A Funny Side of Literacy
Analyzing puns builds critical thinking, literacy, and social and emotional skills.
When we talk about social skills and social and emotional learning (SEL), an important element is understanding the nuances of language, as well as the context, the situation, we are in with others. Communication in the English language is not simple, even for native speakers.
So when it comes to deciphering tough language, asking groups of students to work together to analyze puns can be both challenging and an enjoyable way to build language and literacy skills.
ISN’T THAT PUNNY?
Critical thinking and humor are both aspects of SEL. Recently, I used the following activity with middle and high school students, with positive results. It’s an activity that can be done in short time contexts, like an Advisory period, or using a full class period, whether devoted to SEL, to character development, or to language arts.
Explain that a pun is a joke that takes advantage of different possible meanings of a word, or of words that sound alike but mean different things. Ask if anyone knows a pun, and help the class understand the example.
Then ask students to think of words that have different meanings. If you use a word in the wrong sense in a sentence, the sentence won’t make sense. For example, the word hand has three meanings. Ask your students to come up with them: One is that thing at the end of your arm. Another is to help someone. Another is a round of applause.
Here’s an example of where the meaning of the words matters: Someone is in the grocery store and drops a bag full of fruit. You ask, “Do you want a hand?” The person says, “Yes.” You start to applaud, and the person gets angry at you.
The words role and roll are another example—and there are different meanings for each. Imagine this being said, not read: “I’m going to the bakery. Would you like a role?” “Yes, I love fresh rolls.” "OK, you can be the person who cleans up while I’m gone.”
Now students are ready to look at some puns. Give them this example (note that these examples should be presented in writing): A vulture boards an airplane carrying two dead mice. The flight attendant looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
See if anyone knows what carrion means—if no one does, have someone look it up. Then see what they think of the pun. Unless you know what carrion means, you would not know that the pun involves the word carrion and the phrase carry on.
Explain that in life, students will read many things, and if they don’t read very carefully, or if they don’t look up what they don’t know, they might make mistakes that matter. To help them be better readers and thinkers, and enjoy puns, say that you’d like them to work together in groups and decide what makes the sentences below puns, looking up words they don’t know.
This is best done in groups of two to four students. Below is a list of 11 examples. If you have about 10 or 15 minutes of time to work with, assign just a few of them for students to decipher in their groups and then have a whole-group discussion. If you have a full class period, add several more.
- A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class, because it was a weapon of math disruption.
- Two silkworms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
- Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other, “You stay here; I’ll go on a head.”
- No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.
- A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
- Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
- I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
- A backward poet writes inverse.
- In a democracy, it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, it’s your count that votes.
- Two friends sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it, too.
- Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive.”
You can then present your students with these puns found in old newspaper headlines, and you can also extend the lesson to have students write their own puns or double meaning sentences.
Engaging students in exploring multiple meaning of words through puns allows them to enjoy the ambiguity of language while interacting with their classmates in a collaborative way that evokes playfulness, humor, and critical thinking.