Whenever I give a workshop to English teachers, I ask them to name key characteristics of an effective teacher. Most if not all of them would mention ‘sense of humour’. But when I ask them if they have a sense of humour or if they use humour in their teaching, only a few raise their hands.
My esteemed colleague, Dr George Jacobs, recently shared with me the benefits of humour for language teaching, some of which are listed below.
Humour, he says, can:
- Enhance language learning
- Increase student engagement and motivation
- Add variety – often, the best time to make a serious point is after something humorous
- Enable people to express discomfort
- Build bonds
Although research into the use of humour the language classroom is rather limited, the consensus is that when used appropriately, it can help enliven our language lessons and may if used well improve learning.
My favourite example is grammar teaching. Students often find grammar lessons dry and uninspiring. We know that when students feel bored, their brains stop working. As a result, they don’t learn very much and whatever little bits and pieces they learned get forgotten very quickly.
The examples teachers give in a grammar lesson do not help either as they often use standard examples from standard grammar lessons, e.g., My mother goes to the market every morning, The sun rises in the east etc. to illustrate the use of the present tense.
The use of humorous sentences to illustrate an important grammar point can make the lesson more interesting and help students remember what they learned.
Here is an example. Students often find the “adjective + to + verb” structure difficult to learn. They will say: I am lazy to go instead of I am too lazy to go; She is very sleepy to study instead of She is too sleepy to study.
The humorous story below can be used to help students understand and remember the target structure.
TOO SLEEPY TO RAISE MY HAND
Mr Tan has tried different ways of correcting his students’ grammar, but with little success. Most of his students keep on saying: I’m lazy to go (instead of I am too lazy to go), She is very angry to say anything (instead of she is too angry to say anything).
Mr Wang walks into his class only to find that most of his students look very sleepy. He takes out a handful of candies from his bag and announces to the whole class: I will give these candies to the sleepiest student.
Suddenly everyone is wide awake and raises their hand: ‘Me, me, Mr Wang. I am the sleepiest in class’.
Another student stands up and says: ‘It’s got to be me. I stayed up late to finish my homework last night. I am the sleepiest!!
Another student: My parents call me Mr Sleepy so I am the sleepiest. Give me the candies, Mr Wang.
Mr Wang notices that one little boy sitting at the back does not raise his hand so he asks: ‘Zhang Wei, why don’t you raise your hand?
Zhang Wei yawns and says: I am TOO SLEEPY TO RAISE my hand!!
Mr Wang smiles and gives the candies to him
If humour can indeed make our lesson more interesting and effective, then we need to look at it more seriously and use it judiciously and strategically to enhance the quality of our teaching.
For more classroom humour, go to Willy’s Laugh Corner.
Bell, N., & Pomerantz, A. (2015). Humor in the classroom: A guide for language teachers and educational researchers. Routledge.