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Use Humor to Teach Your Students About Careful Communication

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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One of the most important social and emotional (SEL) skills students need is clear communication. But in an age of Twitter, emojis, and auto-correcting iPhones, it is too easy to make very serious errors.

The Newseum in Washington D. C. is a must-visit for all middle and high school students who care about news, journalism, history, photography, free speech, and clear communications. At the Newseum, among many other exhibits, they display examples of communication errors in news headlines (a.k.a. "bloopers"), and they have worked with the Columbia Journalism Review to gather many more of these into a book titled, "Correct Me If I'm Wrong."

An Activity for Students

Taking a look at these bloopers can be instructive for students, as well as fun. Below is an activity to analyze these communication gaffes that can be integrated into language arts or social studies classes, as well as any class devoted to social-emotional skill development.

For each of the headlines below, ask your middle and high school students:

  • To figure out what the real message was supposed to be
  • How the headline could have been re-written as an example of clear communication

Debrief and discuss with them the importance of:

  • Checking their work beyond spellcheck
  • Asking others to read their work for clarity
  • The proper use of punctuation and grammar

It's often best to have them work in small groups on the same two or three headlines, and see if they come up with the same analysis. After being debriefed for one or two rounds, the students should begin to improve their attention to the spelling, grammar, and word-use errors that can dramatically change the intended meaning of a brief communication.

The Headlines

"Japanese Scientists Grow Frog Eyes and Ears." (Daily Camera, Boulder, CO, 1/4/2000.)

"Principal Transfers Upset Parents." (Des Moines Register, Des Moines, IA, 5/12/01.)

"Crowds Rushing To See Pope Trample 6 to Death." (Journal Star, Peoria, IL, 7/9/80.)

"Babies Are What the Mother Eats." (The Times-Herald, Newport News, VA, 7/11/84.)

"Panda Lectures This Week at National Zoo." (The Washington Post, 1/13/01.)

"U. S. Advice: Keep Drinking Water from Sewage." (Journal and Courier, Lafayette, IN, 9/17/92.)

"Dr. Tackett Gives Talk On Moon." (Indiana Evening Gazette, Indiana, PA, 3/13/76.)

"Nuns Forgive Break-In, Assault Suspect." (The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, OH, 7/15/98.)

"Hillary Clinton on Welfare." (Los Angeles Times, 3/22/95.)

"Empty Seat at Dinner Signals Turkey's Sensitivity Over Role." (The New York Times, 12/11/96.)

"Salad Still Good After 50 Years." (Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, IN, 3/11/98.)

"Parking Lot Floods When Man Bursts." (The Herald-Sun, Durham, NC, 2/4/94.)

"Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Line at Supermarket." (Arkansas Democrat, 9/29/83.)

"Asteroid Nearly Misses Earth." (The Washington Post, 6/24/02.)

Please feel free to comment with some bloopers that you or your students have seen. Just make sure they are suitable for use in school contexts, as I did omit some quite amusing headlines for reasons of good taste. (No, I did not ingest them!)

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Chris Parsons's picture

I remember as a child in the 80's getting freaked by a big UK newspaper headline that said "Watch it Maggie warns Russians" - I thought the Russians were getting aggressive, but it was of course Thatcher doing the threatening!

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Lisa_MCcoy
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

These headlines are just hilarious...thanks for suggesting this activity. Students will not only learn about clear communication but will also learn to be observant!

Professor Lobo's picture
Professor Lobo
ESL teacher / Psychologist

This is great! Thanks! I can just see the activity for our class: "Write the article for this headlines". It will be hilarious!

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