Why is six scared of seven?

The answer to this riddle – along with others – can help develop comprehension in children, writes Diane Bourke. Part of our Best of The Parents Website series.

Intrigued by the educational power of riddles, I frolic with them whenever I find an opening. Recently, I asked my six-year-old grandson, ‘Why couldn’t the flower ride the bike?’ He quickly answered, ‘Because it had no pedals’, and chuckled boisterously. I joined in the fun, clutching him closely – because that’s what’s expected when you play with riddles, isn’t it?

(This also highlights really that an essential element in humour is an understanding by the child that they are sharing an experience with another person.)

Initially I felt proud, thinking my grandson had understood the ‘play on words’ between pedal and petal, but then realised, as our laughter subsided, he had merely answered the riddle literally, and laughed because he thought that was expected of him.

My curiosity was aroused so I returned to the riddle. I spoke it aloud, asking myself the question this time, interpreting the riddle for him to increase the effectiveness of the learning process.

‘Granny, why couldn’t the flower ride the bike?’ After a deliberate pause, I began articulating my thinking process, speaking aloud about what was happening in my mind: ‘A flower has petals, a bike has pedals, oh my goodness those words sound alike.

‘Maybe it’s because it’s petals fell off.’

Initially he looked at me with a blank stare, then an enormous grin spread over his face as he shouted, ‘Petals, pedals, I get it!’

For him, it was a moment of cognitive clarity, realising that language can be manipulated. He had joined what Providence College’s Marcy Zipke calls the ‘language manipulation club’.

Humour helps cognitive development

Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, whose theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction, believed that humorous interactions of this type facilitate a child’s cognitive development. In sharing riddles, I was also leading my grandson to use his higher cognitive skills, necessary to adapt to new situations in life.  So, the stream of riddles kept flowing.

Why do leopards never escape from the zoo? Because they are always spotted.

Why is the letter ‘e’ lazy? Because it’s always found in bed.

Have you seen a cricket bat? No, but I’ve seen a dog bowl.

All children love word play when given the opportunity and riddles and jokes provide the perfect medium for learning how to manipulate language and help them develop metalinguistic awareness (the ability to analyse, think about or manipulate language as an object separate from its meaning in or out of context). Given that the English language cannot always be taken literally this is extremely important.

Think of some of the most common words in English. Many are multiply ambiguous. Think of can, pen, ball, and play and come up with two definitions for each. Then there are words like or flour and flower, bare and bear or to, too and two. And even more confusingly consider the various meanings of bow and bow and close and close.

Identify and enjoy words such as these whenever the opportunity arises. Drawing pictures of each of the words is also a fun activity which introduces further clarity for children.

Why is six afraid of seven?

These ambiguous words can be defined very broadly as homonyms and homophones (sound alike words) and homographs (same spelling, different pronunciation). They can bring confusion to us all (I’ve included a poem at the end of the article to add further interest). Pointing out these ambiguities can help children understand that some of our words do indeed have multiple meanings.

What is the difference between a bus driver and a cold? One knows the stops, the other stops the nose.

Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven ate nine.

What happens when a frog breaks down? It gets toad away.

Alternatively, there are structural riddles, where children realise that the mental pictures they are building in their minds do not make sense. In such cases, they must retrace their steps, think further about the words and discover two meanings.

Will you join me in a bowl of pasta? Do you think there is room for both of us?

What has six wheel and flies? A garbage truck.

See, too, if your children can find the anomaly in sentences like ‘A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat’.

Metalinguistic awareness is an important ingredient in learning to spell and to understand words but in reading it comes to the fore. The ability to reflect upon and manipulate language is crucial for reading comprehension.

Understanding that words and sentences can have more than one meaning improves children’s reading comprehension by enabling them to think flexibly. Without this form of understanding, reading can be an activity involving nothing more than word calling.

A fascinating study, conducted by Zipke et al in 2008 with Year 3 students, discovered that just two hours of instruction in identifying homonyms, understanding and writing riddles and reading ambiguous texts increased students’ metalinguistic awareness, their comprehension monitoring, and their reading comprehension.

Think of the power you as a parent have to support your young children by being on the lookout for ambiguous language to share, especially in the form of riddles. Alternatively, you can laugh together with stories such as those from the Amelia Bedelia series.

Be mindful, too, that children’s ability to comprehend what they read, and the extent to which they appreciate well-written literature, can have an overpowering consequence on their whole lives.

Back now however to where it all began. I received a phone call last night from my grandson. On answering I heard, ‘Granny, how does the man in the moon cut his hair?’ After bantering with him for some time, I was finally given the answer: ‘Eclipse.’

Brush up your English

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
that looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed not bead
For goodness sake don’t call it deed.
Watch out for meat and great and threat
A moth is not a moth in mother
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And core and work, and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five!

– T.S Watt

For more information on teaching children about riddles, take a look at this Reading Rockets article.

This article was first published in 2018, and is republished as part of our Best of The Parents Website series.


About Diane Bourke

Diane Bourke is a Project Manager for Independent Schools Victoria. She was Head of Junior School, Campbell House, at The Geelong College for 16 years, and Head of Junior School, Morris Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar for 15 years.

Like this post? Please share using the buttons on this page.

Subscribe to The Parents Website