’We can - and should - teach children to be funny'

Use the connection between linguistics and joke-writing to embed grammatical knowledge, suggests this children’s author

Gareth Jones


Making jokes is an important part of children’s language development. 

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.

Teaching through joke-writing

Take this joke, for example.

I wouldn’t call snails slow...

But they are definitely sluggish.

"Sluggish" means being slow, but we also understand that the suffix –ish means 'like' , so we can accept that 'sluggish' could mean 'like a slug'.

This kind of wordplay-based humour is not exclusive to Christmas crackers and children’s joke books. On Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven't a Clue, faux-suffixes are often used to get laughs. So "Finnish" means "a bit like a fin" whereas "celery" means "a bit like a basement".

To get your class writing their own jokes, why not try this exercise? Pick a subject and ask your class to sit down and write as many associated words and phrases as they can. Once they have filled the paper with raw material, help them look for words that have more than one meaning (homonyns), look similar to other words (homographs) or sound the same as words with different spellings (homophones).

Analysing jokes

Once your pupils begin generating jokes, take time to analyse how they work together. Sometimes, what is taken as a verb in the set-up line becomes a noun in the punchline or a noun becomes an adjective.

You can even construct jokes to explain some of the more turgid terminology involved, such as:

Did you hear about the boy who discovered he was Santa’s son?

He was a relative clause.

Analysing a joke will not make it funnier but that does not mean this will be a humourless lesson in which jokes are dissected and killed. Children have a natural desire to unpick and understand jokes. We can use this to help them engage them with the mechanics of English.

And you never know, you may even end up with some good jokes.

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

This article is adapted from a version published in the 14 September issue of Tes. To read the article in full, pick up a copy from your local newsagent or subscribe to read online.

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Gareth Jones

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