In Which We Ask the Right Question by Christy Peterson
We have all seen *that* look. You know the one. The one where the student or child in your life stares, expressionless, right into your eyes. You can practically see the thought bubble above their head scrolling, “Ugh,” “Oh please stop talking,” “Why are they still talking?” or “Please, help.” If it’s a good day you will get some kind of non-verbal communication in return. If you’re lucky you may even get a monosyllabic mumble back. Moments later, with their friends, you can see the veritable stream of words coming out of their mouths.
This can prove particularly difficult when we, as the adults in their lives, have many questions we daily need answers to. “Did you do your homework?” “How was school today?” “Did you learn anything new?” “What are you eating?” “Did you really think it would be okay to ______?” These questions are almost guaranteed to garner the above response and at some point, it is no longer appropriate to tell a child to “Use your out loud words, please.”
Now that reading 20 to 30 minutes a day has become standard homework practice, “Have you finished your reading?” has become one of those questions we have to ask and children begrudgingly answer. This is very unfortunate. We do not want our interactions with their reading to be an item on the checklist. Reading is vital to the student’s academic and general development, we do not want it to become burdensome, something they dread discussing or, worse yet, doing. Asking the wrong questions can do just that. Questions that close down a conversation with just one word, questions that unintentionally shame or embarrass a child for their reading level, or questions that feign interest are all questions that can turn the curious reader into a homework reader. We want our communication about their reading to reflect the enthusiasm, curiosity, and anticipation we feel for books and want to instill in them, as new readers.
As a person who has worked with children for the majority of my career and is now the mother of four children, I have learned by trial and error (mostly error) many of the wrong questions to ask. But very recently, I finally discovered *the* question that gets children talking about their reading every time:
“What are you reading?”
It’s such a simple question and so obvious, but so rarely asked of children. We ask each other this question with excitement and yet, when we talk to children about reading we tend to ask something along the lines of: “Did you do your reading?” “What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your reading level?” or the classic “Do you like to read?” These are closed questions, questions that only allow for one answer or are so broad they are exhausting. Whereas, “What are you reading?” is a specific question which almost every child can answer with little thought and opens the conversation in any number of directions.
This magical little question works wonders. Just yesterday, I was sitting in the office of my children’s elementary school and there was a child waiting to talk to the assistant principal because they were in trouble. The child was reading a book while she waited. The assistant principal came out of his office and sat down beside her and asked her “What are you reading?” Trying to hide my excitement about watching my hypothesis play out in real life, I paid carefully concealed attention to what happened next. Reluctantly, the girl showed him the book cover (and I have to admit to some disappoint here, as I was hoping for an immediate lighting of the face and enthusiastic verbal response, but back to reality). He read the title out loud and then told her how he had read that book when he was in school and really liked it. She smiled (yes, we are getting somewhere now) and said, “that’s cool!” And just like that, they were talking.
I am not entirely sure what it is about this particular phrase that works so well. I think the question itself is inviting and equitable. There is nothing authoritative or shaming in the question, there is no right or wrong answer, and the answer does not require a great deal of effort. Again, because for good or ill, reading is a required part of most children’s homework, they are all currently reading something. No matter their reading level or the ease with which the child reads, they can answer this question and a conversation can take place. This is exactly what we hope to cultivate: confidence, curiosity, and enthusiasm, in their reading, their education, and in their development in general.
Here’s to you being on the receiving end of that veritable stream of words from the children in your life.
Christy Peterson pretends she is a librarian, which she would be in real life if she had known herself at all at the age of nineteen. She is a former elementary school teacher who now spends her days reading to, reading with, and buying books for her four children. She thoroughly enjoys literature of most kinds, but children’s literature holds a very special place. See more posts by Christy on her blog wellwornpages.wordpress.com.