How Great Questions Activate Learning - ParentPowered®

“What’s the news?” Using Questions to Make At-Home Learning Easier

By Fran Lartigue, director of content, and Rebecca Honig, chief content & curriculum officer

NOTE: This blog was written during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its lessons and reflections are still useful for educators today.

Recently I discovered my new favorite media outlet. It’s called “What’s the News?” It’s broadcast live, via Google Classroom, every morning at 9:05 am. The reporters are all seven-year-olds. The host is Ms. F., their second-grade teacher. And the format is always the same. The news starts when Ms. F. says, “Good morning Allie! What’s the news?”

“Well,” Allie reports, “my grandma found a shell but then the shell turned out to be a snail.” Then Allie turns it over to the next reporter.

“Good morning Benson, what’s the news?”

Unlike traditional news that prioritizes BIG national headlines before moving on to local updates, this news is delivered in alphabetical order. Bodie tells about his father’s new lawn mower. Carlos reports that his birthday will be in seven months, Darla shares that she knows two kinds of Karate, regular Karate and fancy Karate. Ellie updates everyone on her baby brother, “He licked my favorite bear and I didn’t even shout at him. I’m becoming a really good big sister.”  Guarmie shares, “I like balloons!”

I’ve come to rely on this news.

My son Miles is one of the reporters. Yesterday, he shared, “I saw a porcupine in a tree. It was really cute. I was the only one who noticed it, because I was looking up. So, I’m pretty proud about that.”

Each morning I huddle in the corner of his room to hear the news. It’s become the highlight of my day. I love it because getting a kids’ perspective on what matters fills me with hope. But I also love it because hearing my child answer this super simple question, “What’s the news?” gives me incredible insight into what he’s noticing and thinking and feeling. That’s the power of the question.

Questions Are a Key Ingredient

Good questions spark kids’ imaginations. They give a lens into what kids know and what they want to learn more about. Good questions help to orient us around what our kids need. They reveal our kids’ excitement, their feelings, their fears.

Questions are KEY to learning and they are KEY to teaching.

As the lead content developers for ParentPowered, we’re often asked to delve into how we turn a year-long parenting curriculum into a series of text messages. How can we give parents all the information they need to deliver an at-home learning program in 3 texts a week? One of the ingredients in our secret sauce is this: we ALWAYS begin with questions.

Whether it is around the dinner table or an after school chat ParentPowered messages prompt parents to ask lots of questions to get children talking.  They range from the simple, “What did you play today?” to the scientific, “How did you figure that out?” to the imaginative, “What superpower would you like to have? Why?”

There are questions that encourage children to make scientific predictions, “What do you think will happen if I drop this sponge in the sink?” And questions that bring books to life, “Why do you think that character did that? What do you think they’ll do next?” There are questions that spark math thinking, “How many baby penguins do you think we could fit in the bathtub?”

There are questions that give parents a lens into children’s feelings and anxieties, “Did anything hard happen today? How did you feel when it happened?”  There are questions that orient families around children’s hope and dreams, “What’s one thing you are excited to learn more about this year?”  There are questions that build appreciation for others, “What’s one way someone helped you today? What’s one thing YOU can do to help someone tomorrow?”

Sample ParentPowered message crafted for Tennessee GELF program.

For each one of our curricular domains, we’ve got questions to spark learning and connection. Through our shareable family math messages, you’ll see questions that support learning at every age.

Questions Simplify Learning for Grown-ups and Kids

Most parents feel like they’re making it up as they go. They know they’re responsible for ensuring kids are “school-ready,” but what does that mean to a non-educator? The great thing about questions is that they make engaging parents in kindergarten readiness easy — they’re an age-appropriate and meaningful way to support learning without having any special developmental knowledge at all!

When we survey ParentPowered parents and caregivers about our program, we hear consistent positive feedback from families that providing ideas for questions is just the type of support they want and need. Simple, clear questions open the door to rich conversations and insights into their child’s thinking. Parents share that our questions:

  • “Get her thinking deeper about what she is learning.”
  • “Keep conversation and learning fresh.”
  • “Help me to ask the right questions to engage my kids in their answers.”

These questions also give parents clues into the kinds of inquiry kids are typically ready for at a specific point in their developmental process. Parents have told us that through the questions we provide:

  • “I have more productive questions to ask and avenues to go down.”
  • “I’m asking more open-ended questions. Also, as he does things or notices things related to learning, he points them out.”

And questions can also help families build interpersonal connections and social emotional skills. Families have told us that the questions we provide help them “talk more at dinner” and “feel more connected.”

Questions to Build Academic Skills

As the school year shifts into gear, many educators would love to see families ask more questions to build academic skills. Here are a few questions you might offer your families. As educators, you can pick the ones that are most appropriate to the ages you’re serving:

Math Skills

  • What are different numbers we can make with 1, 2, and 3?
  • Do you think we can find more RECTANGLES or TRIANGLES in this (room, car, picture)?

Language & Literacy Skills

  • What do you think your favorite toy does when you aren’t there?
  • What was the funniest thing you saw or heard today?

Science Skills

  • Would you rather be an animal that lives in the ocean or on land? How come?
  • Do you think an ice cube will float or sink? How about a spoon? What else in our kitchen do you think will float? Let’s check!

Even Silly Questions Count!

And finally, here are a few questions that we have asked to get our own kids talking and sharing. Some are meant to be funny and make us laugh. Others are there to purposely prompt thought and focus around a topic like kindness. Invite your families to try a few out at their next down-time together!

  • If a bear* could talk what do you think it would say? (*this can be any animal)
  • What is the kindest thing you did for someone today? Someone did for you?
  • If you could have any animal in the world as a pet, what would it be?

Of course, invite kids to ask their grown-ups, too! Because the reporters at my favorite media outlet needs fresh material for their daily news. And hopefully a similar program will be coming soon to a Google Classroom near you.

About the authors

Francoise Lartigue is the Director of Content at ParentPowered. She began her career teaching kindergarten in the South Bronx through Teach for America, and has ten years of experience working in both the public and private sector. Most recently, she worked with the Flying Cloud Institute to design and implement STEM and STEAM based units for elementary classrooms. Francoise has a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College.

Rebecca Honig is the Chief Content and Curriculum Officer at ParentPowered. She has authored numerous curricula, parent guides, and children’s storybooks for Sesame Workshop, Scholastic, Disney, Compass Learning, PBS, WGBH, HITN, Nickelodeon, Mo Willems, and The Norman Rockwell Museum. She has also served as a Curriculum and Content Specialist for Sesame Street and spent ten years teaching in public, private, and after school programs. Rebecca has a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street.

Sign up to get Everyday Learning Moments delivered straight to your inbox.

Every week you'll receive new resources for families, insights from research, and direct feedback from families about what they want from you, their educational partners.

You May Also Like

Insights: Preventing Summer Slide One Moment at a Time

Insights: Preventing Summer Slide One Moment at a Time

When children continually stay engaged with active learning, they keep building the key habit of learning. They hold onto the important skills that will help them be ready to learn in the fall. Here’s some good news. It doesn’t take a lot to keep kids’ brains engaged and in the routine of learning.

read more