Speech & Language Pathologists (SLP) play a critical role in assessing and treating individuals with speech, language, voice, and verbal fluency disorders. This includes a lot of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other conditions that cause speech and verbal processing problems.

Their diagnostic and treatment process employs a wide range of different skills. This includes things like helping patients to understand and answer “Wh” questions such as Why, When, Where, and Who. Though arguably the most important of all these are known as “What” questions. These are often some of the earliest developmental questions that every child is exposed to as they start to learn.

What questions ultimately become a handy tool that SLPs to help children acquire important learning skills. Though understanding why What Questions are so important requires a more granular look at how language use plays an integral role in the learning and brain development process.

Why Are “What Questions” Important?

A lot of children go through an almost relentless “Why Phase” though in truth “What Questions” are just as important, if not more important when it comes to processing language and the world around a child.

For a lot of adults simply asking “What” comes second nature. Though in a developing mind “What Questions” play an integral role in developing communication skills, and processing the surrounding world. In reality, children use What Questions as a way of tapping into and developing a wide range of other language skills.

On a more basic level, this also means that a child needs to understand what the word “What” means in order to access the other vocabulary words they can use to form more complex questions.

Once the child fully understands the root meaning of the word “What” they can more easily process the information they receive, which further factors into understanding some of the social nuanced context of the situation.

This creates a chain of learning where the child formulates an appropriate question and then processes or executes the response. As their understanding and language skills grow the information garnered from “What Questions” ties together with social, receptive, and expressive language skills. This all requires a great deal of practice and processing.

How “What” Questions Help Develop Learning Skills

In the realm of teaching and helping children learn “What Questions” become important on many levels. Especially during speech therapy where children participate in social situations as well as essential routines, and practice conversations. As their skills progress “What Questions” can also start to play a critical role in academically preparing them for tests as well as vigorous participation in group projects.

In time “What Questions” are also incorporated into other processes such as the ability to follow commands as well as personal safety and safety around others. When What Questions go without proper emphases it can leave the child with gaps in important aspects of language and cognition that they need within their life.

Common Reasons Why a Child Might Struggle With What Questions

There are a few different reasons why a child might struggle to understand and respond to “What Questions.” Though most of the time these challenges are linked to some kind of struggle with receptive language and processing all of the language that they are inputting. In many of these cases, the child might become overwhelmed by all of the information which directly factors into difficulty understanding specific questions.

Many children who struggle with What Questions will also have difficulty with expressive language, which can also lead to recurring difficulty formulating an appropriate response to questions. Sometimes this can even include questions that they already understand.

Integrating What Questions in Speech Therapy

When teaching What Questions an SLP often uses a therapeutic approach that is direct and explicit. The goal is to remove all traces of possible ambiguity to ensure the child has every opportunity to process the question correctly. The child needs to be taught the context that “What” refers to an object or an action to help them clearly comprehend the meaning behind the word.

This might include other therapeutic tools to help strengthen the process. Such as:

Asking Them to Identify The Problem

Anytime a child with speech and language issues struggles with understanding and responding to questions, the best way forward starts with ensuring that the child has a strong foundation in other language areas. This can include:

  • Vocabulary
  • The ability to use inference
  • The ability to process and use syntax

Asking the child to identify the root of a presented problem, helps to determine if the issue lies in answering the “What Question” or if there is some other verbal processing challenge complicating their ability to answer that specific question.

The Use of Visuals

Visual aids further serve to reinforce the concepts behind a What Question. This might be in the form of tangible objects, representative pictures, words printed on a card, or photographs. By providing the visual aid as part of the process of asking and answering What Questions the SLP helps to support the language concepts behind it. This will then go a long way toward helping the child understand and respond appropriately.

Picture Books & Reading

A lot of times reading a story or picture book and asking questions about the pictures helps promote the processing and use of What Questions. This can be as simple as the SLP pointing to a picture of a boy eating breakfast and asking the child “What is the boy doing?”

Using a Mystery Bag

The Mystery Bag tool is a great way to incorporate sensory-rich items in the therapeutic process. This can be as simple as placing a bouncy ball, some playdough, or rock inside a brown paper bag. The SLP then has the child reach in to feel the items and guess what they think it is. They then ask “What do you think it is?”

After the child gives their best guess the SLP pulls the item out, and asks “What is it?” The child can then confirm what it is, and perhaps be given time to play with it as a reward.