What’s in a Question? A lot, actually.

The issue

When carefully considered, the right kinds of questions can help to activate background knowledge, serve as a formative assessment tool, support critical thinking, help prompt students to make inferences, and support executive functioning skills. Given these benefits, studies have illuminated that in the general education setting, more than half of questions asked by teachers are classified as “lower-level” (remember, understand, apply) and only 20% of questions asked during instruction are classified as “higher-level” (analyze, evaluate, create).

In the deaf education classroom, the number of higher-level questions asked during instruction may even be lower. A dissertation study published in 2015 revealed that 94% of questions asked by teachers of the deaf in the upper-grades were classified as lower-level and that overall, instruction was largely directive in nature.

What we know

The way we use questioning in the educational setting (and beyond) has a direct impact on language development and learning gains. Simply increasing the frequency of high-level questions leads to superior learning gains, longer and more complex student responses, more relevant contributions by students, more peer-to-peer interaction, use of complete sentences, and more time spent on inference and speculative thinking.

However, questioning practices and techniques are not typically a central focus in teacher preparation programs and most teachers have had little to no training on how to ask questions in the instructional setting. As such, they may not know the best ways of constructing and presenting questions during instruction.

What we don’t know

While preliminary research has given us a glimpse of what teachers in the deaf education classroom are doing, we still do not have a comprehensive understanding of how they use and integrate questioning and inquiry-based learning during instruction. Additionally, there are currently no evidence-based practices for fostering strategic and effective questioning and inquiry-based learning in the deaf education classroom.

Studies on questioning show correlations between inquiry-based models and student achievement, however, they do NOT identify best practices for use in low-language classrooms, such as those found in many deaf education settings.


A focus on the use of higher-order questioning should be emphasized when communicating with deaf and hard-of-hearing children both in the home and in the classroom setting. This can be accomplished by encouraging teachers and caregivers to deliberately plan questions during instruction and day-to-day communication.

When planning questions, there should be a clear goal and purpose and avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  Make sure language is clear and intentional. For those teachers and caregivers asking questions in their second language (e.g., American Sign Language), make sure the correct linguistic structure is used. Take care to be precise and conceptually accurate when presenting the question. Finally, try to anticipate possible responses and identify strategies for when students do not answer.

Teachers and caregivers can start by using some of these best practices:

Clarify thinking. Use expansion techniques to help children express their thoughts and make better connections. Consider asking questions such as: “What did you mean by that?” and “Could you explain further?”.

Ask for evidence. Build critical thinking and academic discourse strategies that are based on evidence.  Consider asking questions such as: “How do you know that?” and “Why do you say that?”

Seek alternative viewpoints. During discourse, support global inference skills (text-to-world) connections by encouraging children to understand things in different ways. Consider asking questions such as: “What if you had to deal with the same issue?” and “How might this affect …?”

Question the question.  Help children see the purpose of your question and to explore things at deeper levels. Consider asking questions such as: Why do you think that I asked that question?” and  Why was that question important?”.

Be prepared to model strategies for answering questions, particularly for those students who have difficulties using language. Don’t avoid asking certain types of questions because students have difficulty answering them. Instead, find opportunities to practice and model asking and answering questions to support language and critical thinking skills. Lastly, it is important to be deliberate, yet flexible when planning questions, as it is impossible to anticipate all possible situations.

Posted on June 25, 2020 by
Michella Maiorana-Basas
Flagler College

Further reading