The Importance of Asking and Answering Wh- Questions

Posted by Leah Schwed on

Being able to ask and answer wh- questions mark a significant milestone in the development of a child. These questions are the cornerstone of communication and understanding within the English language. When kids begin to use such language, they are developing cognitive as well as social skills that are crucial for later life.

 Below, we’ll explain what the wh- questions are and exactly why they’re important. To help your child engage with these ideas, we’ll also give some ideas on how to teach the wh- questions, including Spark Innovations’ own Picture This interactive book. 

What are the Wh- questions?

When educators and experts speak of "wh- questions," they are referring to a set of questions that we use every day to find out things and communicate with each other.


These questions begin with the letters "wh" and require more complex answers than simply yes or no. For children to use wh- questions, they need to consider objects, times, places, persons, options, times, and more.


The most important wh- questions are:


  • Who questions regard people (who is your Mommy?)
  • When questions regard time (when is it time for dinner?)
  • What questions regard things and events (what is that?)
  • Where questions regard places (where are we now?)
  • Why questions ask for causes (why did the dog bark?)
  • Which questions regard options (which fruit would you like?)
  • How questions regard explanation and quantity (how many blocks are there?)


Getting to grips with wh- questions can be challenging at first, but most children soon become proficient at using them. Regular engagement with these questions is the best way to boost your child’s proficiency, however.

Why are wh- questions important?

Most children, by the age of one to one and a half, have begun using "yes" and "no" gestures and responding to simple questions. "Would you like something to eat?" for example, may receive a nod or shake of the head and a corresponding sound.


Wh- questions, however, are the next stage in communication for kids and allow them to engage in conversation.  Mastery of these questions allows children to begin fully interacting with people and increase comprehension.


The reason so much emphasis is placed on teaching children to ask and answer the wh- questions is that using them demonstrates a wide range of cognitive abilities.


To answer a wh- question requires a great deal of intuitive understanding on behalf of a child. Asking a child what their favorite color is, for example, involves the following in order to respond:


  • Comprehension of the words
  • An understanding of the word order (grammar)
  • Appreciation of the context in which the question was asked
  • Inner reflection on response
  • Response formulation
  • Articulation


Broken down, answering a simple wh- question is actually a big deal.

How are wh- questions useful?

When children begin using wh- language, they are able to engage with other people in a much deeper way. As we live in societies where interaction with each other is crucial, learning to ask and answer wh-questions marks a key learning milestone for children.


Practically speaking, this means children are able to do the following:


  • Understand parents and educators
  • Participate in discussions and conversation
  • Make friends and grow closer to family
  • Express knowledge
  • Follow instructions in education and home
  • Develop an inquisitive mind
  • Enjoy the company of others


These activities are vital to a child's mental well-being and receiving a sound education. In effect, the sooner wh- questions are introduced, the sooner children are able to begin learning.

Wh- question goals by age

Children can ask, answer, and understand wh- questions at different ages. No two kids will have the same development speed, with periods of accelerated and slower growth happening mentally and physically.


Nonetheless, below are some guidelines on what to expect from your child at certain ages:

Toddlers (1-2) (where, what)

Most children will begin responding to wh- questions between the age of one to two. Most parents find children respond to "what" questions soonest.


As children approach the age of two, their language comprehension and speech abilities kick up a notch. At this point, you may begin receiving verbal and gesture responses to "what" and "where" questions.


For example, you may point to a toddler's favorite toy, a pet, body part, or object in the room and ask them, "what is that?"

Young children (2-3) (where, what, who)

By the age of two, children are generally able to comprehend more complex questions and are capable of responding verbally.


This means children will gradually stop pointing in response to "what" and "where" questions. Instead, children will understand a verbal response is expected.


Towards the age of three, children should also begin asking what and where questions themselves. This includes more abstract questions such as "what happens when we go to bed?"

Children 3+ (how, who, why, where)

At this stage, children will begin engaging with the other wh- questions. Primarily, this involves asking and answering why, who, and how questions.


These come later in a child's development as they are more cognitively demanding. They require an understanding of motivations, causes, and reasons.


For example, ask your child, “how are you today?” Answering this requires an ability to think critically and consider events and possibilities abstractly.

Children 4+ (when, how many)

Children aged four and onwards are typically capable of asking and answering all of the wh- questions. At this point, kids will begin formulating more complex questions of their own, using more than one wh- word within a sentence.


For example, "when are we going to the playground?" involves comprehension of time, abstract place, and context. Your child may also begin asking about quantities, such as “how many grapes can I have?”



How do you teach kids wh- questions?

It’s important to incorporate wh- questions into your child’s play from an early age. This helps them become comfortable with the language and begin engaging with the questions as soon as possible.


There are many ways to go about this, with the best ways to improve understanding being the following:


  • Books: not only are reading books to your child a good way to bond but they are proven to boost cognitive development. These benefits start from a young age, and picture books are an ideal starting point.

    Interactive picture books, such as Spark Innovations’ Picture This, engage children through vivid scenes and wh- questions. This helps children to start asking and answering wh- questions with fun imagery that gives context to the questions, connecting direct teaching to real life.


  • Flashcards: using homemade or store-bought picture cards, you can challenge your child to ask and answer wh- questions. These are suitable for children throughout their wh- education, but kids aged three or older will find them most engaging.


  • Apps: while some studies suggest unregulated use of phone use in toddlers can hinder language skills , there are some apps specifically designed to boost cognitive development. Apps such as WH Questions are designed to be engaging rather than passive.


  • Conversation: unstructured learning through everyday speech is also one of the most effective ways to teach young children about wh- questions.

    Asking your child what, and who questions from a young age begins to instill grammatical understanding and the ability to grasp tone of voice. Later, this translates into an intuitive understanding of wh- questions.

    When your child is able to speak, everyday conversation can be used to engage them with wh- questions. This can be done at the dinner table, when getting them dressed, or going for a walk to ask and answer these vital questions deliberately.


Wh- questions allow children to engage in conversation and better understand people and the world. While children begin to ask and answer these questions on their own, introducing wh- questions from as young as one can boost their development and improve their understanding. The most effective ways to do this are to use learning aids such as picture books and teach your children directly through structured conversation.