Changes in Irony Comprehension across the Lifespan

This project examines the comprehension of written irony in childhood and in old age.

Project information

Project duration


Funded by

Research Council of Finland

Funding amount

242 552 EUR

Project coordinator

University of Oulu

Contact information

Project leader

Project description

Ironic language is used frequently in daily communication. As we are in the middle of the golden era of social media, irony is more prevalent in written communication than in face-to-face conversations.

Irony comprehension is an important aspect of language skills and it serves a social function. Deficits in irony comprehension may, for example, lead to feelings of social exclusion. Comprehending irony is especially challenging for children and older adults. However, at present, theories of irony comprehension ignore developmental changes. Moreover, there are no previous studies on how children resolve the meaning of written irony, and only one such study on healthy older adults. The current project aims to study how children and older adults comprehend and process written irony, and to seek novel ways to support the comprehension process.

An irony-training program for children will be developed and tested in a real-life school context. State-of-the-art eye-tracking methodology will be used to investigate how children and older adults can make use of clear emotional markers of ironic intent. Eye-tracking is an attractive method for studying cognitive-affective processes underlying the comprehension of written language, as it provides detailed information about the time-course of processing.

The project provides much-needed empirical evidence on the life-span development of irony comprehension, providing further insight into the ontogenetics of pragmatic language skills. Moreover, new knowledge gained in the project will aid in improving literacy skill education and help design age-appropriate media content, and could also be used to aid other groups who struggle with irony comprehension, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorders and second language learners.