Recently I had a very interesting conversation with an elementary reading specialist. She came into the library to get, of all things, joke books. Of course, I thought she was kidding--and, yes, I get the pun there! Although our collection does not have a large selection of these, it does contain a few older tomes, so I showed her where to look and chuckled to myself (of course I did--joke books, get it?!). When she came over to check them out she told me why she was getting these books and I was intrigued.
She has been reading a lot about flexible thinking and the research that is being done on how it affects a reader's ability to comprehend. Trying to find some new in-roads with students who can decode proficiently--some even above grade level--but seem to understand little of what they read, she has been playing various games with them to understand more completely where the breakdown for them occurs. She uses sets of picture cards and asks children to sort them (by color, by initial sound, etc.), and then she asks them to try a new way, and often they can't. They have difficulty understanding that an object could belong to more than one category at a time (i.e., a wagon could be in the "red" category and the "W" one, too). What this teacher is discovering is that these students have a way of perceiving information in a set pattern and that their brains do not process information on multiple levels as easily as one might assume.
When these children read, they view words as the result of blended sounds. The rigid adherence to their understanding that reading is making these sounds prevents them from comprehending while making them. Research is showing that playing these categorizing games and coaxing the child to become more flexible in their thinking--indeed retraining the muscle of the brain--can help a reader break the comprehension barrier. Our brains are quite plastic, a child's especially. Pathways can be remolded. Positive change can and will occur with repeated "workouts."
So, why the joke books? Well, this teacher got to thinking that jokes and puns force one to think flexibly, too. They are, basically, word games and mind games. For example, a riddle requires a person to reframe words, make illogical leaps that still make sense even though it is silly, and understand that words can have double-meanings. A joke is funny--that breaks the I-am-reading-this-sound-for-sound-right-now rigidity. The give and take required between two people telling jokes and playing with words asks the participants to pay attention to language in a whole new way. It's a whole new workout at the brain gym!
If you had told me in September I was going to be ordering joke books this year, I would have laughed (I know, I know). But it is a totally valid and serious thing to do. It is another way the library collaborates with teachers on behalf of the varied learners it serves. The few dollars spent on these books will provide limitless learning opportunities for countless kids. The specialist's lessons will be planned, of course, but the spontaneity and teachable moments that will occur because she is sharing riddles and giggles with a group of children will provide the authenticity that all the research says people need to learn something on a lasting level. I guess the joke's on all of us, in a good way.