The concept "ask"

Updated: Jun 1

Hopefully, children will eventually learn to ask many kinds of questions, e.g., “what”, “how”, “when”, “where’ questions, etc. (Detailed considerations for what goes into teaching "WH" questions can be found in recent article published in Association for Science in Autism Treatment; link to the article is found on homepage.)

But to 'ask questions' (e.g. "Where are you going?", "Did you make this cake?") is not to have the concept “ask”, it is to do something with words; to have learned a practice form "asking". On the other hand, for someone to say, "You'd better not ask me for a cupcake again, or you'll go to your room" is to threaten someone. Similarly, if someone says "I promise to ask Mommy to let you have it", is to make a promise. In both cases, the speaker has been able to appropriately use the word "ask"within these activities of threatening and promising. And, in both cases, since the word "ask" is used properly it suggests mastery of the use of the word “ask” so we might then say that the speaker has the concept "ask". To have the concept "ask" is to do nothing. We can also say, a child knows what "ask" means because the child uses and responds to the term appropriately...according to the conventions (rules) for its use.

To teach so that children eventually acquire the concept "ask", requires different teaching arrangements than those required to teach children to ask questions. If I want to teach a children to ask a "who" question or to request a piece of candy does not require understanding of the word "ask". But, eventually, children should learn to use the word "ask" (to learn its meaning) so that they might say, "I asked Daddy", or to say,"Go ask Mommy", or "Don't ask me again", and also be able to respond to requests to "ask"; which involves being able to formulate questions/requests. Being able to do both are bound up and requires extended and massive amounts of practice and eventually complex grammatical formulations involving pronoun and verb transformations (sometimes multiple transformations) are often required. For example, if I tell a child to “Ask Mommy when she is leaving”…the child needs to formulate the question , “Mommy, when are you leaving?” or if I tell a child to, “Ask Daddy where I should meet him?”… becomes a question formulated this way, “Daddy, where should Alan meet you?”.

But of course, once the question is asked and information is obtained, we expect a report. Reporting back comes with its own set of enormous complexities. So once the child has the information…the report will require yet more grammatical acrobatics. Take for example the last question above (“Where should Alan meet you?”). The report will sound something like this “Daddy said you should meet him in the kitchen.”

Attempting to help children acquire such abilities needs to be taken slowly, systematically, meticulously and discretely...and making sure that constituent abilities (rudimentary pronouns, rudimentary understanding of "wh" terms and other interrogatives, say vs. do, etc.) are ready for integration into different sets of linguistic activities. And, I'll repeat, when working on such highly advanced aspects of language instruction...discrete arrangements are required! (This may not be not de rigueur, but c'est la vie…sometimes, the realities of teaching/learning don’t fit neatly into popular conceptual or intervention systems AND may even alert some that their assumptions about teaching language may need to be revised …one can only hope).

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