Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Yes/No Series - Part Two

Teaching Yes/No

There is so much more in the world to say than yes/no, yet it is still a vital skill, especially in fast moving situations and medical situations.  We often times see goals on IEPs for learners with severe special needs about yes/no and I will be the first to admit I have done this poorly in the past.  Like many people I had a tendency to believe that if we just practiced enough we would eventually successfully teach yes/no.  Thus many of my students sat through daily "drill" in which they were asked ten yes or no questions and were given positive reinforcement or rewards when they were correct.  Not surprisingly this wasn't effective for many of them.

First we must understand not all yes/no questions are created equally.  "Do you want a cookie?" is far from "Was Washington the third president?".  Think about "Do you want to go home?" versus "You do want to go home, don't you?"  All of these questions are yes/no questions.  Anyone of these could be tossed out in a yes/no drill.  Yet they presume different cognitive and language skills and different types of motivation.

Some of the different types of yes/no are:

  • Accept/reject "Do you want your blanket?"
    • Choice "How about the blue one?"
  • Affirm/deny 
    • Possession "Is this your coat?"
    • Preference "Do you like the red one?"
    • Label "Is this a table?"
    • Function of objects "Does a vacuum walk?"
    • Test knowledge "Is it facing north?"
    • Comparison "Is a dog older than a puppy?"
    • Relative time "Did that happen first?"
    • Preference "Do you like apples?"
  • Rhetorical question "How 'bout them apples?"
For our learners we start by focusing on accept/reject.  We need to avoid the other kinds of yes/no until we are sure that the student understands that yes is accept and no is reject.  Then we will work on different types of yes/no questions.

One way to work yes/no is accept/reject this is by offering choices in the following manner:
  • teacher: "Do you want milk or no?"
  • student: eyegazes to milk
  • teacher: "yes, you want milk." while modeling the students yes response, whatever that is
Another example:
  • teacher: "Would you like the purple one or no?"
  • student: pushes away the purple one
  • teacher "No, you do no want the purple one!" again, while modeling the way the student would show this
We must be careful in doing this type of accept/reject question that we do not assume that we know what the child wants.  A child might love soda, so you ask, "Do you want soda?" and the child communicates "no".   A "no" is a "no".  Perhaps the child already had plenty of soda, or perhaps he or she has a sore throat, or perhaps his parent told him "don't you have soda today!".  Or maybe the child doesn't yet understand yes/no.  

If that is the case modeling that no means you rejected the thing that was offered by taking away/no giving soda is essential.  If the student becomes upset because they wanted soda you can wait a minute and offer again, "Do you want soda? Yes."  This time you answer your own question both verbally and by modeling the yes response.  This give a cue to the child that the answer is yes.  You already established that they want the soda (the complaining when you took it away after they said no) so you can teach the yes response by modeling it.  

Another thing to be careful is the tendency to for adults to use their words just to fill space.  How often do you hear, "Yes or no?  Do you want the ball?  Yes or no?  The ball?  Tell me yes or no?"  Imagine how confusing that is if the child doesn't understand the concept yes and no.  Imagine how confusing it is if the child has language processing issues and that is just too many words.  So many of our students just choose what ever comes last and this is one of the ways we unintentionally teach them to do that.  We teach them that if they wait for us to pause and repeat whatever the last thing we said/did was they will be rewarded. Sometimes our students will even answer with "yes or no" or even by parroting "tell me yes or no".  A key to teaching anything is wait time.  And a key to teaching yes/no is refraining from using the phrase, "Tell me yes or no." 

Another important part of teaching this type of yes/no is by having all those in the environment model it; aides, parents, peers.  We should model it verbally and in the same means that our student should express it.  The more we explicitly show how yes/no work the faster our student will learn.


  1. Thanks so much, Kate, for working to end the dreaded phrase "tell me yes or no." Then ONLY time I've ever heard that said to verbal kids is when a parent or teacher has reached the end of their rope...NOT a good message for our non-verbal kids. Communication is sharing ideas, regardless of method of expression, so this phrase has simply got to go.

  2. Wait time can be critical for many. It can sometimes take my son 15-20 seconds, or more, to process the question, make a decision, then answer. I've learned to ask the question once then wait quietly!

  3. I will definitely invest in these books because they really seem like they are going to be helpful!


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