crackerHave you ever had to explain a Christmas cracker joke to a young child? It can be complicated can’t it? Sometimes you might wonder if it was worth the effort – it wasn’t a great joke anyway. Often jokes depend on a play-on-words and some background knowledge. For children, this is where they may struggle to ‘get’ the joke.

A number of years ago, I was on duty one wet playtime, when I was asked by a ten-year-old girl to tell her a joke. The children had decided to make a joke book for a well-loved teacher who was leaving. If you’ve ever had to look after a large number of children, you will know that you’ve got to have eyes everywhere to keep them safe. So, I had to think quickly of a joke suitable for a child of that age. I came up with:

  1. What’s brown and sticky?
  2. A stick

She laughed dutifully and went back to her table to write the joke, but I could tell she didn’t really get it.

A few minutes later she came back to me and said: “What comes after ‘What’s a brown stick?’” I was busy sorting out a heated dispute over a game but repeated the joke and she again returned to her table. After another pause, she asked: “What comes after ‘What’s a sticky brown thing’?” At this point I was dealing with another argument that had flared up, so I asked her to come back with someone else in the hope that if I told both of them there would be a better chance of them remembering the joke. So, she returned with the boy who was organising the joke book. He seemed to have a better understanding of the joke because he laughed straight away. In fact, when I later went past the group writing the joke book, they were all in fits of giggles. Thinking they had found a new hilarious joke, I asked them to share. Unable to control their laughter, they handed me a piece of paper. On it was written:

  1. What’s brown and sticky?
  2. A pooh!

I gave up and wrote the original joke for them. I’m sure they still thought their joke was better than the one I gave.

I had assumed that ten-year-olds would understand this sort of joke, but obviously these ones didn’t. It relies on people understanding the double meaning of the word ‘sticky’ and tricks them into imagining unpleasant things that could be brown and sticky.

Having taught English for a number of years to both children and adults, I realise you can’t assume that they will understand all the subtleties of language. However, I can still be surprised by what isn’t known. This isn’t just to do with multiple meanings of words, it is also related to historical and cultural references.

I was once told by someone that he had gone to see a friend who ran a market stall. He was disappointed to find that she wasn’t there and that her stall was being run by a young assistant. He asked the assistant where she was.

“She’s gone shopping,” came the reply.

Thinking this was unusual, he asked why she had gone shopping on a work day.

“I don’t know, she said she had to spend a penny,” was the response.

I suppose people don’t really use the expression ‘going to spend a penny’ much these days, so the assistant hadn’t come across it. Phrases like this fade over time and their meaning can get lost.

Now that GCSE English Language involves reading historical texts, students are encountering phrases and terminology that they haven’t come across before. Language changes over time, so they have to work harder to try and interpret this kind of material. To find out more about our English teaching click here.

Understanding jokes is all about understanding language and its subtleties – including cultural references. These are skills that are also required for English lessons in school. So, next time you have to explain a cracker joke to a child, remember that you are also teaching them about how amazingly complex language is.

We are posting a cracker joke every day from 1st December until Christmas on our Facebook page. Check it out here. We hope you enjoy our jokes and don’t have too much trouble explaining them to your child!