What can Amelia Bedelia & Minerva Louise teach teachers about understanding literal mindedness?

1st grader: Knock, knock.

Me: Who’s there?

1st grader: Pizza.

Me: Pizza who?

1st grader: Pizza is yummy! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Me: blank expression to polite smile, “Yeah, good one.”

Yep, that’s a typical knock-knock joke told by a first grader.  Amelia Bedelia knows how to “call the roll” in her escapades as substitute teacher, but she did not know how to take attendance.

Like Amelia Bedelia – young kids just don’t get it!  They do see a lot of humor – everywhere, but when it comes to word play, ugh!  I dread the point in the school year when they discover the knock-knock joke because I know that I’m about to hear 150 of the made up “zingers” like the one above. Don’t get me wrong, I know they are trying. They realize that for some reason people get a lot of enjoyment from these jokes, but they are just too literal minded to “get it” at this stage in life.   I have always wondered about the science behind this phenomenon. (Yes, I am a nerd.)

Ellen Winner boils word play understanding down to 3 steps: (The Point of Words: Children’s Understanding of Metaphor and Irony, 1997)

In order to understand nonliteral language, the child has to

1.  figure out that the words aren’t meant to be taken literally

2. figure out the relationship between the literal meaning and the true meaning.

3. discover the meaning of the message.

For example in the following joke, a child need to go through this series of thoughts:

My brother Cody lost his CD. Now I just call him Oy.

CD  ≠CD  CD= CD = alphabet letters C & D “lost his CD” = CODY = Oy

But when does this magic happen?

Dr. Howard Gardner proposed these developmental stages based on Harvard’s Project Zero’s data. 

Under 5 years old – Wild stage  – this stick looks like a sword, or a cane, or a boat. They do not care if these associations make sense to others.
About 6 years old – stage of Domestication – very literal minded, this stick is a stick. Any metaphors they do accept, are likely attributed to magic.
About 10-11 years old –  Trainable stage – stick could be a noun or a verb. They accept multiple meanings and can explain them.
About 14-15 years old – Competent stage – They can supply reason and understanding independently.

I interpret this process as continual and context based.  Understanding dawns with simple word play that the child is familiar with.  This will be individual to each child.  The understanding will grow to include more and more complex ideas for word play.  (Please tell me if you feel differently.)


Kids see a lot of humor - everywhere, but when it comes to word play, ugh! Learn what each age group understands when trying to be funny with words. Kat and Squirrel

The wonderful series of Minerva Louise books about a curious hen is based on an earlier stage of word play identification.  I have always had much more luck with first graders understanding this word play style than the word play style in Amelia Bedelia.  I think now I am beginning to understand why.

Minerva Louise is at the wild stage of understanding.  In Minerva Louise at School, she sees the school as a big fancy barn, the cubbies as nesting boxes, and the janitor as the farmer.  My first graders recognize this less mature stage and can have a hearty laugh at her foolishness.

Reading Amelia Bedelia gets me blank stares.  “Draw the drapes” and “dress the chicken” to my little ones is interpreted the same way that Amelia Belelia interprets it.  They do understand some of the word play – especially the one where she “runs home” during the baseball game.  They are much more familiar with the double meaning of “home” than they are “draw” or “dress”.  I can imagine though that kids in the trainable stage would understand Amelia Bedelia’s less mature stage and get laugh just as hard at her foolishness as mine kids do at Minerva Louise.

So next time I ask a somber little fellow if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he glances first to his shoulders before telling me “no”, I will be a little more enlightened to what’s going on in that precious growing mind.

Josie literally thinking outside the box.

Josie literally thinking outside the box.

One caveat – A common characteristic of people who fall in the autism spectrum is literal mindedness.

Some Minerva Louise and Amelia Bedelia books for you:




10 Lessons from Storybook Characters