Knock knock - Who's there? A better grasp of English

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Study shows that word-play jokes and riddles improve pupils' reading comprehension

Learning why jokes are funny can improve children's reading more than simply studying sentences, a new study has found.

Jokes and riddles which revolve around word play, such as, "How do you make a sausage roll? Push it down the hill," help expand children's understanding of how English works.

The study, from York University, looked specifically at how to help pupils who can read aloud fluently, but have difficulties with comprehension.

Around one in 13 pupils are estimated to have this problem, resulting in them reading well but not picking up inferred meanings.

They could read, for example, "Kelly dropped the vase, she ran to sweep up the pieces," but would not understand where the pieces in the second sentence had come from.

The Reading for Meaning project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has compared different techniques for improving reading comprehension.

The programme took 160 Year 4 children in 20 schools and randomly assigned them to one of four groups - the first three either had help with reading skills, oral skills or both. The fourth group had no intervention.

The first three groups had 30-minute sessions each week for 20 weeks with a teaching assistant.

Initially children in the combined reading and oral skills groups performed the best when tested at the end of the course.

But one year on the children were re-tested and it was found that pupils who focused solely on speaking and listening skills - including learning jokes - had overtaken their classmates in reading comprehension.

The long-term impact of techniques such as learning jokes and riddles is greater than encouraging pupils to re-read passages and visualise scenes, the research suggests.

Charles Hulme, professor of psychology at York University, who led the research, described the results as "remarkable".

"The children on the oral language programme carried on making progress, whereas the children in the other two groups stayed about the same," he said.

"The long-term pattern was that the oral language group came out better than the others. We seem to have engendered some enduring changes in those children's learning.

"I do believe we have changed their connection with language, which makes them more active learners. More needs to be done to pin it down but the pattern of results is certainly remarkable."

Jokes that boost children's reading ...

Dr Nicola Yuill, of Sussex University, has done work on using jokes and riddles to aid comprehension. Some of the examples she uses include:

- Does this restaurant serve fish? Yes, what would you like to eat Mr Fish?

- How do you stop the bed getting cold at night? Put bedsocks on.

- Choose the correct ending: why did the leopard never escape from the zoo? Because it was always spotted, or because it ran too slowly.

... and some that may not help, but make teachers chuckle

- Q: Why did the teacher have crossed eyes?

A: Because she couldn't control her pupils.

- Teacher: Jack, what did you write your report on?

Jack: A piece of paper, Sir.

- Teacher: Molly, your ideas are like diamonds.

Molly: You mean they are so valuable?

Teacher: No, I mean they are so rare.

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