Do you get it? An Investigation of Primary School Children’s Comprehension of Verbal Ambiguities in Joking Riddles
In the 1970s and early 80s much research was carried out investigating the age at which young children were able to understand verbal ambiguities and the stages at which different types of ambiguity were comprehended (McGhee 1971, 1979, Fowles & Glanz 1976, Shultz & Pilon 1973, Shultz & Horibe 1974, Hirsh-Pasek, Gleitman & Gleitman 1980). This research diminished significantly during the 80s and 90s. More recently however a new body of research has emerged focussing on the comprehension of ambiguous language used in jokes and riddles. Findings have led researchers to conclude that developmentally appropriate jokes provide an ideal medium through which to teach students how to manipulate language and that joke discussion improves higher order reading skills (e.g. reading for meanings that are not explicit) (Cunningham 2004, Zipke 2008, Yuill 2009). Deliberately focussing on how words/phrases can be interpreted in more than one way is said to promote divergent thinking – a skill which is not restricted to the literacy curriculum but which is promoted across all primary school subjects. Although there is consensus that developmentally appropriate jokes can be used to develop the aforementioned skills, guidance is currently lacking as to which types of jokes or riddles are in fact ‘developmentally appropriate’ for specific Year Groups in primary school – despite riddles, wordplay and jokes having previously appeared at various stages across the primary literacy curriculum. This study uses joking riddles with verbally ambiguous punchlines to investigate whether different types of ambiguity are comprehended by primary school children aged 6-11 and to determine whether ambiguity type affects comprehension. Preliminary findings are discussed.
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