The Wonder of Wordplay

I recently had the pleasure of conducting a workshop on Wordplay and its important role in growing writers. Here are some of the messages I was able to share with participants. Trust they add to your thinking around the teaching of writing...

Image result for wordplay in advertising examplesWordplay is such an omnipotent thing. It is unavoidable. Conversation, songs, TV shows advertisements, literature , greeting cards, brochures magazines and newspapers all employ word play abundantly. Everywhere we go, it leaps out at us.

In many schools however the study of words, has over time, been shrunken down to mean little more than reading and vocabulary knowledge. And yet, I still recall my teachers encouraging me to play with malapropisms, oxymorons, listen for tautology and wonder at the mystery of invented words in Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky.' I recall the fun we had creating rhyming couplets and discovering palindromic words. At home, my father regularly engaged me in wordplay and riddles. There were also a fair smattering of what we term, 'Dad jokes.' A lot of it stuck. To this day, it serves me well.

Why is Wordplay Important?

  • Wordplay is motivating
  • Wordplay is central to a word rich classroom
  • Wordplay encourages meta-cognitive reflection on words
  • Wordplay requires word rehearsal

Teachers are able to foster word consciousness in a variety of ways:

  • When they model interest in words and precise use of vocabulary (Graves, 2006). 
  • When they encourage students’ interest in words.
  • When they consciously share books about words. 
  • When they call students’ attention to words by highlighting words of the day, posting words on word walls, and having students collect words from books they’re reading. 
  • When they validate wordplay by sharing riddles, jokes, puns, songs, and poems and encouraging students to experiment with words and use them in new ways.

Why Should We Play With Words?

  • To sharpen the meaning
  • To create surprise
  • To make the words sound more melodious
  • To provide particular emphasis
  • To be playful for its own sake
  • To be clever and creative
  • To inject humour
  • To be irreverent or subversive
  • To make the reader pay attention
  • To keep yourself alert and engaged
As with any new skill- to become proficient with language and word play requires consistent and deliberate practice.

Playing with language is a sophisticated endeavour because knowing how to break a rule requires you to understand the rule in the first place.
‘We become more skilful not merely through work and study but also through play.’

Ralph Fletcher
The writer’s notebook is the place where these experiments are conducted. In this personal space the writer can:

  • Fraternize with words
  • Establish an identity as a writer
  • Improvise and invent
  • Engage in regular play
  • Use language explicitly and mindfully
  • Prepare to surprise 
  • Notice attempts at wordplay and share them 
  • Model wordplay – puns, jokes, your own playful writing
  • Generate conversations about word use

I have personally learned about wordplay by:
Listening actively to everyday conversations.
Noticing it in books written by authors I respect.
Experimenting with it in my own notebooks. I have noted over many years how prevalent word play is in my notebooks. Multiple examples exist where words are collected, applied, invented and enjoyed. wordplay has informed a lot of my writing, particularly my writing of poetry.

Why Engage In Wordplay?
That's simple,-because it’s fun
Fun leads to ownership, engagement and flow. So fun matters a great deal for writers. 
We MUST encourage young writers to explore the possibilities with wordplay that potentially lifts their writing, above the ordinary.

Try This:
Share notebook wordplay examples with your students
Encourage  your students to indulge in wordplay in their notebooks
Make time to share your notebook entries where word play is featured.  

Where might it lead?
‘There’s no reason to believe there’s a perfect word waiting for every storytelling need. When the occasion arises and the right word isn’t in the dictionary, make one up. We custom make suits and chilli and tricked out cars- so why not words?’

Jerry Spinelli

‘We do think in words and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think.’

Madeleine L’Engle


Wordplay informs my writing of poetry...

Muddled Messages
I’ll give you some advice,
And I’ll give it for free.
You’d be a fool to listen to me.

I gathered some wisdom.

I’ll share it with you.
A little bit muddled,
But it’s the best I can do.

In November, always remember:

An apple a day killed the cat.

A bird in the hand gathers no moss.
A stitch in time saves two in the bush.
If at first you don’t succeed, carry a big stick.
Don’t count your chickens until the fat lady sings. 
He who laughs last never boils.
A watched pot never comes to those who wait.
Loose lips shouldn’t throw stones.
While the cat’s away, two heads are better than one.

People who live in glass houses spoil the broth.

Alan j Wright


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