Have you ever stopped to think just how many wh-questions (who, what, where, when, why) adults ask and answer on a daily basis?

What are you doing?”, “Who is that?”, “Where are we going?”, “When should we watch a movie?”, “Why are you waking up early?” 

A lot, right? Now, imagine just how many wh- questions children ask, as they are newly discovering and learning about the world around them. Their curious minds rightfully want to know about everything! Every sound, every taste, every smell… everything is a mystery to them. It is up to us to teach them how to appropriately ask and answer these questions.

Hierarchy of Asking and Answering Wh- Questions

Wh- questions are so common in daily conversations that hearing your child ask or answer a wh-question may go unnoticed. Sometimes, it can even be comical just how much children will ask questions, so it’s easy to take questions for granted. For example, you might be familiar with when children begin to ask “why?” for everything!

Even though it is common to not reflect on every single question your child asks, it is important to note that when learning to ask and answer wh- questions, he/she is actually mastering important developmental milestones regarding overall language skills!

Below please find Table 1, which depicts a predictable hierarchy on when to expect your child to ask and answer wh- questions:

Table 1 – Hierarchy on Wh- Questions

~1;0-2;0 years
  • “Where” via pointing/looking at correct place or answering verbally

  • “What” via choosing object or answering verbally

  • Answers “yes/no” questions

  • “What’s that?” questions
~2;0-3;0 years
  • “Where”, “what”, “what-doing”, “who”

  • Age-appropriate critical thinking questions, “what do you do when you are cold?”

  • Where”, “What”, “What-doing” questions
3;0 years
  • “Who, “why”, “where”, “how”
  • “Why” questions

  • “What”, “Where”, “When”, “How” “Whose” questions

  • Asks “is” questions

  • Inverts auxiliary and subject in wh- questions (e.g., “Where is dad going?”)

4;0 years
  • “When”, and “How many?”
  • Early infinitive (“do you want to…?”)

  • Future: (“are we going to…?”)

  • Can/May: (“can you…?”)

Adapted from: LinguiSystems Guide to Communication Milestones by Janet R. Lanza and Lynn K. Flahive

Copyright © 2008 LinguiSystems, Inc.

Why are wh- questions so important?

Asking and answering wh- questions are essential skills, as they lay the foundation to participate in conversations, to demonstrate knowledge, to collect information, to create, and to help make sense of their surroundings and themselves. Appropriately asking and answering these questions require language skills such as:

  • Understanding the question word (e.g., The difference between “what” and “where”)

  • Understanding each vocabulary word of the questions

  • Formulating appropriate syntax for a response

  • Understanding the social context of the situation


Why is my child having trouble answering wh- questions?

     If your child is having difficulties answering wh- questions, it can be for a variety of reasons. It is important to figure out what exactly are the barriers preventing appropriate responses:

  • Does your child have difficulties understanding the meaning of the question words (e.g., “who” vs. “what”)?

  • Does your child have difficulties understanding the vocabulary words or grammatical structure questions?

  • Does your child have difficulties demonstrating knowledge via formulating grammatically or semantically correct responses?

  • Does your child have difficulty attending long enough to adequately hear and understand questions?

These are difficult questions to answer. If your child is displaying difficulties answering age-appropriate wh- questions (please refer to Table 1), a qualified speech-language pathologist will be able to provide more clarity after a thorough evaluation of speech-language skills. 

How to Help as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)

  • Follow the Hierarchy

    • It is important to follow the hierarchy when answering wh- questions.

      • For example, do not practice answering “when” or “why” questions, unless a child is constantly answering “what”, “who”, and “where” questions.

    • Additionally, it is important to practice answering one wh- type question at a time.

  • Visual Cues

    • When asking questions, show photographs, illustrations, or actual objects that correlate to the question. Many children require visual support to full process information. Visual images help transform abstract concepts into concrete concepts. A visual representation provides a constant reminder of the type of question asked.

  • Give Choices

    • If your child is displaying difficulties answering open ended wh-questions, start off with multiple choices. This strategy will not only increase understanding, but will increase a child’s confidence, as he/she is more likely to answer accurately.

      • For example, if you are asking a child, “where does a cow live?”, give multiple choices (“ocean” or “farm”). Since both options are places, it reinforces the idea that the child must answer “where” questions with the name of a place.

  • Help with “why” questions

    • Answering “why” questions are more difficult, as these answers are not concrete and require inferential thinking. The good news is that we teach how to answer these questions in the same way that we teach how to answer other wh- questions: through visual cues, repetition, and multiple exemples.


How to Help at Home

Read, read, read… and read some more!

No matter your child’s age, open up that book with them! Reading is one of the best ways to develop language skills. As a parent, you can start joint-reading with your child at an early age:


These are approximate ages according to quantified research; however, it is important to look at each child’s current level, as each child develops at his/her own pace.

  • 1-2 years:

    • Ask “what is this?” while pointing to a picture. If your child does not answer, label the object and then see if your child can repeat.

    • Ask “where is this?” while pointing at the scenery of the picture. If your child does not answer, label the place and then see if your child can repeat.

  • 2-3 years:

    • Ask, “who” and “what are they doing?” questions, while looking at a picture together. If your child does not answer, use the think-aloud strategy, where you think out loud what you are seeing (e.g., describe what you see in the picture out loud: “I see a boy… oh the boy is fishing!”)

  • 3-4 years:

    • After reading a story together (important to use enthusiasm and animation to keep your child engaged!), start off with “what” and “where” questions. If a child has difficulty answering, point to the correct answer and talk through your reasoning.

    • Ask “why”, and “when” questions while reading. If there are difficulties, relate the story to a real-life experience. For example, if there is a picture of a boy crying, answer: “The boy is crying because he fell down and got a boo-boo. Remember when you fell down yesterday and got a boo-boo and you cried? How did you feel?”

  • 4+ years:

    • After reading a story together, ask the 5 wh- questions. If your child has difficulty, use these key strategies:


Encourage Questions

     Whether your child is having difficulties answering wh- questions or not, it is important for caregivers to remember that they play a vital role in a child’s learning. The most important thing parents can do to foster a love for learning and creativity, is to answer wh- questions in a way where a child feels satisfied. By thoughtfully answering questions, parents help a child reconcile new experiences, while also implying that learning and curiosity are encouraged. According to a 30 year research study called the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, children who were especially curious scored higher on standardized tests, were more likely to stay in school, and were more likely to go to graduate school, compared to less curious peers. 


Asking and answering wh- questions is crucial for processing your child’s surroundings, and becoming successful communicators. If your child is displaying difficulties answering wh- questions and you live in Florida, please reach out to Exceptional Speech Therapy, as we will be happy to answer questions and schedule a speech-language evaluation. We are here to help. “What” 🙂 are you waiting for?

Andrea Scola, M.S., CF-SLP
Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer


Chaudhary, N. (2020, March 27). If Your Kid Keeps Asking ‘Why,’ Give Them an Answer. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/parenting/kids-asking-questions-development.html

Lanza, J. R., & Flahive, L. K. (2008). Guide to communication milestones: Concepts, feeding, morphology, literacy, mean length of utterance, phonological awareness, pragmatics, pronouns, questions, speech sound acquisition, vocabulary. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.

Super Duper Publications – Fun Learning Materials for Kids! (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.superduperinc.com/

WH Questions – What You Need To Know. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.speechtherapytalk.com/wh-questions.html

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