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Humor in the ESL Classroom

February 03, 2006


International tension over cartoons in the western press deemed blasphemous by the Islamic world has reminded me how culturally biased humor is.

Satire is part of the political fabric of western democracies. The egalitarianism at the heart of our systems means we don’t like anybody or any creed to be protected against, what to us, seems a healthy appetite for debunking and cutting down to size. Of course individuals and groups protest. The Monty Python film . . .

. . . The Life of Brian, came in for a lot of criticism from the more conservative wings of the Christian Church. Comedians who tell tasteless racist or sexist jokes also get a hard time from the politically correct. But even so the traditions of free speech and the need to stop anybody or any group feeling unassailable make satire an accepted form of humor in our cultures.

Clearly such attitudes are not universal and the teacher who decides to use humor in the classroom needs to be aware of the pitfalls as nothing is more embarrassing than a joke that falls flat or, worse, offends. On the other hand, laughter creates a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere in the classroom and is worth stimulating.

So what to do? I’d suggest first trying an exercise that identifies what the class would find funny. This could be done by asking small groups each to decide on a joke to tell the whole class: in English of course! If they wish to draw or act, that’s fine. Aim for four or five jokes so that you have the chance of a range of types of humor. Once the jokes have been told ask the students to rate them on a scale of 1 – 10 for how funny they are. See if one or two jokes stand out as very funny according to the class.

Next try to classify the types of humor: satire, sexual, puns, black humor, nonsense, etc. You should be able to put together a profile of what category of joke is viewed as most funny by the class and which is the specific one that gains the most laughs. This approach allows the teacher to introduce humor tactfully, discover what is culturally appropriate and allows the students make each laugh as part of the learning process.


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Tracked on February 7, 2006 06:36 PM


  1. Lee Says:


    This is a very timely comment about current events that are certainly affecting many of us, as teachers, across the planet.

    From my own blog, I left the following response to Morf's comment "HERE: "There was an outcry at my own university recently with letters to the editor and the Islamic Students Organization(s) handing out educational flyers about their religion. In fact, this is the "type" of reaction I'd prefer to see: letters to the editor and flyers being distributed.

    Calls for boycotts are one thing, and even justifiable. Burning down private property because one is offended is quite another. But, that's my opinion."

    I invite your faithful readers to join the discussion on censorship in the English language classroom HERE. How ought we to handle this?


  1. jane Says:

    I haven't yet used any form of pre-planned written or oral jokes in the classroom. I've found that me-being-silly-slapstick works pretty well though, but that's something else entirely. One of the main reasons why I'm hesitant to use humor is that I don't get Russian humor at all. Russians love to tell humorous anecdotes... except while I understand the literal meaning of them, I have yet to find one funny. I worry that likewise, any of my jokes would just fall flat.

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