Humor in the ESL Classroom

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Learning English (or any new language) requires student focus, repetition, and practice, so it’s easy to see why students may often feel disengaged or even bored in the classroom. This is why ESL teachers love to try off-the-wall ways to liven up their classes and infuse some enthusiasm into the topic.

A little humor in the classroom is always a wonderful way to improve the learner’s experience. Getting learners smiling and even laughing together builds classroom synergy and increases the element of fun! When a class is laughing, they forget they’re learning, which is when that all-important immersive learning happens (i.e., the good stuff that really sticks).

Humor can help make learning English fun and support memory recall. When I talk about infusing humor into the classroom to aid learning, I’m not talking about delivering a comedy routine. This style of “punchline” humor might work, but it’s more likely you’ll end up with only a few students getting the jokes, while the others are left blinking in confusion and wondering, “What’s so funny?” 

One thing we all know about languages is that everything translates differently. From both a cultural and lingual perspective, one person’s joke might be another person’s jab. Because humor often relies on meaning within a specific context, the joke can easily be lost in translation.

Rather, I’m talking about humor in some of its more subtle forms, such as the use of sarcasm, mimicry, and silliness. These forms of humor can be woven into the classroom from time to time, as a way to pep up a dull class and get more engagement from students.

Here’s a few examples of how to inject these forms of humor into your lessons:

  • Get in character – Use a character that is easily recognized such as a detective, a superhero or a doctor and put on that character in class. You could be Inspector (insert your name here), and you’re on a case to try to solve a mystery. You could even use props such as a sleuth’s hat and magnifying glass. Get in character and ‘perform’ your lesson.
  • Mime – If you are teaching directions, feelings, or active verbs, act out the word or term and have the students guess what it is. Depending on the level of your students, they could even pair up and act out their own word list together.
  • Be forgetful – While writing on the board, leave out an obvious word or phrase. Wait for the students to notice the mistake and sheepishly admit, “Whoops, I forgot that! What was it again?” Have the students actively participate in helping you remember what words/phrases go where. For an even better comedic effect, you can pretend to lose your marker, your glasses, or what topic was being covered. The class will be happy to help you out once they catch onto the joke.
  • Ask for help – Have the students tell you how to get dressed for a winter day. Be prepared to be very silly with this one. The students will say “Put on your coat,” and you can throw the coat over your head. The students will need to say, “Put your arms in the sleeves,” and you can put it on backwards. The trick is to get them engaged and entertained while having them call out directions to you to help you get on your coat, hat, and mitts.
  • Use sarcasm (mindfully) to describe things – If it’s pouring rain outside, you can say “What a beautiful day,” in a jovial tone, but then silently say the word ‘no’ while shaking your head to indicate sarcasm. Show a picture of a dog on a soccer field during a game and say, “I think the dog is going to win, he is the best player of them all.” Or show them a picture of a woman camping in the woods and say, “I don’t mind the bugs, they’re not so bad. I am happy camping in the woods with all the bears and the wolves.”

There are so many ways to infuse a little humor into our lessons, so have fun with it and remember to keep it simple and relatable. How have you used humor in the classroom to get your students laughing?

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