Working with middle and high school students, I know how challenging it can be to find functional WH-question activities that are not babyish. I am also keenly aware that the picture sets we use for WH-questions are not always the most functional; in other words, presenting drawings on laminated card decks and asking your student questions like “What is the girl doing?” does not always translate into that student being able to answer questions like “Where do you live?” or “Who is your sister?”. So today let’s talk about methods and activities to really hit the comprehension deficits of our students with moderate to severe comprehension deficits.
- Get the facts about your students’ routines. For my students who really struggle with basic WH-questions in context, conversations with their aides, paras, case managers, and *most importantly* parents are critical in helping me figure out what their daily routine looks like. Here are some questions I ask about students.
- What do they eat for breakfast?
- What do they do to get ready in the morning?
- What shows do they watch?
- What do they usually do on the weekend? On Saturday vs on Sunday?
- What is their class schedule? (usually I can just get a copy of it rather than ask verbally)
- Where do they live?
- Who lives in their home with them?
- When is their birthday?
- When are the birthdays of siblings and various family members?
- When do they wake up for school?
- When do they go to bed?
- When do they eat dinner?
Getting answers to these questions helps me come up with appropriate WH-questions to target with them in therapy and to make certain that they are understanding the question and *giving the correct response*. I have definitely had students who did not understand the question and therefore could not give a correct answer. Fortunately, if I know the answer to the question “What did you eat for breakfast?” or “Where did you go on Saturday?” beforehand, I can support the student in understanding the question and giving the correct response! If getting all this information seems overwhelming, start with the basics; ask family members to send a text, email, or note about what the student did each weekend. You can then ask questions tailored to the student’s experiences like “where did you go?” and “who went with you to X?” The other easiest thing to start with is your student’s schedule. You can work on questions like “When is Art?”, “Where do you go for 1st period?” and “Who teaches Social Studies?”
- Use written passages even for students with more significant oral language deficits. While it is true many of our students are several reading levels below their grade-level peers, most are still able to read simpler passages. For older grades and ages, using text is much more functional and relevant to their coursework as well as critical life skills (think reading instructions for recipes, manuals, traffic signs, etc). I have also noticed that students can go back and look at the text both for the key words (Who, What, Where, When, Why in the question asked) and for the answer, which they can underline or highlight. In fact, some of our students have hyperlexia, meaning reading fluency is actually significantly higher than their comprehension of the text; these students may very well benefit the most from having the text or passage to look back on. Build up from a 1-sentence “story” to longer text that is several sentences; obviously as the student progresses even further you can work on lengthier, more complex paragraphs and multi-paragraph texts as well. I absolutely love starting with this WH Questions Bundle by Shine Speech Activities because the first BOOM deck begins at a very basic 1-2 sentence level story to target Wh questions. After the student masters the 1-2 sentence comprehension task, they can move on to short paragraph stories (4-9 sentences in length). The Short Stories BOOM deck also introduces Why questions; I appreciate that this more challenging type of question is not targeted until the student has mastered Who, What, Where, and When at the 1-2 sentence level.
- Use basic visuals. I might be stating the obvious here, but I have seen a lot of graphic organizers with multiple pictures to demonstrate each Wh-question meaning. However, I find these graphics a bit much in the moment of answering a conversation question or a basic Wh-question about a short story. During teletherapy on Google Meets, for instance, I usually just use pagemarker to underline the Wh-word in the question and draw a little reminder on what the word means. For Where, I might sketch a house. For Who, I sketch a stick figure. For When, I tend to draw the two hands on a clock. You might choose something different depending on what you think will work for your students, but the idea is to keep your cue short, sweet, and simple so that every time the student see that WH-word, he/she also sees the paired visual “note” or reminder on what it means.
- Spend more time on When and Why questions. These are the hardest of the WH questions. When questions involve many variations of time including:
- day of the week
- clock time (ex: 11:15 am lunch)
- calendar date (ex: May 15th for an appointment)
- approximate time of day (morning, afternoon, evening, daytime, nighttime, lunch time)
- range of days particularly for routine activities or activities that go across multiple days (weekday, weekend)
When questions also ask in what situation you or someone else might do something. Some people refer to these as cause-effect questions but I prefer to call them situational questions because I like to clarify them as “in what situation would you do this?” as a follow-up verbal prompt. For instance, the question “When do you wash your hands?” is really synonymous with “in what situation would you wash your hands?” with answers including “when they are dirty” or “before I eat something”.
Speech & Language Kids gives a good summary of the many categories for When questions. I spend a lot of time on these types of questions and usually try to hit different subsets; one day we might be answering questions about a calendar or a schedule while at other points in therapy I might hone in on situational or cause-effect questions. Make sure to blend the sets of questions together and do some mixed exercises so the student does not get rigid in assuming When is only about situations or holidays, for instance. I also try to introduce my students to flexible thinking by giving examples of multiple answers; “When do you go to sleep?” can be answered with “at night”, “in the evening” or a an exactly clock time like “9 PM”.
- Have students ask the questions too. It is important that students practice asking WH-questions and not just answering them. One simple thing I have students do regularly is simply repeating a question that I asked them back onto me. For instance, if I ask them them “Where did you go on Saturday?”, I tell them to then “ask me”. Essentially, I model the exact question “Where did you go on Saturday?”, have them repeat and direct the question to me or a peer, and then have the student await the verbal response. This way, the student practices asking a functional, conversational Wh-question as well as processing a conversational partner’s answer to said question. I notice that as the student does this more often, he or she may start being able to ask certain routine questions with a partial model or independently. I have noticed a lot of progress with this approach with my autistic students who may initially use echolalia, essentially verbal imitation, to increase their comprehension and verbal language output. As students get a better grasp on the questions, they can direct their questions to peers, aides, and produce spontaneous questions without needing the model.
- Present a mix of different WH questions. This may be another bit of obvious advice but be wary of spending too much time on just one type of question without throwing in other types of WH questions that were previously partially or fully mastered. For students who have more difficulty with flexible thinking, they may come to expect that every Wh-question is asking for the same information and stop being attune to the differences in their pronunciations, meanings, and spelling. Basically, if you are working on any specific target like “What” for example, make you mix in some “Who” or “Where” in with the sets so the student is really paying attention to the differences. Don’t make the task so predictable that the student no longer has to think about it!
Well, that’s all I had to say about Wh questions! I hope that you benefit from implementing some of these ideas or activities into your own sessions! Feel free to comment with your thoughts, ideas, or questions below.