Riddle with vocabulary

In my last post I discussed the usefulness of puns for developing vocabulary. In this post I look at riddles as tools for language learning.

Riddles work in a similar way to puns but also encourage problem solving and lateral thinking as demonstrated by this popular riddle: What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?  As adults it’s fairly easy to solve by applying our understanding of the words ‘face’ and ‘hands’ into our knowledge of the components of an analogue clock, rather than as human body parts. We make a semantic link. But for many children this is a challenging leap into using familiar language in a new setting. Dare I suggest, the notion of an analogue clock is one that is less familiar to many of our children than once it was; making this riddle particularly tricky.

Here’s another challenge: What am I? I start with a P and end in an E and have thousands of letters in between? Answer here.  Solving this riddle requires the puzzler to have an understanding of the word ‘letter’ as a homonym (being spelled and pronounced in the same way but with different meanings).  Riddles are a great learning tool for all children but particularly for those who need to develop flexibility in their understanding (such as second language learners).The scope for riddles as tools for improving children’s understanding of language is great. And fun.

Riddles can take a number of forms including kennings. If you’re unfamiliar with this form of poetry it originated in the Norse tradition and was a creative way of identifying things without using their name.  They are a compound noun made of two words ending in -er. A cat could be called a ‘mouse chaser’, a goldfish a ‘bowl swimmer’, a teacher could be a ‘homework giver’. Kenning poems are a form of riddle written about one subject in list form. I remember once receiving a hand-made card from one of my children to the effect of:

Shirt ironer

Dinner cooker

Bed maker

Hug giver

That’s my mum

Kennings require the author to have a good understanding of the subject being describing. Writing them requires sufficient knowledge of verbs and nouns to be able to describe a subject succinctly. Succinct being the challenge for many children who will write expanded prose when one or two well-chosen words will have far greater effect. Asking children to write kennings about family members, characters from books or history should encourage them to take a playful look at the vocabulary they use in their descriptions. Poetryline has a succinct definition of kennings accompanied with a great example about a dog, which you can find here.  There are also some great kenning poems in The Works by Paul Cookson which you may want to explore with your children.

As you work on building the language skills of your class, consider riddling with vocabulary from time to time.

You may also find this article “Very Punny Vocabulary” of interest.

Rachel Clarke: Director – Primary English Education

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