Engaging children in meaningful, responsive, and intentional discussions is a key teaching practice for early childhood educators and essential for developing children’s oral language and communication.
Adults’ positive engagements with children promote emotional security, children’s sense of belonging, cultural and conceptual understandings.
- VEYLDF (2016) Practice Principle Respectful Relationships and Responsive Engagement.
In this teaching practice, we will explore key pedagogical strategies to involve children in purposeful discussions, investigations, and more specifically ‘sustained shared thinking’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002; 2003).
The benefits of discussions and investigations
The importance of engaging children in meaningful and sustained discussions is reiterated throughout the VEYLDF (2016).
Early childhood professionals: engage in sustained shared conversations with children to explore equity and diversity, to promote each child’s sense of identity - VEYLDF (2016) Practice Principle Equity and Diversity.
There is a strong theme of sustained conversations and discussions to develop children’s knowledge and language. The VEYLDF also emphasises the usefulness of discussions for understanding children’s perspectives and assessing their knowledge.
Early childhood professionals:
support sustained shared thinking; …
listen to, hear and take into account the views and feelings of each child
- VEYLDF (2016)Practice Principle Respectful Relationships and Responsive Engagement
‘Sustained shared thinking’ is a particular type of discussion, where children and educators collaboratively discuss, problem solve, and evaluate issues in an extended way (see below). Sustained shared thinking has a strong link with facilitating and extending children’s play:
The concept of sustained shared thinking allows educators to think about how they can collaborate progressively with children by actively moving towards more interactive purposeful play...
Ridgway, Quiñones and Li (2015,p. 34)
Types of questions
An important starting place when planning discussions with children, is considering the questions you ask:
Young children love to ask questions. It’s one of the ways in which they make sense of the world and their place in it .Questions are also a powerful tool for educators to promote children’s thinking and learning. They exercise their sense of agency and develop valuable and complex problem-solving skills.
Touhill for National Quality Scheme (2012).
Below we explore the levels and types of questions we can ask. Educators can alternate between these types and levels strategically, depending on the child’s language skills and the purpose of asking the question.
Levels of questions
The following framework originates from the influential work of Marion Blank (Blank, Rose and Berlin, 1978) who wrote about how educators can use complex questions to ensure that children can understand and respond. Below is an introduction to Blank’s levels of questions. Educators can choose when to use the question levels depending on the child’s age, language level, and familiarity with the topic.
Level 1: questions about “here and now”
(early communicators onwards)
Questions that are about immediate situation you are sharing with a child. These involve concrete thinking (rather than abstract).
- What’s this?
- What is.....doing?
- What can you see?
- Is that a .....? (yes or no)
Level 2: questions requiring description and/or interpretation
(early language users onwards)
Questions that are about classifying/grouping objects, and describing “how things work”, or “what things are for”.
- Where’s the .....?
- Which one is ..... (a fruit)?
- What is happening in the picture?
- Find something that can ..... (cut)
- How are these different?
- What are .....for?
Level 3: questions needing evaluation/interpretation/prediction
(~36 months onwards: some early language users, language and emergent literacy learners)
Questions that require children to use their own knowledge to:
- make basic predictions (I think it will drop down faster!)
- figure out what something means (I think that means heavy)
- infer what might be going on (It looks like the air is pushing it)
- make generalisations (I think heavy things fall faster than light things).
This level is related to the skill of inferences (see
Higher order language), as children have to think and talk about things they might not be able to see clearly or touch.
- what will happen next? (prediction)
- what is a ..... ? (definition/description)
- how do I make.....(a sandwich)? (explanation)
- what is not furniture/animal etc in this picture? (classification)
- so what can we learn from this? (generalisation)
- how do you think he feels? (inference)
Level 4: questions about the past/present/future; needing explanations
(language and emergent literacy learners and beyond)
In this level, questions involve problem solving, predictions, solutions and more detailed explanations. These require children’s own knowledge and their ability to think about the past, present and future.
- what will happen if s/he doesn’t? (prediction of change)
- why do you think s/he did that? (inference, explanation)
- how did s/he do that? (cause)
- what should we do now? (solution)
- when do we ?
- why can’t we ..... (eat lollies for every meal)?” (justification)
Closed vs. open-ended questions
Closed questions encourage short, or one-word responses – and are useful for checking comprehension and leading discussions a certain way.
Answers can be yes or no, or a single word or phrase. Some examples of closed questions include:
- what is this/that?
- where is the ...?
- do you like ...?
- do you want ...?
- is this a ...?
- is s/he ...?
- is this right?
- did s/he ...?
- which one is it?
- where should this go?
- should I do it this way?
- show me the ...
- find the ...
- when did ...?
- when did this happen?
On the other hand, an open-ended question encourages full and meaningful answers, using children’s own knowledge and feelings.
Open-ended questions help to support sustained shared thinking. The questions are organised from basic to more complex, so educators can make sure they ask questions that children will be able to understand and respond to:
- tell me more ...
- tell me what’s happening here?
- tell me about ...
- tell me what that is?
- I wonder what you are doing here?
- I wonder what happens if...
- I wonder why...
- what can you do about it?
- what will happen next?
- what else can you do?
- what do you think would work?
- what do you think comes next?
- how do you know that ...?
- how did this happen?
- how do you think it could work?
- how are these the same?
- how are these different?
- how did you do that?
- why do you think this happened?
- why did you...?
- why do you say that…?
- why do you think...?
- can you do it another way?
- is there another way to...?
Open-ended questions are usually preferred because they allow for more discussion opportunities. Open-ended questions encourage children to express their ideas fully and use more complex language.
However, educators will alternate between open-ended and closed questions, depending on the purpose of the question. This is important to consider in light of the approach used in a learning experience, for example adult-led vs. child-directed vs. guided play and learning.
Effective early childhood practices use integrated teaching and learning approaches to support sustained and shared interactions with children.
- VEYLDF (2016) Practice principle integrated teaching and learning approaches
Using questions effectively
When engaging children in discussions, educators need to balance between two priorities:
- wanting to encourage children to use language to communicate more complex ideas (rather than one-word responses)
- wanting to ensure that children can understand and respond to the questions you ask.
The next section explores the pedagogical strategy sustained shared thinking, which can help educators to keep discussions going, and extend on children’s ideas.
One of the best aspects of inquiry-based approaches is that they often lead to extended, ongoing investigations. Learning experiences that extend beyond one-off activities, that can be repeated or returned to, and that lend themselves to ongoing involvement, encourage deep learning.
- Touhill National Quality Scheme (2012, p. 2)
Educators can use the following types of investigations to develop and scaffold children’s oral language skills:
'Hands on’ investigations
- searching and finding (for example treasure hunt, digging up potatoes)
- building or constructing (for example creating a cubby house, decorating a play corner)
- exploring physical phenomena (for example exploring shadows, discovering different plants)
Exploring concepts and ideas relating to science, arts, sustainability, culture.
- why sustainability is important
- how to reduce waste in the centre
- exploring meanings of words.
Combinations of ‘hands on’ and conceptual investigations
- Scientific experiments
- Planning and creating artworks
- Setting up new materials within the centre (for example worm farm, aquarium, terrarium, indoor/outdoor installation):
- exploring how plants grow
- exploring where water comes from
- exploring how worm farms work
Pedagogical strategies to develop children’s language and problem solving during investigations are explored below.
Sustained shared thinking
Sustained shared thinking is defined as:
… any episode in which two or more individuals 'worked together' in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. To count as sustained shared thinking, both parties had to be contributing to the thinking and it had to be shown to develop and extend thinking.
- Siraj-Blatchford (2010, p. 157)
For early childhood professionals, sustained shared thinking involves children and educators working together in conversations that provide opportunities to discuss and think about problems or challenges in a serious, extended way (VEYLDF, 2016).
Conversations that encourage sustained, shared thinking involve:
- genuine, back-and-forth discussion and inquiry
- collaborative problem solving
Enabling sustained shared thinking
Research into sustained shared thinking has shown that it is most likely to occur when children are interacting one-on-one with an adult or with a single peer partner (Sylva et al. 2008).
While sustained shared thinking in guided discussions and investigations is possible, the research shows that:
Freely chosen play activities often provided the best opportunities for adults to extend children’s thinking. Adults need therefore, to create opportunities to extend child-initiated play as well as teacher-initiated group work, as both have been found to be important vehicles for promoting learning. - Sylva et al. (2008, p. 6)
Siraj-Blatchford (2009) describes a key pedagogical sequence for developing children’s language: modelling, scaffolding, extension. This sequence can be applied to discussions, investigations and sustained shared thinking episodes, in order to help children build their language and problem solving skills. Examples of how this might look are below:
Modelling includes the demonstration of activities accompanied by the child’s attention and interest as well as a verbal commentary from the adult.
- Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, p. 144)
Modelling for sustained shared thinking could involve:
- showing children an example of how to solve the problem, or reach the answer
- using ‘think alouds’ to describe how the educator is doing the task: for example “First, I will …, and then I will …, and then I can… "
It’s important to scaffold children’s understanding and thought processes, to help them to solve problems, or reach deeper meanings
Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, p. 144) sees scaffolding as:
…an interaction which requires the teacher to know the target child’s level of knowledge, and to stretch his/her abilities through a series of questions or comments in order to take the child to a higher level of knowledge than s/he would have had before.
An important part of scaffolding children’s responses is prompting children’s thought processes. This can help gain knowledge about what children know, and what the next steps are to develop deeper knowledge.
Scaffolding during discussions, investigations, or play could involve:
- helping children to plan their strategy or approach: “What do you need to do?"
- helping children to review their actions or steps: “What have you tried so far? Has it worked?”
- helping children to break ideas or tasks down into smaller steps
- ensuring that the first step is something that children can already do
- providing cues and prompts to help children to work through the steps to solve the problem or reach the answer: “You might need to … to get it to work.”, “Looks like you need to to ..."
Extending is … when the practitioner makes a suggestion to allow the child to see other possibilities in the activity in which s/he is taking part. For example, the target child is arranging farm animals within a fence, the practitioner approaches and asks how the animals will get out. This then encourages the child to consider the need for a gate within the fence and his/her play takes a new direction.
Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, p. 144)
Extending children’s thinking could involve:
- Providing suggestions to help children extend their ideas: “Have you thought about trying this?” “What if you …?”
- Prompting children to explain their thinking: “Why do you think…?" “Where does this idea come from?”
- Helping children to think through alternatives: “That would be one way, what’s another way we could try?"
Examples of sustained shared thinking
The following example is from one of the toolkit videos, during a
- child 1: You can’t go near a volcano
- educator: Why wouldn’t you be able to go near a volcano?
- child 1: If you touch it, it would burn our finger off!
- educator: What’s that telling us about the temperature?
- child 1: Very hot!
- educator: Ve-ry very hot!
- educator: Can you see what’s happening on the outside of the volcano?
- child 1: The other stuff is coming out to make it … like whooshy
- educator: Can you see there are little patterns there that weren’t there before… on the volcano now… [pause] Look what’s happened to the sand … If you look very carefully, what can you see?
- child 2: Little holes
- child 1: It’s changed colour.
- educator: There are holes
- child 1: Because the bubbles made the holes
- educator: Because the bubbles made the holes. Did you hear [child 1]? Can you tell us again [child 1]?
- child: The bubbles made the holes
This exchange shows how the educator can use prompts, open-ended questions, and requests for clarification or repetition to extend upon and consolidate children’s thinking. There is also a sustained shared thinking example in Siraj-Blatchford (2009, p. 79), where an educator interacts with children through play.
Supporting children’s sustained shared thinking can take many forms, but always involves back-and-forth conversation, and genuine collaboration to solve a problem, discuss ideas in detail, or extend upon a narrative.
In the next section, we will look at how the Interacting with others learning foci can be embedded in discussions and investigations including sustained shared thinking.
Embedding learning foci in discussions and investigations
When setting up discussions or investigation experiences, think of what language concepts, words, sentences, stories, and discussions could be embedded.
Choose resources and create experiences that encourage interaction and problem solving between children and with educators.
Provide opportunities for turn-taking, modelling, and scaffolding of children’s language during discussions. When using this teaching practice to engage children in rich, meaningful discussions there are a range of learning foci that educators can embed in these experiences. See the experience plans for more detailed examples (links further below).
Making meaning and expressing ideas:
- encouraging children to participate in discussions, investigations, and sustained shared thinking
- facilitating experiences where children act as both contributors, and listeners
- using think aloud strategies to model to children how to make sense of information shared by the group. For example, “That’s interesting. Hassan has suggested we need a bigger piece of material to make the kite work. What do we think about that?”
- checking children’s comprehension of discussions by using a mix of closed and open-ended questions (see above).
Concept development and vocabulary:
- thinking about what words and concepts can be embedded within a discussion, investigation, or play scenario depending on the situation, there may be more advanced vocabulary you could introduce, relating to concepts about sustainability, culture, science, mathematics, technology, geography, history.
- using new experiences as opportunities to introduce new vocabulary and concepts.
- expanding and extending on what children say
- modelling examples of advanced language like ‘do you think it looks like this because it has been designed that way?’, and ‘I think we need to find one which can fly higher and faster than the plane we have here’
Conversation and social skills:
- facilitating children’s appropriate turn taking, sharing, and negotiating when working to find solutions
- using modelling, scaffolding, and extending of children’s conversational turns to develop their abilities in sharing, collaboration, listening to and appreciating others’ opinions, negotiating, and resolving differences of opinion.
Stories and narratives:
- Sustained shared thinking can involve extending upon a narrative after engaging in a storytelling or book reading experience, use the pedagogical strategies (above) to support children’s sustained shared thinking
Explanations and sharing information:
- using questions/prompts to spark discussion
- allowing children the chance to elaborate, recap and review their ideas
- by using open-ended questions, encourage children to discuss their ideas and explain their thinking
- challenging children to extend their thinking using the prompts explored above
- asking what for, why, and how questions help children to express their opinions and observations
- providing opportunities for children to suggest and wonder, as well as summarise and reflect on their thinking
- go further with discussions/investigations/play by encouraging reflection through subsequent fine arts or performing arts experiences
- using new experiences as opportunities to introduce new challenges for children’s thinking
Higher order language:
- modelling the use of metalinguistic terms like ‘word’, ‘sentence’ and ‘idea’, to facilitate children’s emerging ability to think about their language and thinking (metacognition)
- explaining any figurative (non-literal) language that comes up during discussions, investigations or play
- modelling the use of a written language style of communicating (decontextualised language), using more specific vocabulary and more complex grammar.
Theory to practice
Siraj and colleagues (for example Siraj-Blatchford, 2009; Sylva et al., 2008) argue that sustained shared thinking aligns best with Vygotsky’s (1967)notion of the zone of proximal development and with Bruner’s (1996)idea that culture shapes the mind, and that learning cannot be separated from its situated context.
Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, p., 26) propose that:
Learning is seen as situated social practice, where the individual is developing her/his identity as a member of a particular community and this is seen as a socially negotiated and mediated process.
Other important theoretical groundings for sustained shared thinking include:
- Alexander’s(2004) ‘dialogic teaching’
- Bruner’s ‘mutualist and dialectical pedagogy’
- Wells’ (1999) ‘dialogic enquiry’
- Mercer’s (1995) ‘interthinking’
- Wells, Lindfor’s (1999) ‘dialogue of enquiry’ … Cited in Sylva et al. (2008, p. 113)
Sustained shared thinking is a teaching practice specifically tailored for interactions within early childhood settings, and has been derived from real life interactions (Sylva et al., 2008, p. 113).
For these reasons, sustained shared thinking is particularly useful for fostering deep, and meaningful discussions, investigations, and play.
Much of the evidence for sustained shared thinking comes from the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (2004). In a series of papers and reports, Siraj-Blatchford and colleagues have demonstrated the association between sustained shared thinking episodes, and the effectiveness of early childhood settings:
When it does occur, it has been shown to extend children’s thinking. Our investigations of adult-child interaction have led us to the view that periods of ‘sustained shared thinking’ are a necessary pre-requisite for the most effective early years settings, especially where this is also encouraged in the home through parent support. Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002, pp. 9-10)
Research demonstrated that sustained shared thinking did not occur frequently in typical early childhood practice (see Siraj-Blatchford, 2010).
This group's research, also indicated that open-ended questioning and modelling were also associated with higher cognitive development in children (Sylva et al., 2004 p. 5)
Links to VEYLDF
Outcome 1: identity
Children feel safe, secure and supported:
- confidently explore and engage with social and physical environments through relationships and play.
Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities:
- explore different identities and points of view in dramatic play
- learn to interact in relation to others with care, empathy and respect
- engage in and contribute to shared play experiences.
Outcome 2: community
Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation:
- cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
- build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
- understand different ways of contributing through play and projects.
Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment:
- use play to investigate, project and explore new ideas.
Outcome 4: learning
Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity:
- use play to investigate, imagine and explore ideas
- initiate and contribute to play experiences emerging from their own ideas.
Children transfer and adapt what they have learnt from one context to another:
- use the processes of play, reflection and investigation to problem-solve.
Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials:
- explore ideas and theories using imagination, creativity and play.
Outcome 5: communication
Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes:
- use language and representations from play, music and art to share and project meaning
- contribute their ideas and experiences in play and small and large group discussion
- exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play
- express ideas and feelings and understand and respect the perspectives of others
- use language to communicate thinking about quantities to describe attributes of objects and collections, and to explain mathematical ideas
- show increasing knowledge, understanding and skill in conveying meaning.
Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:
- use language and engage in symbolic play to imagine and create roles, scripts and ideas
- share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
- use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning.
Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:
- use symbols in play to represent and make meaning.
Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking:
- use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
- use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
- engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.
Experience plans and videos
For early communicators (birth - 18 months):
For early language users (12 - 36 months):
For language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):
Links to learning foci and teaching practices
Higher order language
Blank, M., Rose, S. A., and Berlin, L. J. (1978). The language of learning: The preschool years. Grune and Stratton.
Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010). ‘A focus on pedagogy: Case studies of effective practice’ in K. Sylva, E. Melhuish, P. Sammons, I. Siraj-Blatchford, B. Taggart (Eds.) Early childhood matters: Evidence from the Effective Pre-school and Primary Education Project. London, New York: Routledge.
Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R. and Bell, D. (2002).Researching effective pedagogy in the early years (REPEY): DfES Research Report 356. London: DfES, HMSO.
Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., and Taggart, B. (2008). Final report from the primary phase: Pre-school, school and family influences on children's development during Key Stage 2 (7-11).DCSF RR 061, Nottingham: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Touhill, L. (2012). Inquiry-based learning. NQS PLP e-Newsletter, 45, 1-4. Accessed 4th March 2018
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10 .Retrieved 3 March 2018,
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.