learning tool: the question. Many
of children’s first questions concern
what, who, when, and where. But
by the beginning of their third year,
children have acquired two potent
new question forms: why and how.
They want to understand the way
things work. In other words, questions
embody their need to know more—
what psychologists call epistemic
Questions abound in nearly all the
exchanges researchers have recorded
between children and their parents,
as well as many between children
and their peers. Within the context
of casual exchanges, children can ask
about an impressively wide range of
topics—human behavior, the natural
world, the customs of their communities, the inner lives of people they
love, and the mysteries of social protocol. Take the following example: an
exchange between a 4-year-old and his
father (Engel 2015).
CHILD: You say “Go away dammit.” Why
you don’t like the crows?
FATHER: Because the crows can get their
CHILD: But why the chickens can’t get
their food too?
FATHER: Well, because we keep the
chickens in a pen.
CHILD: But the crows are in the pen. You
don’t want those crows?
FATHER: Well, the crows can get into
the pen, but we built the pen for the
chickens because we take care of them.
We like to eat their eggs.
CHILD: But we don’t like crow eggs right?
Right Dad? We like chicken eggs, right?
Notice that this is no simple
exchange. The little boy seeks three
kinds of information. He wants to
know more about the rules that govern
his father’s behavior (why he doesn’t
like crows); differences between
crows and chickens; and social norms
(people take care of chickens but
not of crows, and they eat chickens’
eggs but not crows’ eggs.). In just
seven dialogic turns, a rich array of
interests is revealed, and the little boy
gets answers to several questions. He
In casual conversations
like this one, children
have a chance to let adults
know what they don’t
understand and what
they want to know more
about. If an adult has the
time and interest, it takes
little skill or erudition to
provide satisfying, helpful
answers. Take the following exchange recorded
by Gordon Wells (1986):
James, age 5, comes into the
kitchen just as his mother
has taken some cakes out of
the oven. There is a loud,
JAMES: Who did that?
MOTHER: I expect it was the
JAMES: Which tin?
MOTHER: The one with your
JAMES: Why did it make that noise?
MOTHER: Well, when it was in the oven,
it got very hot and stretched a bit. I’ve
just taken it out of the oven, and it’s
cooling down very quickly, you see, and
that noise happens when it gets smaller
again and goes back to its ordinary
JAMES: Oh! Was it a different shape in
MOTHER: Not very different. Just a little
JAMES: Naughty little tin. You might get
smacked if you do it again.
In this one brief exchange the child
makes five contributions, four of
them questions. In each case, James’s
mother answers him in a straightforward, helpful way, providing just
the kind of information he is seeking.
Parents often answer their children not
in a purposeful effort to impart information (one gets no sense that James’s
mother set out to teach James about
the impact of temperature changes on