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Use Jokes to Help Primary Children Grasp Grammar

If children are struggling to grasp some of the trickier bits of the English curriculum, turn the whole thing into a joke, says Giulia Baker...

  • Use Jokes to Help Primary Children Grasp Grammar

Why did the teacher have to wear sunglasses? Because her pupils were too bright. Do you get it?

Most of you will have heard this riddle at some stage or another.

If you first encountered it as an adult, it might have induced a groan, but if you were a child you may well have found it hilariously funny since it’s exactly the kind of thing that’s a hit with an audience of seven year olds – as a glance at any contemporary joke book will prove.

To enjoy the joke you first have to ‘get’ it. For a child, this means reflecting on the language used and identifying which words and phrases might have more than one meaning, then switching between the definitions until the correct ‘fit’ is found.

It’s more challenging than processing the language of, say, an age-appropriate fiction text, yet children are happy to stick with it because of the pleasure they get from unlocking the riddle.

Which is precisely why jokes are a great learning resource – few children, after all, would choose a lesson on grammar over one on jokes (though in reality the two are not mutually exclusive).

Riddles into resources

So far so good, but how exactly can riddles become part of lessons? What skills can they help to develop, and where do they actually fit into the curriculum?

The good news is that riddles can be used to meet multiple criteria teachers need to plan for on a daily basis. As short, self-contained texts, they provide opportunities for children to perform, listen, read, problem-solve, discuss, explain, compose and evaluate (that’s a lot of boxes ticked already).

Listening skills, in particular, are well served as children must pay close attention to strings of sound when a riddle is read aloud. Take the following, for example:

Why did the jelly wobble? Because it saw the milkshake.

In order for children to make sense of this riddle, they not only have to divide the sounds they’ve heard into phonemes, blends and words – they must also think about word boundaries and potential meanings.

Is it ‘milkshake’ or ‘milk shake’? Building on this can lead to discussions on compound words and the different ways in which they can be formed.

Giggling at grammar

The very act of ‘getting’ a riddle involves children having to consciously reflect upon word choices, language rules and linguistic concepts that might otherwise remain tacit. Consider this example:

How was the blind carpenter able to see? He picked up his hammer and saw.

Here we can introduce, practise and consolidate points such as homonyms (‘saw’), word class (is ‘saw’ a noun or a verb?) or tense (the irregular past tense of ‘see’ is ‘saw’).

All of these are difficult concepts to grasp, especially for those who struggle with the more formal aspects of literacy, but by introducing them in the context of a riddle we can make them altogether less daunting.

An idiom’s guide

How about using riddles to develop speaking and listening skills? Children enjoy explaining how they ‘get’ riddles and this, in turn, allows them to express their individual thoughts, ideas and understanding in a non-threatening and entertaining context.

Or what about working on the specialist vocabulary of specific linguistic concepts? Why not lead a discussion about phonemes using this riddle:

What’s a whale’s favourite food?’ Fish and ships. Or you could introduce children to idioms and figurative language with this classic: What does Spider-Man do when he’s angry? He goes up the wall.

While the focus here is on experimenting with and understanding linguistic concepts, the skills needed to ‘get’ a riddle are far more wide reaching. After all, can you think of any activity in which the ability to look at a problem from more than one angle is not useful or desirable?

Prepare to be dazzled

If at this point you’re still not entirely convinced that teaching English with riddles won’t get you laughed out of the classroom, I can offer you the assurance that academic research gives this approach the thumbs up.

It shows that working in this way develops creative thinking skills, higher order reading skills, and improves reading levels.

So next time you’re planning your language lesson, don’t rule out riddles. Give them a try and see the benefits they can bring for your pupils. You never know, it might prove so effective that you end up needing to wear sunglasses yourself!


How to teach with riddles

Find regular opportunities for learning in your classroom…

Speaking & listening

Discuss what riddles are and how they work with your class before reading a selection aloud. Encourage children to focus on the language used and to pick out the words and phrases responsible for making the riddles funny.

Use this as an opportunity to introduce, practise and consolidate terms and linguistic concepts such as phonemes, homonyms, homophones, compound words, tense, and idioms (although not necessarily all at the same time!). Point out that you sometimes have to go back and look for another meaning in order to ‘get’ a riddle.

Writing

Get children to brainstorm lists of homonyms, homophones, compound words, idioms etc. and use these as the basis for writing their own riddles. What riddle might they make from the idiom ‘a piece of cake’, for example? (‘Why did the schoolboy eat his homework? Because his teacher said it was a piece of cake!’)

Riddle box

Provide a riddle box in the classroom in which children can post any riddles they have heard / read / composed. Read out a selection at the end of each day (even if only two or three) and discuss what makes them funny, encouraging children to use the relevant terms for the different linguistic concepts that have been used to elicit humour.

Reading & reasoning

Introduce a multiple choice activity by providing a riddle together with three potential answers (only one of which is the riddle’s original punchline). Ask children to pick which they believe to be the ‘authentic’ answer and to justify their selection.

Performing & evaluating

Allow pupils to read their riddles to the rest of the class (or in pairs / groups). Encourage them to reflect on which language features worked best to make the riddles funny (and which didn’t) and how this knowledge can be used in future activities.

Story time

Read together the Amelia Bedelia books – not strictly riddles, but nonetheless humorous – in which Amelia frequently misunderstands directions (eg make a jelly roll) to reinforce the linguistic concepts used in riddles to create humour.


Giulia is a primary teacher and former literacy coordinator. She recently completed her PhD at Cardiff University investigating children’s understanding of verbal riddles.

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