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Playing With Words

"How do you stop a fish from smelling?" your 5-year-old asks during dinner. "Put a clothespin on its nose!" she blurts gleefully, not waiting for you to guess.

Like other kids her age, your child is beginning to delight in riddles, and she gets much more out of them than a few chuckles. Research has found that kids who are good at understanding and explaining riddles also do well comprehending and remembering what they read, says Nicola Yuill, Ph.D., a language expert at the University of Sussex, in London.

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When children are learning to read, they first concentrate on decoding individual sounds of letters and words. Then they develop the ability to comprehend and interpret meaning. But if they have a hard time making this transition, reading progress slows.

Riddles can help to boost a child's comprehension. "They force her to reflect on language and to reinterpret sentences to have more than one meaning," says Yuill. For a child to "get" the joke in certain riddles, she must be able to go back and look at the question from another perspective. The fish riddle, for instance, is funny only when you understand that "smelling" can mean two things.

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Ask your child a riddle and encourage her to think through the answer. Even if she finally gives up, help her work through the punch line, and explain the dual definitions of key words. But be careful not to make these exercises too academic: After all, a riddle's only a riddle when it's more fun than educational.

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