school setting, teachers are often better tuned into this, explains Rose. “That’s why we do a literacy baseline assessment to make sure that children don’t slip through the net. If teachers find that there are gaps, they can fill these in.”