#ELTchat January 26 – The role and function of humor in the EFL class: from “Ha, ha!” to “Aha”
“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
I was thrilled to know that the topic I have suggested was the chosen one to be discussed at the last #ELTchat. The use of humor as a pedagogical tool is something I have always been intrigued by. The way students respond to it is like magic. Humor breaks barriers and brings students and teachers closer. Teachers use humor as a way of putting students at ease, as an attention-getter, as a way of showing that the teacher is human, as a way to keep the class less formal, and to make learning more fun.
Pedagogically speaking, it is known that humorous activities can improve students’ performance since it drastically reduces tension thus promoting an anxiety-free environment. This can be also seen in tests results. As @JoshSRound skillfully pointed out: “Humour helps to lower the affective filter – helps learners to relax”. I vividly remember that at university I’ve had a professor who taught the whole semester using cartoons and comic strips. We could not avoid having fits of laughter during the final test! The usual tension surrounded by exam days was over. And we all thanked that teacher for that.
Some teachers believe that humor is easier to be dealt with higher level students. This is something I disagree. A good sense of humor, in my humble opinion, is what every teacher should have. No one likes to be taught by that cranky person staring at you with eyes of a hungry leopard about to devour anyone who dares to raise a hand. Cracking some practical jokes every now and then are what I call a differentiator. Bearing in mind that the students at this stage are far from being proficient, only universal humor is appropriate for it would in most cases be expected that the linguistic and cultural jokes are beyond the level of competence of the students. Teachers may introduce “quips”, that is, "smart" answers or retorts to the questions or statements such as:
Are you fishing ? / No, just drowning worms?
I don't like the flies in here. / Well, come around to tomorrow. We'll have some new ones.
Like @ShellTerrell said: “Teaching humor itself is easier with upper level students, but having in humor in class, no”. With my Young Learners (YL) I often use an activity they love and have loads of fun: Change your Persona – I put up some crazy characters on the wall and they have to respond to my question using the characters either I or other colleagues choose. (eg. Old lady, rude man, stutter, typical adolescent, angry mother, deaf granpa, mute…). Another great activity is 10 Top Things You Should Know About Me – I scatter some absurd and real information about myself on the board and read them very seriously till they realize some are not true and begin to laugh. Then I invite a couple of students to do the same and try to convince their peers of the most absurdities. Sure to be a hit!
However, as some educators rightfully adverted: cultural boundaries must be respected when using humor. What might be fun in the Brazilian culture not necessarily is in the Japanese cultural context. Teachers should be aware of these differences and moreover use humor in their favor. Be careful not make offensive jokes against the most problem
atic personal issues such as body size, sexuality, race, religion and the like. In this regard, Sigmund Freud's pioneered a study on humor in which a distinction was made between "tendentious" and "nontendentious humor", the former being that which is "derogatory or ridiculing and that masks them es of hostility or aggression” whereas the later, "void of hostility, is more playful and innocent in character". The first can also be referred to as “destructive humor” and the second is “constructive humor”. In this sense, I personally believe that touchy subjects such as these can be discussed using humor. I once used the below cartoon to try
to engage my students into the search-for-the-perfect-body issue:
Not only is this a very funny cartoon, but I could also engage a great discussion with my students which led to body modification, fatness, being comfortable with yourself, the importance of loving yourself the way you are, and ultimately bullying.
Another point that deserves our attention is that laughing at someone else’s mistakes can be devastating. But If teacher shows he/she can laugh at him/herself, then learners feel more able to do so too.
Some other activities I like:
- Advanced levels: I usually have students look for Phrasal Verbs in cartoons, comic strips and sitcoms such as Friends. On another note, I like to work with the concept of Pun (double sense humorous phrases/words) – students search for them wherever they can and come to class to explain both meanings to their colleagues
- YL: Playing any kind of Mr. Bean’s short-films is always a very welcome lesson started. Whether it be to teach vocab or a specific grammar topic (e.g: What is he doing now? – present continuous / Where did he park his car? – simple past) while they burst into laughter.
- One great idea proposed on the chat was to turn coursebook dialogues into complete nonsense. Students, therefore, get the chance to play with language and discuss language cohesion, coherence and other features.
On a final note, humor is part of virtually most social encounters; the use of humor and wit is intimately related to human nature. Humorous statements are speech acts that have different functions in spoken and written discourse. I defend, therefore, the notion that the use of humor in teaching English makes lessons more enjoyable and friendly and can contribute to student proficiency. Humor is an important factor for the development of listening and reading and literacy.
And now, my favorite cartoon for all of you teachers: