Cognitive tools: Jokes and humor

One consequence of literacy is that language becomes visible.  Literacy moves language from a medium connected uniquely to the ear to one also connected to the eye. In general, we simply don’t notice how profoundly this change affects how we understand language. Literacy, then, enables us to reflect on, and become conscious of, language in a somewhat new way.  Within orality, of course, there are also techniques that draw attention to language and help us to become conscious of it.  One of these techniques is the joke.

When is a door not a door?  When it’s a jar! (ajar—partly open. Side-splitting laughter)

Or how about:

Doctor:           Did you take the patient’s temperature?

Nurse:             No.  Is it missing?

Jim:                 Should you eat fried chicken with your fingers?

Jane:                No.  You should eat your fingers separately.

Teacher:          Where are you from, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey:        California.

Teacher:          What part?

Geoffrey:        All of me.

Perhaps not the greatest jokes in the world, but each has the educational value of drawing attention to language as an object, which we can reflect on and that contributes to the development of “metacognitive awareness,” which seems to be important for increasingly sophisticated language use.

The joke forces us to recognize something about the way language works. At the very least, we recognize that it’s a slippery business, not some crisp logical activity in which meanings are clear and nailed down. That recognition of language as an object is crucial to our becoming better able to manipulate it and use it with increasing flexibility. So any sensible program of literacy instruction will not use jokes simply as a trivial “hook” to attract students’ attention, but will recognize humor as a constituent of adequate orality and literacy. You can read more about uses of jokes and humor in teaching literacy by clicking here.

Give me a few quick examples of how I might use jokes to teach literacy.

1. Perhaps too often, basic word features are taught mechanically, but it requires only a little thought to recast those activities into humorous mini-stories.  Instead of simply giving the learners a list of singular words and asking them to write the plural forms, for example, you can make a list of singulars and wrote them into a brief story.  The stories you create do not need to be riveting, knuckle-whitening thrillers, but can be quite simple accounts of people engaged in everyday activities.  Obviously, the more entertaining you can make them the better, and it works better if you can form them into jokes.  The students can then be asked to rewrite a particular simple story using plurals.  In this case the list of singular words that are to be transformed into plurals included:

woman,   stone,   my,   he,   I,   boy,   pencil,   brother,   paper,   friend,   plant

Instead of putting the words in a column, with a blank space in which to write the plural, as is common, you can write a simple story in which you underline the words you want the students to write in the plural, asking them to write out the story again with plurals in place of the underlined singulars.

“A woman went down to the river to get some water for a plant that looked too dry.  A boy sat on a stone with a pencil and paperThe woman asked the boy what he was doing.  “I am writing to my brother,” the boy said.  “But you can’t write,” the woman replied.  “That’s all right,” said the boy.  “My brother can’t read.”

2. When doing exercises on punctuation, the teacher might help students understand the effects of certain forms of punctuation by giving them examples of sentences whose meaning changes radically (and funnily) depending on the punctuation used.  “Private!  No swimming allowed!” means something quite different when punctuated as “Private?  No.  Swimming allowed.”  Similarly “I’m sorry you can’t come with us,” means something different from “I’m sorry.  You can’t come with us.”  Or “The butler stood at the door and called the guests’ names” is radically changed, by a tiny difference of punctuation, to “The butler stood at the door and called the guests names.”

3. One can introduce simple reading tasks as puzzles whose interpretation reveals the humor.  Take this sign that was next to a rail to which one might hitch an animal:




Even the most literate might have some difficulty with this, and it can be used in the story of the history of literacy.  It illustrates how writing commonly appeared soon after the invention of the alphabet and before the introduction of that basic item of punctuation—the space between words.  Once you see it as “To tie mules to,” you can appreciate the humor of how the simple meaning was so easily disguised.

4. And you can also institute a “joke of the week/joke of the month” on the model described on the Metaphor page.

5. One common use of humor to increase language awareness involves writing a “mystery message” on the chalkboard each morning before children come to school. The task for the children is to fill in missing letters, words, or punctuation. The following sentence was a huge success with some classes:

“What’s green and yellow and goes in a bun? A hot _ _og.”

The teacher had to keep pointing out that two letters were missing, till someone came up with the ‘f’ and ‘r’.

One of the more successful mystery messages followed a discussion with an adult class of the “Matrix” movies. The message read:

“_no_, I am ___ the chosen one.”

It took some time for the students to recognize the need for a ‘K’ and ‘w’, and add the full word ‘not’.

How else can we employ jokes and humor in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “jokes and humor” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about jokes and humor

Most literacy tasks can be put into the context of a joke equally easily as into a list or other contextless exercise.  The joke, of course, is a story, and the comments made about stories may refer to jokes as well.  As our work with “imaginative literacy” teachers continues, we have not been surprised to discover that most have begun a collection of joke books, from which they frequently pull ideas on which to build examples for all kinds of literacy skill development lessons.

Many adults and children approach literacy classes with appropriate seriousness, and often, in the case of adults with particular vocational motivations, with a kind of grimness. But all human beings are amenable to the value of humor.  Humor and seriousness of purpose are not in any way at odds with one another.  A classroom within which humor is commonly used in exercises is a more pleasant place to be than one in which it rarely appears.  One of the great gifts of literacy is access to pleasures that are available only through texts—and introduction to literacy, even if the motive is purely utilitarian, should show that as well as that utilitarian benefit there is also pleasure, that might, over the course of a literate life, far outweigh the simple utility.

It is important, too, to recognize that jokes invariably have some anarchic tendencies built in. Each joke threatens to undermine categories or create unfamiliar worlds. George Orwell said that jokes are tiny revolutions.