Inside: your guide to asking the kinds of questions that will inspire your kids to think deeper and develop critical thinking skills. Scroll down to download the printable version of the picture book questions.
What are the good questions to ask during picture book reading time? How do you make story time more educational and help extend their thinking about the text?
Whether you are reading with your children every day or only occasionally, here’s how to maximize reading time and make it work even better.
What’s the point?
First of all, why bother, right? You are reading with your children, isn’t it enough?
However, asking questions helps kids:
– make connections,
– extract the lesson,
– think deeper, and
– put their thoughts into words.
All great stuff, isn’t it?
Besides, in my opinion, turning the reading into discussion makes it all much more fun for me as well. I get to know my kids better, discover new words they “picked up,” and guide them in finding the ‘hidden’ meaning.
For example, Jon Agee’s The Wall in The Middle Of The Book can be a story about a brick wall that keeps monsters away. Your kids will enjoy it very much. But if you give your kids a boost from a higher vantage point, they might see that the wall is a metaphor for closing our hearts to people different from us (i.e., that kid with different skin color at the playground). We build metaphorical walls to keep ourselves “safe,” and even though it creates an illusion of safety, it robs us of the full range of life’s experiences.
Ed Vere’s How to be a Lion can be a story of a lion who didn’t get much understanding from his own kind but hit it off well with a duck. With a deeper examination, though, your kids might discover that the story is also about the courage to be true to oneself, strength of spirit, and self-awareness, all wonderful things we want our kids to embrace and internalize.
(If you need more suggestions for fantastic books with great discussion points, check out my list of 100 Greatest Books Beyond the Classics (PIN it below). The books are divided into functional categories, such as Great Books with Great Lessons, Mind-Expanding books, etc.)
Here’s the problem
If you already tried asking questions during reading time with your kids, you know that not all questions are created equal. Ask kids if they like the book, and they will give you a quick yes or no, and run off to play.
In my experience, the worst questions are the ones that start with “what.”
“What did you like about this book?”
“I don’t know.”
As my older son explained to me, in a kid’s world, “I don’t know” might mean any of the following:
- I don’t want to think about it because I want to go play,
- I’m not exactly sure how to say it,
- I really don’t know.
I suspect that, in the past, my kids sometimes said they didn’t like the book when they did, just so I would stop asking questions.
I eventually figured out that it’s best to start light and then use questions to scaffold kids’ thinking. That way, they have the satisfaction of arriving at the “main” points on their own. It builds confidence and generates increased interest in those kinds of discussions in the future. (We all like to feel smart after all).
I don’t know if you are familiar with the concept of scaffolding in psychology, but Vygotksy is the name to explore if you are interested in this subject. Vygotsky was a Russian scientist who first described how scaffolding could be used as a tool for growth. His work on the “zone of proximal development” is a fascinating read if, like me, you get excited reading about how children learn.
The main idea is that we should give our children enough of a boost to help them get over the hill, but don’t carry them on our backs all the way there. I find that it’s a very relevant concept in today’s world, where adults have the time, money, and willingness to simply solve all their kids’ problems. They often end up telling kids exactly what to do and how to do it.
But back to the questions. I’ve assembled a list of ten questions and the follow-up scaffolding questions you can use to deepen the discussion. I hope it will be helpful for you. Here is to happy reading and fantastic conversation!
Picture Book Discussion Questions
1. Was the book a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” for you?
Kids love to move, and they have a lot of fun putting their response to the book into a physical motion. To be honest, I hadn’t realized that there exist so many ways to move a thumb up or down! I especially love when they start clarifying, “My thumb is not all the way up. It’s a little bit down because I didn’t like everything.”
2. Was there a specific scene, page, or illustration that caught your fancy?
I find that announcing, Let’s talk about your favorite moment in the book, always has an energizing effect.
Sometimes kids have so much to say about it, and other times they don’t know how to start. You might have to offer hints and suggestions to get the “party” started. You can go first and tell them what caught your fancy. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking and be a facilitator of learning.
After they share their favorite part, you can ask
- Why do you think that happened?
- What did you notice about it that caught your attention?
I find that their favorite moments are usually somehow connected to their own needs, experiences, interests, so I ask:
- How does that relate to your experience?
- How can you connect it to …?
- What does it mean, etc.
Helping kids relate and connect the story to their life is imperative. It’s not just that we remember things best when they connect to our interests and needs, but the ability to form connections is the basis of higher-order thinking.
3. Can you find one word to describe the main hero?
I am willing to bet that at least on one occasion, your kids are going to say something like “he’s poopy” or “she is boring.” In this case, I say that the word must be a characteristic that applies to them as well. I can see how their eyes light up when they realize that they share traits with the characters they consider to be totally different from them. This exercise is fantastic for building both empathy and self-knowledge.
For example, in John Burningham’s Edwardo The Most Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World, the main character tortures animals, but my kids had to admit that he was creative. With time, we also managed to decipher that he felt misunderstood, wanted to be loved, and had many other things in common with my kids. Let’s just say they were surprised.
Questions to get started:
- Who is the main character(s)?
- Is there one word that comes to mind when you think about this character?
- How is he/she like you?
If kids say the main character is brave or bad, or anything else, ask
- How do you know that?
- How did you come to that conclusion?
- Which parts of the book support that opinion?
4. Where does the bulk of the action take place?
If kids are not impressed with this question, ask them to imagine that they have access to a travel machine, and have to enter precise directions to get inside the book.
- What’s the setting? Past, future, now? Day or night?
- Is it in a forest, zoo, grandma’s apartment, or sausage aisle in a grocery store?
- Does the story take place in a real-world or a made-up world?
- Is it a place you can find on a map?
They have to be as specific as possible, so the travel machine takes them to the right place. This helps them place the book in their universe of knowledge and imagination, which will help them remember it and connect it with other stories near that “location.”
5. Did the story end to your liking?
There are so many ways to work with this question. You can start with a playful thumb up or thumb down. You can ask kids to rate the ending on a scale of 1 to 5 (they can hold fingers up). Another thing you can do is pick one specific aspect of the ending, and invite their thoughts about it.
You can ask,
- Would you solve the problem like that?
- Was there a better solution to the character’s problem?
- Have you ever felt that way?
Going a little further, you can say, the publishing company rejected the current ending; it’s up to you to write a better one. Grab a pen and a notebook and get ready to write down their ending. You can even start a folder to keep your kids’ alternative endings. It would be so much fun to reread in a few years.
6. How would you describe change and motion in the book?
Every book starts with one set of conditions, usually some kind of a problem, and then through a series of actions (a motion forward), the story gets to the end (where we see a resolution of a problem and a different set of conditions).
After explaining this to kids (if they are ready for this), ask them to pick an action verb that best describes the main action that served to solve the problem and move the story to a happy ending.
Sometimes it might be hard to pick just one action, and with other stories, it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment of change. I’m thinking of a book we read recently called Cry heart but never break, where the most significant motion is almost impossible to figure out because it’s a conversation. Kids usually think of action as kicking, running, and hitting, but you can remind them that talking and thinking are also action verbs.
In any case, trying to figure out the main action in the story always proves to be a great mental exercise, not only for my children but for me as well.
7. Who wrote the story?
You would be surprised how much interest kids have in this question and how animated they get talking about it.
One obvious way is to look at the back cover, where publishers often include the author’s photo with a short bio. If necessary, you can look up more info online.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting tidbits that make the process of becoming a writer come to life for my kids. Dav Pilsky’s first book was torn into pieces by an angry teacher (the book was Captain Underpants. Yep! The bestselling series, blockbuster movie, and popular TV series. That Captain Underpants!). Patricia Polacco didn’t know how to read until she was 14 (now she’s a bestselling author of over 100 books). The author of The Middle-Child Blues Kristyn Crow is one of seven children and is also the mother of seven. Go figure!
With older kids, another thing you can address here is the author’s voice.
How is this writer unique? Word choice, tone, point of view, first-person, or omniscient point of view, etc. Would you want to read another book by the same author?
8. How is art used in this book to help tell the story? OR How much (or how little) does the artwork in the book help to tell the story?
Oh, artwork! If you’ve been around Kid Minds for a while, you know I love to talk about picture book illustrations. There are many ways to start this conversation:
- What medium did the artist use to illustrate the story?
- Why is it a good/ bad way to help the story along?
- Why do you think that?
- How would you illustrate this story?
- Why do you think that would be a better way?
- Have you seen other books illustrated by the same artist?
- How are illustrations in this book similar/ different from other books that come to mind in relation to the story?
The goal here is to inspire kids to think about the art, to look at the pages closely, and of course, to develop a deeper appreciation for art and all it communicates.
9. Did you learn anything new from reading this book?
If kids have a hard time starting with this one, explain that every book we read gives us a new piece of information. Even if it’s a book we didn’t like. It might be a new word, or a different way to use the word they already knew, or a new character, plot twist, a new way of looking at things, or a new way of looking at ourselves.
Depending on the age of your kids, you can tackle thoroughly (and enthusiastically) your book’s theme, central idea, or life lesson! I love this part!!
- Does the book talk about what is right or what is wrong?
- Does the book show how to treat or not to treat other people?
- Is there a message that the author is trying to get across?
- How can you tell?
- Is it possible to look at this another way?
Or perhaps you will uncover that the book touched upon something they found interesting and want to know more about. Maybe the life lesson is a little over their heads, but they really want to know more about insects – bring it on!
- How can you find out more about this?
- Where can you look for reliable information?
10. Does this story remind you of another story?
By now, my kids are good at this; they can think of a dozen books that were similar in some ways. But if not, I can help them with
- How is this like…? (Specific examples with the same storyline, plot, pace, characters, point of view, etc.).
- Is there any connection between this book/ character/ theme and something discussed earlier?
Depending on the moment’s mood, we can choose to go into specifics and discuss in which ways they are similar or different.
And this is my guide to asking questions during story time! The last piece of warning: Have fun! Don’t treat these questions as a to-do list. Let it flow naturally. Familiarize yourself with the questions ahead of time, and see what pops to mind as you are reading with the kids. It’s probably going to be some aspect of the story that you are the most enthusiastic about. Your excitement will spread to your kids.
You can easily adapt it to a book club you might be hosting with older kids. Let me know if you have any questions. And feel free to download and print Picture Book Discussion Questions HERE.