We can all appreciate that sharing a moment of humour has the benefit of helping children feel less uncomfortable and more able to engage.

Did you know that there is also evidence to suggest that jokes and puns can help children develop language and communication skills?

Jokes and puns have a ‘language’ of their own with all the rules and conventions that make us laugh… or groan!  Jokes help children to explore the characteristics of language (similarity of sound, ambiguity of meaning) and help develop comprehension skills.  The language knowledge and thinking skills needed to understand jokes and puns is often very high-level. 

What did one traffic light say to the other traffic light?
Don't look at me, I'm changing.

To get the joke, a child would need to a) understand the more obvious meaning of the word changing in respect of traffic lights, b) then identify that the same word can have a second, more ‘naughty’, meaning, then c) put together the two possible meanings of the same word and compare them in the context… it’s the idea that traffic lights might be taking their clothes off that’s funny (or not!).

In this example, the joke is based on the word ‘changing’ having two (related) meanings.  Another example would be:

What is the difference between a fireman and a soldier?
You can't dip a fireman in your egg.

Puns are also often based on words with different spellings and meanings sounding the same, or similar.

What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison?

You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.

To really ‘get’ this joke, you need to know that buffalo and bison are similar animals (commonly confused as being the same thing); you also need to recognise that, especially in a certain accent, the words bison and basin sound very similar and, of course, to know what a basin is!  That’s quite a lot of opportunity to develop vocabulary, explore word meanings and make connections to wider knowledge in two lines!

Other jokes play with words and language itself as the source of humour:

What's orange and sounds like a parrot?
A carrot.

On a practical level, jokes are short and often easier for a child to read to you or with you, but we can also think of jokes as stories in miniature: great for practicing the skills we need to read for meaning. 

I thought I might become a history teacher when I grow up, but then I realised there was no future in it. 

Jokes can help children to determine the relative importance of pieces of information and to learn to remember a story in order. Children often find it difficult to relate things in the correct order: making sure that the end comes at the end and not in the middle! The ability to pick out the important elements and understand the sequence of events are both important in comprehension.  Remembering and telling simple jokes to other people is a good way to practice these skills, and making people laugh feels good and gives us confidence to keep trying.

Pupil: I'd like to bring my five dogs to school.
Teacher: But what about the noise and mess?
Pupil: Oh, they won't mind.

Jokes prompt us to create pictures in our mind, challenging our imagination and asking us to visualise, literally 'see the joke' for ourselves.  Punch lines teach children to expect the unexpected and appreciate the importance of surprise and anticipation. 

Good readers think about what they are reading, organise new information and match it with information that they already know, ask mental questions, look for possible answers and mentally picture objects and events that relate to the text. In other words they are actively engaged in their reading. To enjoy a good joke we need to do all these things and the reward is a good laugh. The skills that jokes develop are vital to be an effective reader and communicator.

Want to read this elsewhere? You can download this in PDF format. 

If you have any more great tips on how to engage reluctant and struggling readers, then speak to us as we'd love to hear them. Or why not put your tips into action by becoming a Coram Beanstalk reading helper?