Using effective questioning with SEND pupils

Asking questions is a vital part of teaching. How can you support the process for pupils who may have cognition and learning needs, communication difficulties or anxiety?

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Natalie Packer is an independent education consultant, specialising in school improvement, SEN and outstanding teaching. She delivers a wide range of professional development packages for primary and secondary schools and supports initial teacher...

Questioning is central to developing our thinking and our capacity to learn. It is essential to enable pupils to practise their responses verbally, to check their understanding, to assess knowledge and to facilitate retrieval. Skilful questioning in the classroom is one of the most powerful tools available to you as a teacher as it makes the thinking process visible.

In his principles of instruction, Rosenshine notes that that more effective teachers tend to ask more questions, involve more pupils, probe in more depth and take more time to explain and clarify.

Quality is key, and you will need to carefully consider your questioning as part of the planning process, as well as targeting questions towards individual pupils appropriately. Knowing a pupil well will help you to target your questioning effectively; some pupils like to think aloud and will be eager to share their responses whilst others may not understand what is being asked, find it difficult to process the information quickly or lack confidence to answer.

For those pupils who have cognition and learning needs, communication difficulties or anxiety, here are some suggested strategies to support them through the questioning process.

Create the right climate

An inclusive approach to questioning will ensure everyone in the class contributes effectively. This starts with creating a climate where pupils feel safe to make mistakes and know it’s ok to have a go, even if they are unsure.

When asking a question directly to a pupil, it is often helpful to use their name first, so their attention is drawn

It is important that all contributions are valued by you, other adults and the rest of the class. Embedding a ‘no-hands up’ rule and using cold calling instead can help to make the questioning process more inclusive because all pupils are likely to be asked for a response. It also allows you to pitch your questions at an appropriate level.

Prepare pupils for questioning

To develop a pupil’s confidence, prepare them in advance by telling them what the key questions will be in the lesson, so they have time to consider their response. Pre-teach the vocabulary that pupils will need to respond to these key questions. If the pupil finds it difficult to hold a question in their head, provide it to them in a written form on a Post-it Note or whiteboard. Alternatively, voice-record the question so the pupil can replay it several times to remind them.

When asking a question directly to a pupil, it is often helpful to use their name first, so their attention is drawn, helping them to focus on the question from the start. If you are unsure that the pupil will be able to answer independently, ask for responses from others first so the pupil can hear examples.

Allow wait time

A lot of research has been conducted into the impact of teachers allowing more time between posing a question and accepting an answer, with benefits including lengthier responses and a reduction in responses of ‘I don’t know’ (see Melissa Kelly on Wait Time in Education for some background).

Try increasing the wait time in your class, particularly if a pupil finds processing a challenge, or if the question requires a more in-depth response.

All pupils, including those with cognitive needs, should have the opportunity to respond to more complex questions

Once you have given wait time, if a pupil is still unsure, repeat the question in the same way, unless you think the vocabulary was too difficult to understand in which case you might try rephrasing it. Give the pupil time to talk to a partner before answering a question, perhaps using the Think-Pair-Share strategy where pupils talk to a peer and agree on a response before sharing it with the rest of the group.

Alternatively, try Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce. This is where you ask a question to the class, give everyone thinking time, ask for a response from one pupil and then ask a second or third pupil to evaluate or add to the previous pupil’s answer. Some pupils may find it easier to respond to someone else’s answer during the ‘bounce’ phase.

Use a range of question types

Effective questioning involves using both closed and open-ended questions at the right time and with the right pupil. Closed questions are often best used for recalling taught content, whilst more open-ended questions can support pupils to express and develop their ideas, opinions and reasoning. The EEF’s original guidance report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants (2015) introduces a simple questioning matrix that can help you or other adults in your classroom to structure open and closed questions (see page 19). 

There is a danger of questioning demonstrating low expectations, for example if simple, superficial responses are praised or if certain pupils are only asked lower order questions. All pupils, including those with cognitive needs, should have the opportunity to respond to more complex questions. To initiate deeper thinking, try using Thunks. These are seemingly simple questions that can encourage higher order thinking, for example ‘What colour is Tuesday?’, or ‘Can you have a friend that you don’t really like?’.

Thunks can be used to spark general thinking or can be more targeted towards specific topics. For pupils who have social communication needs, remember that it might be helpful to ask very clear questions, avoiding too many idioms and metaphorical questions.

Scaffold your questioning

If a pupil is struggling to answer, try scaffolding your questioning to enable them to succeed with support. If a pupil lacks confidence, start by asking a question they are likely to be able to respond to positively, so they experience success before moving on to providing additional challenge with a more complex question. Using multiple-choice and providing options can make responding to questions less threatening. If the pupil is still unable to respond, try the Phone a friend technique: here a pupil who is struggling to answer can nominate another pupil to suggest an answer on their behalf. The first pupil still has to contribute by building on the other pupil's response.

For more examples of inclusive questioning strategies, take a look at Amjad Ali's Effective questioning strategies webinar.

Reflect on the inclusiveness of your questioning technique

  1. How do I create an effective climate for questioning in my class, so all pupils feel comfortable to contribute?
  2. Do I take the time to consider key questions when planning?
  3. Do I prepare pupils for questioning and allow sufficient wait time to ensure quality responses?
  4. Do I and other adults in my classroom use a range of questioning types effectively and scaffold questions where needed?
  5. What other strategies could I use to make questioning for pupils with SEND even more effective?


Last Updated: 
21 Apr 2021