Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

Using Jokes to Improve Students’ Fluency in English and Hebrew

by | Mar 6, 2019 | Blog, Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

Purim is just a few weeks away, and most schools program a school-wide celebration. However, the spirit of Purim provides other opportunities to spice things up in class both for limudei kodesh and limudei chol teachers.

One suggestion comes from Molly Ness, a professor at Fordham University who does research on literacy instruction, reading comprehension strategies, and remediation for struggling readers. In one article, she describes the way she uses joke books to help students develop what is called prosody, reading aloud in a way that demonstrates that you understand what you’re reading,

It’s engaging, fun, and effective, and it can work not only for struggling English readers but also for our Hebrew language students as well.

Finding English joke books is likely not too difficult. For Hebrew classes, students can translate the English into Hebrew. Alternatively, here’s one website that offers clean jokes in Hebrew that kids can appreciate.

The beauty of this literacy technique is that it addresses several language skills at once and is so fun that students will hardly know that they are working.

Below is a summary of Professor Molly Ness’s systematic approach to using jokes to improve fluency as published in Issue 291 of the Marshall Memo.
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In this article in The Reading Teacher, Fordham University professor Molly Ness describes how she tutored Emma, a nine-year-old student who had been having difficulty reading from the time she entered school. When Emma read, she was slow and labored, and she had great difficulty with prosody, the aspect of fluency that’s often neglected (the other two, automaticity and accuracy, have been getting most of the attention in classrooms). Good prosody means your reading sounds like speaking, conforming to the rhythms, cadences, and flow of oral language. These are its key aspects:

– Emphasizing appropriate words;

– Tone of voice rising and falling with the right intonation;

– Inflection matching punctuation (such as a rising tone at a question mark);

– Vocal tone reflecting characters’ emotions in dialogue;

– Appropriate pauses at phrase boundaries and punctuation.

Ness started by having Emma read and re-read familiar texts, including poetry and narrative passages. Using echo and choral reading, she encouraged Emma to pay attention to punctuation and read with the right expression. Nothing worked. Emma was disengaged and unmotivated and didn’t improve.

Then one day, Emma came to her tutorial with a joke book she’d purchased at the school’s book fair. When Ness asked her to read some of the jokes, Emma was her usual disfluent self. They discussed how popular comedians pace the delivery of a joke, stress certain words, and speak in a smooth, fluid manner. Ness saw “a ripe instructional opportunity” because Emma seemed to enjoy telling jokes and they are “the quintessential texts for oral delivery; they require that a reader attend to punctuation, intonation, and phrasing.” If the jokester doesn’t, even a good joke will fall flat. Without fanfare, Ness started using joke books with Emma. As they began their third lesson practicing jokes, the girl asked, “Do we get to do jokes again or do we have to read?” Now she was motivated to practice and improve her delivery – and it was fun! Here’s one of the jokes they used:

Doctor, Doctor, I feel like a strawberry.

Well, it sounds like you’re in a real jam.

Having identified the source of humor – the play on words between strawberry and jam – Ness asked Emma, “Knowing that the word jam is what makes this joke funny, how could you read this better?” And she modeled the right intonation, had Emma do guided and independent practice, and gave her feedback. A key was getting Emma to tune in to the meaning. Here’s another example:

Doctor, Doctor, my husband smells like a fish.

Poor sole!

Emma read without intonation until she realized the double meaning of soul/sole and improved her delivery.

From working with Emma, Ness formulated the following steps to using joke books effectively:

• Make a tape recording as the student reads the joke aloud for the first time, and take notes on word emphasis, timing, and expression.

• Have the student listen to the tape and identify areas for improvement.

• Discuss what makes the joke amusing and how delivery can make the joke work.

• Point out how question marks, commas, periods, and exclamation marks play a part in the joke’s meaning and humor.

• Model proficient delivery of the joke, and have the student comment on how it was delivered.

• Use choral and echo reading as the student re-reads the joke, pointing out word emphasis, intonation, and timing.

• Tape-record the student’s improved delivery of the joke and compare it to the initial delivery.

• Have the student tell or re-read jokes to partners, with students evaluating each other on their expression, timing, and word emphasis.

• Have students practice for several days for a “comedy hour” at which they perform their jokes for classmates and classroom visitors.

Emma made significant progress and after several months, she scored a 3 on the NAEP fluency scale. “Her growth from a disfluent reader to a fluent one was nothing to laugh at,” says Ness.

“Laughing Through Rereadings: Using Joke Books to Build Fluency” by Molly Ness in The Reading Teacher, May 2009 (Vol. 62, # 8, p. 691-694), this article can be purchased at

http://www.reading.org/Publish.aspx?page=/publications/journals/rt/current/index.html&mode=redirect. Ness can be reached at mness@fordham.edu.

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Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at lee@jedvision.com.

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