Analysing Humorous Storybooks for the Use in the Primary EFL Classroom

"The Queen’s Knickers" by Nicholas Allan and "The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business" by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch

Term Paper, 2017

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions of Humour and Laughter

3. Children’s Humour

4. English and German Humour
4.1 English Humour
4.2 German Humour

5. Humour in The Queen’s Knickers and The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business
5.1 Humour in The Queen’s Knickers
5.2 Humour in The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Children’s books can be a source of fun for both children and adults. They often contain humour which makes them enjoyable and helps to create motivation for reading and dealing with stories. This can be used for teaching English in the primary school. Even if the children cannot yet read in the foreign language, the teacher can create ways of access to humorous stories by reading picture books to the children. The humour in picture books can often be found in both the pictures and the text, which makes the humour accessible even for children with only basic knowledge of the English language.

There are different reasons to use humour in the classroom. It helps to keep children concentrated because interest is maintained when the humour is closely related to the material being taught (Davies & Apter, 1980: 238-239). Additionally, it helps to create a positive classroom atmosphere (ibid.: 238) and humour can help to cope with stress and anxiety (Dowling, 2014: 122). Humour is often used during story narration (Loizou & Kyriakou, 2016: 102), e.g. in the primary English classroom.

Yet, humorous stories are highly demanding in terms of cognitive processes as the children listening to the story need to identify and comprehend the humour (ibid.). Plus, jokes do not have “inherent incongruities which transcend cultural boundaries” and are therefore perceived differently in different cultures (La Fave et al., 1976: 84). Whether a person perceives something as funny depends on different cultural factors, like nationality, age or education (Wende, 2007: 11-12).

This leads to some questions concerning the use of humorous children’s books to teach language and culture of English-speaking countries to German primary school children. Firstly, it can be asked if picture books from different cultural backgrounds and with different kinds of humour can be used in primary school and what are possible difficulties in using books from a culture which is different from the listener’s culture. Furthermore, it can be interesting to look at important factors to consider when using a humorous picture book, like cultural specific humour and children’s humour. Finding approaches to answer these questions will be the focus of this paper. To do so, it shall be looked at theories of humour which will be applied to a German and an English picture book to analyse the humour used in these books.

The first theoretical considerations will be about definitions of humour and laughter to make it able to identify humour in picture books. It shall then be looked at children’s humour which helps to determinate if the humour in the picture books is suitable for children. After that, characteristics of English and German humour will be defined, which helps to determine if specific types of humour can be hard to understand for people with a different cultural background. These theories will then be applied to the books The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan and The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. There will be an analysis of the humour used in the books in order to decide if they are suitable for the use in the primary English classroom. The conclusion in the end of the paper will sum up important points of determining if the humour used in a picture book is suitable for primary school children in Germany and will also show difficulties and chances of using humorous picture books from different cultural backgrounds.

2. Definitions of Humour and Laughter

“Outside the psychological literature there is no such reticence to define what humour and laughter are: everyone thinks he knows.” (Chapman & Foot, 1976a: 3)

This quote already shows one of the most important realisations about finding a definition for humour and laughter: Different theorists think differently about causes, mechanisms and functions of laughter and there are different definitions for humour and laughter (ibid.: 2). No theory about humour and/or laughter is yet generally accepted because humour is very individual and therefore no theory will ever be seen as all embracing (ibid.: 4). The definition of humour used in this paper is a selection of different theories to show different points of view on humour but cannot provide a complete overview on all theories of humour.

To start with, theories of humour and theories of laughter should be seen distinctive from one another because laughter can also be appropriate in non-humorous situations such as deriving from being tickled (ibid.). Warren Shibles (1978: 2) adds that humour is not just laughing, it is laughing about something and that humour is composed of thoughts which cause laughter (ibid.: 2-3). This view is shared by Lawrence La Fave et al. (1976: 79): They say that humour is a mental experience while laughter is a response to this mental experience. Yet, humour is not a sufficient condition of laughter, e.g. a person that is amused may avoid laughing to not hurt the feelings of the butt of the joke (ibid.: 80).

This leads to the question of what kinds of mental experiences cause laughter. Hans-Dieter Gelfert (1998: 17) sees laughing caused by something that is out of the normal. If something is expected to happen, which does not happen, this can be a trigger for laughter (ibid.). Humour is created by deviating from the expected, familiar, usual, proper or reasonable (Shibles, 1978: 14). It is “largely based on things we cannot understand, on contradiction, on nonsense, on meaninglessness, on illusion, on things being what they are not, and not being what they are” (ibid.: 15).

La Fave et al. (1976: 64) see a necessary ingredient for humour in perceived incongruity in which they include absurdities in both other people and “in the abstract” as prompting laughter (64-65) as well as perceiving sense in nonsense (86). They see perceived incongruity as a necessary condition of humour but not a sufficient one (ibid.). Incongruity is also seen as a prerequisite of humour by Andrew Goatly (2012). He describes it as two opposing schemas that overlap which can create humour (ibid.: 22). These two opposing schemas need a connector to achieve a resolution of a joke, otherwise the joke will not be perceived as humorous (ibid.).

Hans-Dieter Gelfert (1998) explains this with a gap between what someone knows and what actually happens. He says that suddenness, tension and resolving of tension cause laughter (ibid.: 12-13). When one expects something to happen but this does not happen, the built-up energy needs to be released – this happens through laughter (ibid.: 15). The same goes for hearing a joke and building up tension that eventually gets resolved: the energy that gets free due to the resolving of the tension is released in laughter (ibid.). Laughing is especially caused by situations that cause the mind to activate protective mechanism, like situations of fear, disgust or shame (ibid.: 16). The mind provides energy in case an attack or an escape is needed and this energy is released through laughter if the situation is found to be harmless (ibid.: 16-17). This effect is even stronger when the situation in question concerns a social taboo because the mind builds up even more energy to prepare for a possible attack or escape (ibid.: 17). Gelfert names the example of making fun of faeces (ibid.).

Humour may also derive from mistakes. Shibles (1978: 4) says that “[h]umo[u]r is produced by the thought that there is a mistake, but one which is not bad or harmful. This then produces laughter and good feelings”. The mistake must not be seen as harmful, otherwise it is not humorous, because our thoughts would be too negative which would block the humour (ibid.). This can for example happen if someone slips on a banana peel, but breaks his/her leg (ibid.). Henri Bergson (1948: 10) states about this matter that one cannot laugh about something if he/she feels sympathy or affection for something, because laughing requires some kind of insensitivity.

Laughing appears in social situations, someone does not usually laugh when alone (ibid.). Even if someone laughs when alone, he/she only laughs because he/she would have laughed in company (Chapman & Foot, 1976b: 187-188). Additionally, laughing is something human, even if someone laughs about an animal or a thing, the person does this because he/she sees something human in it (Bergson, 1948: 8).

3. Children’s Humour

After this brief look at how to define humour and laughter in general, this chapter will deal with a specific kind of humour: children’s humour. Freud did not think that children are able to understand or produce humour and that they do not need humour (qtd. in Bönsch-Kauke, 2003: 49). More recent studies show that children as young as one or two years are showing signs of humour like laughing or smiling (ibid.). The American researcher Paul McGhee found that children around the age of one year start to develop humour by starting to notice amusing situations that build up on logical incompatibilities or by using objects in a non-expected way (qtd. in Bönsch-Kauke, 2003: 51-52). Between the ages of seven to eleven years, children develop the ability to understand multiple meanings and start to see the complexity in humour (Dowling, 2014: 121). The development of humour is an individual process as children’s humour advances with an individual pace and on different levels (Bönsch-Kauke, 2003: 53).

One type of humour that even young children understand and produce is the play on words. Even pre-school children are able to use nonsense words instead of a real word and start to play with the language (ibid.: 52). For example, they start to rhyme or find rhymes for nonsense words (ibid.). School kids between the ages of six to eight start to not only play with words to create nonsense words but also start to create new humorous meanings in nonsense words and new word creations (ibid.).

Understanding nonsense or logical incompatibilities as humorous and starting to use own humorous ways to solve logical incompatibilities, e.g. developing jokes, is also a kind of humour that children between the ages of seven to eleven develop (ibid.). This kind of humour can be created when something seems illogical or when something seems like nonsense but a new sense is created (Witte, 1970: 18).

Children also see humour when a person acts weirdly or out of the ordinary or when unexpected things happen (ibid.: 12). They perceive something as humorous when it goes against social conventions or religious doctrines, because children subconsciously want to rebel against these conventions and laugh when something happens that goes against them (ibid.: 16).

Additionally, a metaphor can be considered funny depending on the context (Gardner, 1980: 93). To fully understand a metaphor, it takes certain skills based on own experiences (ibid.: 94). There are different stages of understanding a metaphor varying between noticing physical similarities of the objects compared and noticing “multiple similarities and differences, accompanied by the capacity to explicate the reasons for the metaphor’s appropriateness” (ibid.: 94-95). Children of primary school age usually only see the physical meaning in words and do not see a connection between the physical and the psychological meaning of a word or just begin to become sensitive to the psychological meaning of words (ibid.: 96).

Jacqueline S. Dowling (2014) conducted focus group interviews asking what children consider as funny. She found that children perform incongruous actions, express joy during play time, use nonsense words, use riddles and jokes as well as clowning and verbal or behavioural teasing (ibid.: 122). In addition, she found that school-aged children find something humorous when it goes against norms or breaks rules, as well as about topics that adults might consider as inappropriate, like farting (ibid.: 128).

Concerning humour in literary texts, which is the main focus in this paper, Witte (1970: 13) comments that adult readers often understand literature differently than children, e.g. by knowing more about the cultural background. Gardner (1980: 104) adds that children need real-world knowledge in order to understand a story, for example knowledge about a culture. Besides, a literary text can only be fully appreciated when the reader/listener is familiar with typical elements of the genre (ibid.).

Lastly, the appreciation of humour in pictures, as an important part of picture books, can be a source of humour. Loizou and Kyriakou (2016: 110) found that “[c]hildren seem to have a solid understanding of what is funny and expectations of what would make a picture funny”. They add that it is suggested through research that young children are able to appreciate humour in pictures and are capable of explaining their thoughts about what they consider as funny (ibid.: 103).

4. English and German Humour

Before analysing the two picture books, this chapter will give an overview of specific traits of English and German humour. This helps to better identify differences in the humour used in the books based on cultural differences. In addition, there will be a short look at humorous children’s literature from both cultures.

4.1 English Humour

Different descriptions of what characterises English humour can be found in literature. Some of the specific elements of English humour are common to many descriptions and shall be looked at in this chapter. Kate Fox (2004: 61) states that humour plays a central role in English culture and social interactions and is pervasive in English conversation. Angela Krewani (2008: 67) adds that English humour is neither limited to specific social situations or groups nor to a specific medium.

Laughing about oneself is part of English comedy (Fox, 2004: 70). Concerning this matter, Fox (2004: 62) makes a distinction between seriousness and earnestness. She claims that it is acceptable to talk seriously about a serious matter but “one must never take oneself too seriously” (ibid.). This makes making fun of oneself an important characteristic of English humour (Fox, 2004: 62).

Another important part of English humour is irony (Krewani, 2008: 57). The meaning of a comment should not be clear on first view in order for the comment to be funny (ibid.). Kate Fox (2004: 65) even describes irony as the “main ingredient in English humour”. She considers self-depreciation as a part of irony, which can be described as being modest on what one achieved (ibid.: 68).

Self-depreciation may also be considered part of understatement, which can be found in English humour in addition to irony. English humour is characterised by understatement and self-depreciation, which is a contrast to the German tendency of honesty and self-exploration (Krewani, 2008: 57). An example for understatement in English Humour is for example the saying “a bit of nuisance” for a serious illness or saying something is “not very friendly” when it is plain cruel (ibid.: 57-58). Understatement is not considered funny in all cultures as it does usually not trigger laughter (Fox, 2004: 67). Additionally, it is hard to understand the real meaning behind it (ibid.).

English humour as part of the culture can also be found in English children’s literature. Humour as part of children’s literature was first established in England (Binder, 1970: 36). An example for this is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which also belongs to a new kind of humorous literature, the “fantastic nonsense literature” (ibid.).

English literature for children often contains exaggerations, joyful playing or situational comedy (ibid.: 34). Another component of the humour used in children’s literature is playing with words (ibid.: 36) and creating a break between reality and fantasy to create humour (ibid.: 39-40). This break can for example be found in Pamela Travers’ Mary Poppins where the children go for tea and end up flying under the ceiling high on laughing gas, which is seen as perfectly normal (ibid.). Lastly, an atmosphere of cosiness is created in English humorous children’s literature (ibid.: 40). The story is usually joyful but there is no real peak (ibid.).

4.2 German Humour

Despite the persistent rumours of Germans not having a sense of humour, there are some examples that show a few of the features that are specific for German humour. Looking for example at the poems of Christian Morgenstern, they can be seen as an example for finding sense in nonsense, which Gelfert (1998: 55) describes as typical for German humour. Another characteristic of German humour, according to Gelfert (1998: 56), is seeing and describing something from the naive perspective of a child. This type of humour can for example be found in the poems of Joachim Ringelnatz (ibid.).

Depth and seriousness are also typical for German humour (ibid.: 35). People who do not act like expected from social norms are often in the focus of mockery (ibid.: 49). Heinrich Hoffmann uses this kind of humour in his book Struwwelpeter. Furthermore, realising that something will and has to happen and finding something positive in it, is also an example for German humour (ibid.: 53). Gelfert (ibid.) compares this to the English maxim “always look on the bright side of life”.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Analysing Humorous Storybooks for the Use in the Primary EFL Classroom
"The Queen’s Knickers" by Nicholas Allan and "The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business" by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft)
Teaching English Language and Literature and Culture in the Primary EFL Classroom
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Humour, Storybook, Picture Book, Primary School, Grundschule, Englisch, Bilderbuch, The Queen's Knickers, Nicholas Allan, The Story of the Little Mole, Werner Holzwarth, Wolf Erlbruch, Primary EFL Classroom
Quote paper
Nina Schütze (Author), 2017, Analysing Humorous Storybooks for the Use in the Primary EFL Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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