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Fun Books, Funny Lessons....Better Students

Humor: The Secret Ingredient for Learning

"Hey, Dad, can we go to that big bookstore across the park? my son prodded as he pulled me out of my jetlag stupor and raced out the door during our recent summer visit to the US. As he impatiently road the escalator to the kids’ floor, I asked him that type of book he was thinking about buying. “A funny one, of course,” was his instant reply. Even after a 16-hour plane ride, the promise of humor – funny words, rhymes, or pictures – had the little boy excited enough to explore stacks of new books. Certainly, I recall how witty professors and their anecdotes drew me deeper into courses in college, but humor can play an even more important role in learning and retention for younger children.

What’s Humor and How Much Do You Have?

Humor is hard to define, difficult to quantify, and may or may not be “teachable”. Arguably, the more productive research on humor focuses on how it enables learning. A study by German psychologist,Willibald Ruch, creates two common categories of humor: that which creates an “incongruity response” – an expectation of one outcome and a response that is unexpected (i.e. the “set-up” followed by the “punchline”) and “nonsense”—incongruity without any response or resolution – things that are funny because they are bizarre.

Although types and genres of humor appear to vary by culture, Chinese and Western cultures share an appreciation for Wordplay such as "xiangsheng" (相声) cross-talk or puns and parodies in the West and Slapstick, or physical or visual humor. Even at pre-school age, children begin appreciating and responding to both Wordplay and Slapstick humor.

Humor: A Gateway to Reading

The first few lines of a Dr. Seuss book usually produce a quick smile (and even an occasional fist-pump) from my son, “yeah,it’s rhyming book!” Pre-readers and early readers tune into exactly these types of incongruous patterns as they listen and read books. Repeated phrases and words that are disrupted by wordplay such as puns and nonsense words not only holds children’s attention, but it also them learn and enjoy language. The humor gets them interested in reading more, repeating what they read, and entertaining themselves and others with their new mastery of the language.

How Humor Jumpstarts Learning – and More…..

Whether in pre-school or university, humor is a subtle but powerful ingredient that fosters learning and retention. By including humor in their books and courses, teachers and parents can help their children learn in the following ways:

  • Wordplay helps children understand the nuances of language. By breaking the rules of language patterns and familiar sounds, children from 4-6 years old gain a deeper understanding of language and confidence in using it.
  • Humor in storytelling captures attention and increases retention. Psychologists have found that humor aids retention at both intellectual and physiological levels. Humor activates a sense of curiosity and a desire to reconcile the incongruity. At a physical level, humor activates the dopamine reward system in the brain which supports both motivation and long-term retention.
  • Humor connects learners. Humor creates verbal and non-verbal linguistic bonds that help include people in a community (e.g. “sharing a joke”). Children, in particular, use laughter and humor as early social skills that allow them to make friends. For primary school children, familiarity with common funny characters, stories, plots, and dialogue can serve as a valuable social bridge.
  • In stories, humor can aid critical thinking. The disruptive nature of humor within a story gets children’s attention, makes them think, and leads them to ask why – creating an opportunity to question the text.
  • For both children and adults, humor provides a vital coping skill for overcoming obstacles and managing stress. When children confront interpersonal conflicts – schoolyard spats, arguments, and bullying, seeing and voicing the humor in the situation can help them diffuse tension and manage their own emotions. Later, being able to find humor in their own mistakes and short-comings can help them deal with academic pressure and connect with adults in introduction, presentation, and interviews situations.

Building Humor into Kids Book Choices

Finding humorous stories, or stories that integrate wordplay, parody, or unexpected endings, is particularly helpful when creating a summer reading list. Funny stories grab kids’ attention in the midst of numerous non-literary distractions during the non-school season.

Story Shifu has created a package of books accompanied by short audio lessons that expose kids to humorous versions of classic kids stories. Not only do these stories hold kids attention and build their English reading skills, but by listening to the classic and updated humorous versions, kids remember and recall the stories and their language. Email: for more details.

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