Voice of Literacy

Comprehension: Homonyms, riddles, and word play

About Dr. Marcy Zipke


  • Assistant Professor of Elementary and Special Education at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
  • Research on metalinguistics in comprehension
  • Gained interest through her own struggle as a 1st grader to make a joke

Metalinguistic Research

  • Metalinguistic Awareness: Ability to manipulate language or sounds in words


  1. Example: The man’s nails were sharp. (nail-homonym)
  2. Example: The girl tickled the baby with the stuffed bear (structural ambiguity-who has the bear)


  • Conducted 2 hour study (4 30 min sessions) with 3rd graders focusing on homonyms, riddles, and jokes.


  • Saw a significant increase in standardized test scores

For Teachers


  • give explicit teaching of homonyms (example: watch)
  • read riddles:
  1. Example: Why did the witch go to night school? She wanted to learn how to spell better.(lexical riddles-homonyms)
  2. Example: How do you stop a skunk from smelling? You hold his nose. (structural riddle)
  • wrote own riddles:
  1. started with topic (baseball)
  2. brainstorm list of terms related
  3. look for homonyms
  4. Example: Where is the largest diamond in NYC? Yankee Stadium.

For Parents

  • Reading Amelia Bedelia books
  • Writing riddles
  • Picture books with homonyms and riddles
  • Arlene Alda-Did You Say Pears?

For Principals

  • When writing curriculum it doesn’t need to be a huge part of reading instruction
  • Finding ways to insert play with language into the day-fun and instructional

Policy-Makers

  • More emphasis on different parts of metalinguistic language
  • Phonological awareness is great but aspects of metalinguistic language could be beneficial as well