A fun grammar lesson? You must be joking

14th September 2018 at 00:00
While learning the rules of language is vital, pupils can find it difficult to engage with this complex subject, so use the connection between linguistics and joke-writing to embed grammatical knowledge, urges children’s author Gareth P Jones

How did the fronted adverbial go to the party?

Happily, he went to the party.

Making jokes is an important part of children’s language development. We make jokes before we understand them. Adults find it funny when young children mispronounce or mix up words, or get confused about meanings. Children learn that their accidental jokes are funny only when they see adults laughing.

I believe that, as children’s linguistic skills develop, their natural inclination to make and understand jokes can be used to help them get to grips with some of the drier aspects of the national curriculum.

Now, I realise that, as a children’s author, I am expected to rail against the current focus on “language about language”. That’s right, folks, we’re talking fronted adverbials and subordinate clauses. While I share my fellow authors’ reservations about the requirements of the curriculum, my regular visits to schools have made me aware that a blanket disregard for this side of things is of absolutely no help to those charged with teaching literacy.

But what we can do is ensure that grammar is taught in a way that helps children’s writing. This is why I think there is a strong case to be made that “joke writing” should be a part of the teaching process.

The connection between linguistics and jokes is not new. The title of Lynne Truss’ bestselling book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is the punchline to a (sometimes rude) joke about a panda. It was chosen because the joke relies on the addition of a comma in the punchline. Without the comma, “shoots” is a noun, but add the comma and “shoots” becomes a verb, providing a second meaning of the phrase.

Of course, jokes come in many forms. For the most part, joke books written for children include a lot of wordplay and puns. These formats are less popular with most jobbing stand-up comedians, but there are a few out there who put them to good use. For example:

 

I decided to sell my Hoover ... well it was just collecting dust.” (Tim Vine)

I was sitting in traffic the other day … when I got run over.” (Milton Jones)

 

Jokes like these may seem almost childish in their simplicity, but try them out in class and they will often fall flat (the above examples require knowledge of the phrases “collecting dust” and “sitting in traffic” ). This doesn’t entirely matter. The purpose of a lesson that uses jokes to explain language is not to have your class rolling around in the aisles.

Children love jokes for the same reason that they love riddles. They are puzzles to be solved. From a young age, children are drawn to the subtleties and nuance of language and it is in these hills that we mine for jokes.

So when I am advocating writing jokes in lessons, I am expecting teachers to rely heavily on homonyms, homographs and, as in the following case, homophones:

I didn’t completely lose my voice at the petting zoo ... but I did feel a little hoarse.”

I am not suggesting that you spend an hour squeezing all the funniness out of jokes. Rather, a joke-writing class will provide a number of valuable examples about verbs, nouns, phrases and clauses.

Pick a subject, then ask your class to write down as many associated words and phrases as they can. Once they have these, help them to find words that sound like or look like others. Get them searching for double meanings, then ask them to use these linguistic ambiguities to write their own jokes.

Say you pick the Romans. Your class will notice that “Roman” is a near homophone of “roamin’ ”, as in the joke, “Why was Caesar so restless? Because everywhere he went he was always Roman/roamin’.” The word “Roman” appears here as an adjective, whereas the word “roaming” is a verb that puts the second sentence into the present continuous tense.

Or perhaps your pupils will create jokes around how the proper noun “Caesar” sounds like “seize her”. Whatever the turning point of the joke, you will always find a shift in the sentence structure that can be used to explain a grammatical lesson.

You can even create jokes around phrases such as “subordinate clauses” (“another word for Santa’s elves” ) or “present tense” (“where Santa stores his sleigh when he’s camping” ). Jokes can turn these dry grammatical terms into objects of fun. A lesson like this can provide an excellent gateway to creative engagement with linguistics.

Why not just tell them the rules of grammar, as many will advocate? You can do that, too. A lesson about joke-writing would reinforce, rather than replace, a more straightforward approach to teaching grammar.


Gareth P Jones is a children’s author. The Daily Joker (£4.99) by Gareth P Jones and Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by Nigel Parkinson, will be published by Piccadilly Press on 20 September. They would love to hear the jokes your class write. Please email TheDailyJoker@mail.com or tweet @TheDailyJoker1

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