Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oh, What Nonsense

I have such a strong belief in the power of fooling about with words. Children are hard wired to enjoy nonsense, (as are Book Chooks!) and playing with language is something they take to immediately. From early peek-a-boo and finger rhymes, through nursery rhymes, poems and songs, we are exposing our kids to new vocabulary, and the rhythms of language, as well as reinforcing the sheer pleasure of messing about with words.

Jokes, riddles and substitutions are also ways to have fun with literacy. Beginning readers who aren’t ready for a short novel might be less daunted by a book of short knock-knock jokes say, so keep an eye open for these at your local library or second-hand shops. It’s a magical moment when a child begins to understand jokes and riddles – their eyes light up, they giggle or guffaw, and usually spend the next few days (or weeks!) sharing that same joke with everyone they meet.

Here are some activities I use to encourage kids to play with language, develop their literacy skills, and have fun. All can be used by a parent, or adapted for the classroom. Watch for more of these in the coming weeks at the Book Chook blog, or check out the Book Chook Bag of Tricks.

Talk nonsense

Develop a conversation without real words between you and your child. Using only the letters of the alphabet, act out a meeting and a chat between two people or more. If someone doesn't feel comfortable with this, they might enjoy using puppets instead.

Here’s an example:

Person 1: A B!

Person 2: XYZ!

Person 1: BCD?

Person 2: OK. BCD?

Person 1: (holding stomach and making a face) O…LMNOP. BGQ.

Person 2: O! NFG. BQDFL. OK. TTFN. (waves)

Person 1: (waves) TTFN.

A similar activity is to improvise a conversation between two people or more using gibberish. Both exercises help children focus on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, intonation and tone of voice to communicate meaning.

Look out for examples of gibberish in songs for kids to enjoy, too. A couple of old ones that come to mind for me are My Friend the Witch Doctor, (Ting Tang, Wallah Wallah Bing Bang) and Mairzy Doats. Here’s a Chipmunk version of the witchdoctor song. Older children might enjoy reading poems by Lewis Carroll such as Jabberwocky, and The Mad Gardener’s Song. Younger ones can listen to the Muppets do Jabberwocky on Youtube. If kids enjoy nonsense, another poet they might like is Spike Milligan, whose poem On The Ning Nang Nong has been made into a song you can also find on Youtube. These in turn might inspire them to use nonsense words to write their own poetry. And if it’s nonsense you’re after, don’t forget the brilliant Edward Lear.


Substitution is more a habit of thinking than a particular activity. With read-alouds, poems and songs, or in conversation, watch out for opportunities to make substitutions. This is a great creative thinking activity, encouraging kids to focus on the structures we use in language, and to generate new ideas. If you're looking for a way to make drills more fun with younger kids who need to learn sight words or spelling words for school, again try a puppet who seems to stumble, and substitute crazy guesses, and have your children correct it.

Here are some examples:

When you’re reading aloud, or telling stories, substitute other words for well-known phrases. What about Snow White and the Seven Dolphins, or The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Banana? This can develop into a running gag, especially with a much read book, where Dad substitutes words every now and then, and needs to be corrected by his kids! It’s also a great way to generate prompts for story telling or writing.

With a nursery rhyme like Hickery Dickery Dock, substitute different nonsense words that then generate a new rhyme.

Higgery Diggery Dig My brother he eats like a pig.


Have kids close their eyes, listen to you, and raise a hand as soon as they hear something out of place or changed.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great sneeze.

If you have any nonsensical ideas that contribute to kids’ literacy, I’d love you to share them in the comments.

(Photo from Morguefile.)

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