by Susan Berkowitz
Welcome to May – ASHA’s Better Speech-Language-Hearing month. In the past few years, we have had a great abundance of ways to celebrate the technological access to better speech and language. Apps addressing various speech and language skills are plentiful, and parents are sometimes at a loss to figure out just which skills are important, what is developmentally appropriate for their child, and which apps introduce or teach the targeted skills in a way in which their child can learn.
One of the most difficult skills I have found during my 34 years as a speech-language pathologist to teach to students with autism and other severe language learning difficulties is how to answer Wh-questions. Research has shown that students with language delays actually learn how to answer Wh-questions in about the same order as typical kids. They just learn them later. Typical children do develop more successful strategies for formulating acceptable responses to Wh-questions. And, as we might expect, the ability to understand and respond with the general category of information required by the type of question develops a while before the ability to provide the correct answer. There are studies that have shown that children – both delayed and typical – from 3-7 are significantly less successful in figuring out what category of information is needed, and providing the answer requested; especially when the question refers to something not immediately in front of them.
While children with delayed language development may acquire skills with questions along the same general line as typically developing kids, we don’t know nearly as much about how kids with language learning disorders figure out how to answer Wh-questions.
Over the years, I have accumulated many responses to Wh-questions from my students/clients. “Where do you sleep?” “At night.” “When do you sleep?” “In bed.” And many of the children with whom I’ve worked simply repeat the last word heard, “sleep,” if they talk at all.
In order for these children to learn how to answer questions, they need first to be taught how to figure out what kind of a word is needed, and how to access these words in their vocabularies. That sounds logical, but many interventions focus more on learning rote responses to typical questions that actually teaching the strategy. And knowing what kind of a word is wanted to answer what kind of a Wh-question is crucial in learning the skill.
Answering Wh-questions is something that our children are asked to do on a daily basis. In school and at home, we are always wanting to know what did they do, who did they do it with, where were they, when did they do it. Where did the character go, when did this important event happen? What is he doing? From the most basic communicators to general education students answering questions is an important language skill that is the basis for much of our interacting. Imagine having a conversation without being able to ask and answer Wh-questions. Social interactions would come to a standstill. And for too many of our children, this is exactly what happens.
About Susan Berkowitz
Susan Berkowitz, ,M.S.,M.Ed. has been a speech-language pathologist for 34 years, working primarily with students with autism and other developmental disabilities and language learning disabilities. As well as Master’s degrees in speech-pathology/audiology and education administration, Susan also has backgrounds in special education, psychology, and applied behavior analysis. Susan has been working with augmentative and alternative communication for over 35 years. She has worked in public and private school settings, habilitation programs and residential settings. Susan performs AAC evaluations for UCP’s SDATC and in her own private practice, and consults throughout Southern California. She is also the developer of Questionit App.